Friday 7 July 2017

Why Can't I Beat My Students? [Chess Update: Lessons 4-7]

That's definitely a question my maths colleagues and I have asked each other after an afternoon double period... But in this case I'm talking about beating them at chess.

Now that all of my students understand the rules of chess, I have been able to spend lesson time playing against my students instead of walking around the classroom reminding little Billy (not actual name) that Queens can't turn corners and that Pawns should not be used as false fingernails. My first attempt at duelling a student was actually in my Pokemon/Yugioh/and now Chess club after they had had their first three chess lessons. He beat me. He reminds me that he beat me every time he sees me in the corridor.

My next attempt was in their fourth lesson, when they were just playing friendly matches against each other in preparation for the tournament starting from lesson 6. I was very evenly matched with this particular student (let's just try to forget, for the moment, that I have a degree in mathematics and his highest qualification is an "expected standard" pass in his year 6 SATs.). We ended up with just three pieces left each. I was struggling. I asked the university student who is helping me out with this project to advise me. This does not count as cheating, because I taught him for five years and was his form tutor, so his knowledge is actually my knowledge, if you think about it. Unfortunately, he got called away at a crucial moment and I managed to give away one of my pieces. After that I wouldn't let him leave me until I had won, which I managed to do with just my King and a Bishop. I'll admit, it wasn't the sweetest victory I have ever tasted.

In the next lesson I played against a student who, in the past, I might have described as "not all there", perhaps accompanied with a circular gesture with my hand near my ear. He destroyed me.

This week in Pokemon/Yugioh/socially awkward club, I re-matched the student I had played against last week. He beat me even more embarrassingly than last week. Then, students who are not in my class but who have a vague understanding of chess said they wanted to play me. I got beaten three times in quick succession. In fact, I was so rubbish that my older students simply took over my games, because my moves were so bad it was painful for them to watch. I pointed out to my students that I never took their exercise books off them and solved their equations for them because their algebra was too painful to watch. They then pointed out that actually I do do that. They were making fun of me and my pathetic strategies (or lack thereof). I pointed out that I don't laugh at them when they fail their Maths mock exams. They pointed out that actually I do do that too. I should probably stop doing that.

All of this leads me to ask the question: why can't I beat my students at chess?

I am usually good at stuff. It's pretty rare for me to try something and not be good at it straight away (obviously this does not extend to stupid things like map reading, long jump, and the bus stop method of division). So I'm really frustrated about this. The only positive spin I can put on this is that I must have taught my students really well. I'm not even convincing myself with that line.

So I've made an account at and I've started working my way through their online tutorials. So far (two hours into my course), I've learnt how to do my first move. If I'm White, I know exactly what the (statistically speaking) best move is, and if I'm Black, I know six possible first moves I could do. I also learnt how to do the four-move checkmate and how to fianchetto. I refuse to be beaten by 11 year olds!

Anyway, back to my Chess lessons at school. In lesson 6 we started the tournament. I paired students up systematically and separated all of the desks. The students found their opponents and started playing. Originally, the plan was to play two half-hour matches per lesson, but then I realised that an hour was a more appropriate length of time. Students who finished their matches were told to just play friendly matches for the rest of the lesson. Most matches seemed to take around 40 minutes.

Challenges I've Faced

Noise! My students are not quiet chess players. They celebrate every capture with a loud noise and sometimes even a dance. The only silver lining is that at least they seem to have finally stopped dabbing. I may have to impose some volume rules, although I can't really ask for silence as students do often need to talk to each other during their matches.

The concepts of Check and Checkmate. For many students, this is difficult to grasp. Many students are claiming they won by killing their opponent's King.  They are not telling each other when they are in Check and often they don't even realise they're in Check. This is why it's important to have adults walking around and checking for checks and getting the students to move themselves out of check if needed. I have three wonderful assistants with my class now (a trainee plus two of my favourite ex-students who have finished university for the summer). I could probably just about manage with just myself, but I'm glad I don't have to. Especially because I still find myself occasionally wondering whether it's the Bishop or the Rook that moves diagonally.

Missing pieces. Every lesson starts with having to re-distribute pieces that have ended up in the wrong boxes. Despite only having bought them a week ago, some chess sets are now using multi-link cubes as stand-ins for pawns. I need a better system for keeping track of all the pieces. Any suggestions?

Moving Forward

For the last two weeks of term, my students will just be playing their tournament matches. They will get three points for a win, two for a draw, and one for a loss. They get zero if they're absent from the lesson or if they display unsporting behaviour or if they misbehave. If there isn't a clear first, second and third by the end of the two weeks, we'll do some deciding matches between the top few.

Now for the really exciting part: my boss read my previous blog post and decided she really liked what I was doing so has offered to buy us more chess sets so that my colleagues can teach chess to their year seven classes too! And we're going to teach chess to our new year sevens next year too, although I'm not sure exactly when in the year that will be.

Have any of you tried it yet? Let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Emma x x x


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