A school where chess is cool

The cool kids are on the chess team at I.S. 318, an inner-city school in New York City. Brooklyn Castle follows five players on the championship-winning team known as the “Yankees” of middle-school chess.

Pobo Efekoro, last year’s IS 318 class president, and documentarian Katie Dellmaggiore discussed the importance of extracurricular activities with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. The school’s budget has been cut, making it hard for the team to travel to tournaments.

Grit is good, but it’s not enough

Is Grit Enough?  In his look at Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Robert Pondiscio highlights the chapter on the winning chess team at a Brooklyn middle school. Coach Elizabeth Spiegel spends “most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments, Tough writes. “She does not hug.”

One of her stars, James Black, achieved master status before turning 13 and became a national champion. He beat a Ukrainian grand master. Despite good grades (a sign of grit), he does poorly on state exams. Spiegel pledged to prepare him for  New York City’s entrance exam for elite public high schools. But there was too much to learn.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. . . . When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Despite his “keen intelligence” and grit, James couldn’t beat the test. Years of academic knowledge and skill isn’t crammable, writes Pondiscio.

Spiegel was angry about how little non-chess information James had been taught, she told Tough.

“He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation. He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade. It feels like he should have learned more.”

Without educated parents, James needed to be taught academic knowledge and vocabulary in school, Pondiscio writes.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.

Tough talks about character and schools with Ed Week blogger Larry Ferlazzo.