Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Steps in Teaching

  With no youth tournaments or chess camp to spend my time on this summer, I advertised my services as a chess coach and took on five students. One student is a top Iowa scholastic player. This young man is almost as good a player as me will certainly be way better in another year or so. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t teach him a thing or two. We mainly spent our lessons going over the ABC’s of rook and pawn endgames and a little bit of time to smoothing out his openings.

  My other four students are beginners at various stages of ‘beginnerness’. I am not as good a teacher as my wife (a professional teacher) but when it comes to helping someone improve their chess I know what worked for my two sons which was a steady diet of slow games on the internet and then going over the games. Notice I said diet and not binge – I think playing one half hour game (15 minutes for both sides) every other day is the perfect amount of game play. The game is long enough to allow for some thought and short enough to not become drudgery. Playing a game every other day seems right for players who want to improve their chess and for parents who don’t want chess to become their child’s addiction but I’m OK with playing a game every day also. The important thing is to only play one game before looking it over. I want a quick loss to stick with the student for a day so they will remember to take their time in the next game instead of just clicking the convenient new game button and forgetting about the last game in favor of getting on with another game. I think that playing only the one game also gives the student a better feeling of satisfaction after a good game because they are forced to stop and take note of their improvement.

  I think playing a long game every other day and reviewing it will make any beginner better quickly all by itself and I tell this to any chess parent including my student’s parents. Every beginning student that has done this one simple step has shown noticeable improvement before ever working with me. The problem is playing one game every day or every other day seems to be really hard to do. Most of the students I’ve had either play one game and forget about playing until their lesson, play one game and forget about it until the day before their lesson when they play three or four games to catch up, or they just play and play and play without stopping to look at their games. That’s where I come in.

  I take a look at the games as a whole and try find out what the student is missing in their games. Most beginners either move all their pawns, move one piece until it gets captured and then start moving another piece, or get checkmated in four or five moves. I make some quick notes on the games to highlight what I liked and didn’t like about the games and then we go over the games during the lessons. I feel it’s important to point out as many good moves in the students games as I can to help build confidence and stress that what’s going wrong in the student games is a result of something they haven’t learned yet as opposed to some inherent inferiority. The student will eventually figure all this out – my goal is to accelerate the process. All my students are showing improvement. Whether another teacher could get them better faster is unknown. I'm pleased with their progress and think it in line with the amount of work they put in.

  Once the beginning students learn to bring out their pieces and not get checkmated at the start of the game the next thing that normally needs improvement is their tactics. An hour every week or every other week is enough time to show some tactics but not to teach tactics. I used to point students to tactics websites like chesstempo.com or ideachess.com. These sites are great but limited in that I can’t use them to target a specific tactic or idea a student may be having trouble with.

  This spring I ran across the Chess Steps workbooks on Amazon.com. I had heard of them before but had no reason to think I had any use for them. With a summer full of students looming I decided to take a closer look. The workbooks seemed like they would be useful and I ordered the workbooks and teacher manuals for the first two steps in order to evaluate them.

  The Chess Steps method is designed to be used in a classroom setting. There are six ‘steps’ or levels that are recommended for USCF ratings from the beginners to experts. Each step comes with a teaching manual and three to five exercise workbooks. The workbooks cost $7 apiece ($14 for step 6) and the teacher manual $15. The teaching manuals delve extensively into the process of learning chess. I’ve seen kids lose a game but be quite proud of all the pieces they captured. I have to admit I thought it was strange but the Step 1 manual explained that while beginners struggle with the concept of checkmate the idea of capturing is universal and so beginners equate their success in the game with the number of pieces they captures as opposed to the arcane concept of checkmate. Each set of workbook exercises is explained with a guide on how to help students progress past a concept they may be struggling with.

  Many of the exercises in the workbooks are fairly simple tactics but also contain plenty of challenging and unique exercise pages mixed in that stress visualization skills. Some pages require the student to map a safe route for a piece across a landmine of enemy pieces, while others challenge the student to mentally place the king on all the squares where he would be stalemated or place two pieces on an open board to make a checkmate. I have to think anyone working through the steps would see a massive improvement. I am using the workbooks to assign homework in between lessons. The varied nature of the exercises allows me to pick and choose exactly what I’d like the student to work on.

  I am so impressed with the Chess Steps workbooks I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate them into the chess club I run at St. Francis in West Des Moines. I’ve given out medals and trophies the last four years for learning basic checkmates. The checkmates are important but I had many of my second-tier students struggle last year at my youth tournaments and lose their games well before their knowledge of checkmates came into play. I may expand my ‘bribes’ this school year to include completing homework assignments from the Chess Steps workbooks. I don’t have the time or the inclination to turn the St. Francis chess club into a chess classroom or chess laboratory but the chess steps books will provide a structure for improvement for those students that want to get improve beyond what I can offer at the club.