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How learning how to play chess made me a better teacher.


There is No Limit to What We Can Learn.

I choose to believe in a growth mindset and have confidence that I can learn almost anything. Learning does not come without challenges, and there are times when the struggle is enough to make a person doubt what he or she can do. However, with the right motivation, mindset, timeline, understanding of how you learn, resources, and accountability, anything is possible.  

The Perfect Motivation

In December of 2020, my husband and I started watching the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit. The series was amazing and was the catalyst in me learning to play the game of chess. As I reflect on how driven I was to learn a new skill, I thought about how different students might feel about learning something new. The more I think about motivation the more I realize how critical it is to find a way to increase the energy level when it comes to learning. 

My Old Mindset

I always thought that chess was a game for brilliant people, and there was no way I could master it having not started as a kid. Any match that I witnessed was full of concentration, intentional playing, and tremendous strategy. Chess matches are serious and require players to be present as well as think ahead. My husband and each of my children know how to play the game of chess, and my fourteen-year-old is pretty good at it. Somehow I never thought I had the time to learn, or never put the effort into the time spent to learn the game.  It seemed difficult and something that was going to require serious focus. Fortunately, The Queenś Gambit portrayed a new way of thinking about a game that has been around for a long time. 

I Love Watching A Journey Unfold

While there were a million reasons not to learn to play chess, there was something about how the series portrayed the game. It was intriguing, artistic and fascinating. The main character, Beth Harmon, not only started hardly knowing the rules, but she also had the uncanny ability to be able to play in her head, and analyze different strategies and remember each of her moves she had made well after a match was complete. From the beginning, Harmon went to battle, playing with confidence and determination in a way that is unfamiliar to even good chess players. I loved how she described the game as beautiful, as almost an expression of art.  As we made our way through the series, I was determined to find a way to learn the game of chess.  

I My Goal Public

I started by telling my family that I wanted to learn how to play chess due to being fascinated with The Queenś Gambit.  Following the moment I mentioned it to my family, who seemed pretty receptive and interested, I created a post on Instagram that shared my goal. I also gave it a timeline. There were 13 days left in the year, and I wanted to play a game before January 1st. Making my goal public helped in the pursuit as one of my friends saw me in town and asked how my goal of learning chess was going.  I felt good that I could explain where I was in the journey and the steps I had taken to get to that point. This step in my journey made me think about holding students accountable for mastery in my classroom. 

The Right Timeline

A just-right goal includes a timeline that allows for the appropriate amount of time to master a goal.  Sometimes the timeline needs to be adjusted as work towards the goal begins. I like the quote that says, be stubborn about your goals but flexible about your methods.¨ Sometimes tightening the time available helps build momentum and promote a sense of urgency and make learning feel more powerful when completed within time constraints. However, there are also times when setting too rigid of a timeline might have the opposite effect. Nevertheless, thinking about time requirements and learning reminded me that each person and situation handle the element of time differently, and therefore should be modified differently depending on the situation. 

Knowing Yourself as a Learner

There is tremendous value in knowing yourself as a learner.  Discovering how you learn best is invaluable. I remember taking an Anatomy and Physiology class a few years ago at our community college and was nervous about the amount of new information I had to master in a short amount of time. As a learner, I need to rewrite notes, quiz myself while not looking at the answers, be honest about what I understand, and utilize YouTube for videos re-teaching content.  As a new student to the game of chess, I realized that I needed to attack learning the game in the same way I would if I were in the classroom. Reminding myself of my strengths as a learner encouraged me to make sure that I am working with students, so they will also be able to discover things about themselves as learners. 

Selecting Resources

After thinking about myself critically as a learner, I was able to gain the right resources to help me on my quest. My oldest son offered to work with me. As I thought about what had worked in the past for me, I knew that learning from a physical person would be better than a book.  And it was awesome because I could be honest with my son and tell him that I was learning from the very beginning and knew almost nothing about the game. The way my son patiently explained the game starting with only a few pieces at a time, and then brought me into a game where he talked through the moves he was making, gave me the confidence to keep going and stay motivated even when I felt like I couldn concentrate anymore.  He recommended thinking several steps ahead and finding a way to be an offensive player, but also realized that I could only handle so many things at once. Rather than continuing to tell me everything he knew about the game, go through strategies, he would pause after I had a chance to think, and ask if I wanted help.  He followed his offer to help by saying something like,  ¨You can take one of my pawns, how can you do it?¨  When my son met me where I was at, I felt empowered and excited rather than frustrated. 

Repetition Works 

When I want to learn something new, I usually check several books out of the library books on the topic to remind myself of my goal, and browse looking for words and pictures that stand out. I know that simply reading a book will most likely not be enough. However, reading introductory material at the beginning of books helps me become familiar with some of the concepts that I will hear in the future. It is the repetition that makes the difference. I knew in order to be able to play more than one game of chess with help, I would need to repeat not only the rules, moves each piece could make but play several games and practice various scenarios.  

How did My Quest to Learn Chess End?

On December 28, 2020, I played my first chess match. Since the 28th, I have played a few other games with family members. Each match, I improve a little more and am not at the competitive level yet.  However, after posting to social media that I was working on chess, a friend suggested the site that allows you to play the computer with as much assistance as necessary. This site has helped me to be able to play several matches since my first one, and reminds me of my options, and shows me mistakes. My goal is to play over 100 matches of chess this year.  Right now, I am averaging about three games a week with the help of the computer. Taking my game to the next level is one of my goals for the year, I am excited about my progress. Something that once seemed impossible to learn has become something I can now do, and in the process of learning, I was reminded what it is like to be a student. The feeling of starting, in the beginning, might have been the best lesson I could have learned.  With the right timeline, resources, mindset, understanding, and motivation, anything is possible. 

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