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Chess infection

by henrycopeland
Thursday, May 29th, 2003

Three months ago, armed with nothing more than a couple of “chess for kids” books and three chess sets, my wife ventured into our son’s kindergarten class. She spent one hour two mornings a week teaching small groups of children how the chess pieces interact.

Now, my wife says she’s lost control. The kids have taken over and she can’t get a word in edgewise. These 23 kids are chess fiends, scrimmaging constantly, offering each other advice, comparing queen kills. The “Big Blocks,” 50 wooden blocks that used to be the gold standard of play joy for this rambunctious class, lie abandoned.

A lot of the credit for this collective chess passion goes to the kindergarten teacher, an incredibly gentle woman who has inspired a great spirit of camaraderie and love among the children. But a big dose of credit also goes to the network effect — we love to join communities, play games with each other, interact and/or imitate our peers. Too bad this same principle can’t be applied more often to learning.

In fact, while I didn’t start writing this post with polemics in mind, I should also note that five of these kids are tracked into a Transitional Bilingual Education program, which is to say that they get dragged out of class every day to practice their “native” Spanish. (I put native in quotation marks, because four of them were born in the North East and speak good English.) The theory behind TBE is that these kids will be better students if they learn to read in their home language first. (Although Massachusetts citizens voted overwhelmingly last November to ban TBE, Amherst is lobbying to keep TBE next year.)

Phlewy. These kindergartners have infected each other with a passion for an arcane and abstract game like chess — it is a shame we can’t trust them to infect each other with the love of language too.

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