four moves ahead. Chess gives students the ability
to make great decisions at crucial moments. A child
who lives in a tough neighborhood has to make life-changing decisions every day in terms of what they
do. They must always be aware of the friends they
associate with or what streets to walk down at night,
Learning chess can also give students intellectual
capital. The students I taught to play chess started
beating me, started beating the other teachers, and
then all the kids wanted to play chess. They learned
that smart is not something you are; it’s something
you can become.
Chess is very mathematical. In my first teaching
job, with middle school students, I started using
chess to teach mathematics. Now I have 2nd,
3rd, and 4th graders writing their chess moves in
algebraic notation. Those children are very good
thinkers. If we want to be innovative, we need to
make sure there’s a chess program in every school in
You’ve said discipline was the most
important thing you taught. How can we
provide discipline that makes a difference?
Discipline is a form of love. There are ways to discipline children with dignity that enable them to
still feel good about themselves, to continue to be
proud of their accomplishments, but also to understand that they’ve made a mistake and need to take
Some students are not accustomed to discipline,
so when you discipline them, they feel that’s not the
norm. Their reactions can be violent or disrespectful.
But that’s the only thing they know; their reaction
is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. We
have to be careful about how we deliver discipline
because they may not be ready for it.
Once I had a student in my office with his mother.
He was giving teachers problems, didn’t want to do
homework and those kinds of things. Clearly, he
didn’t show much respect in the way he was treating
his mom, the way he was talking to her. I asked his
mother if I could talk to the young man by himself.
I talked to him about my own life growing up
with a single mom and how sometimes we can forget
how lucky we are to have people in our lives. We
get upset about the people who are not there. I could
see this boy was upset that his father wasn’t there
for him—and later he confirmed that. I told him,
“Think about the people who are there for you.”
This was a kid who would play basketball with me
and other teachers in the evening. If we had events
on the weekend, we would invite him and help him
get there. So I said, “I don’t think it’s fair that you
treat your mom in that way and then we take you
to these events and give you special treatment. Your
parent is very important.”
He was homeless, so I had to be very careful and
loving about the way I presented it to him. But I
knew this was going to be one of my only shots to
send a message to this young man, because if it’s his
mom today, would it be his college professor soon,
or someone who says, “Hey, you’re going to lose
your scholarship”? I didn’t want him to become an
adult—a professional—and then lose whatever he
had because of the way he treated people.
And the young man responded to the call to
be a better person. He became more respectful in
school and at home. His mother saw tremendous
change, even in the way he helped out with the
family, being the oldest. He sort of became the
father who wasn’t there.