UA students teach academic and social skills to children through the game of chess

By:    Date: 05-20-2016

Article by Katie Bedrich  |  Photos by Popi Ledbetter and Mica Aguilar

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Jennifer Jones, a sophomore majoring in biology at The University of Alabama, says she considered changing her major to education after helping children learn the game of chess through an honors course called Every Move Counts. Each time she left an elementary school, she says she would think about how much she would enjoy teaching children and seeing the light bulbs go off when they grasp concepts. Jones ultimately chose to stick with her plans to attend medical school and has decided to become a pediatrician.

“This course helped me see that a future working with kids would be perfect for my personality and interests,” she says.

Every Move Counts partners UA students with second through 12th graders in Tuscaloosa public schools. The program is a nationally unique service- learning initiative of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility. In addition to reading about and discussing the academic and social benefits of chess and its emerging role in U.S. education systems, students develop lesson plans and spend at least two hours each week mentoring and teaching chess to children in nearby schools.

Educational research shows chess improves critical-thinking, problem-solving and concentration skills as well as math, reading and English scores. Since gender, ethnic background and socioeconomic status are irrelevant to the game, chess brings together diverse groups of children, helping them build friendships they might not have formed otherwise. The game also instills life lessons such as perseverance, responsibility, sportsmanship and planning ahead. Research indicates children reap these benefits just by learning and practicing chess, regardless of how well they play.

UA student UA student Michael Blotner teaches a lesson at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Middle. ABOVE: Nikolas Brown, a student at Central Elementary School, contemplates his next move.

“If I could only have one word to describe it, I would choose ‘exciting,’” says Peyton Winstead, a senior majoring in English. “The kids are inquisitive and they have a genuine excitement for chess.”

Winstead is considering becoming a secondary-school teacher, and service through Every Move Counts was his first opportunity to gain classroom experience. He worked with a middle-school chess club and a thirdgrade class at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools and served as a judge at an Every Move Counts tournament.

Courtney Stokes, coordinator of the Every Move Counts initiative, says the UA students who enroll in the program come from diverse majors and backgrounds, but learn quickly and effectively how to work with kids. “The teachers in the schools think that most of them are education majors because they manage a classroom so well,” she says. “Whether you’re an engineer or a technology major or going into communications or any other field, you’re going to benefit from learning how to manage a group of people and teaching them something new,” she says.

Every Move Counts has grown significantly since Spring 2010, when it began with three UA students teaching chess to 12 sixth graders. In Spring 2016, 50 UA students taught chess to approximately 200 children in once- or twice-weekly lessons at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools- Elementary, Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Middle, Alberta School of Performing Arts, Arcadia Elementary and Oak Hill School.

Since its inception, Every Move Counts has held a Tuscaloosa-area chess match each fall for children in the program and others in West Alabama to come together and experience competitive play. Along with an annual tournament, UA students plan two chess festivals for children who complete a year with EMC at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools and Alberta School of Performing Arts.

Payton Ike, a third grader at Alberta Elementary School, says she enjoys chess and working with college students. “Chess helps me think where to move, and I can use that in other subjects,” she says. “My mom got me a chess set, and I’ve been playing with my dad and my sister. They didn’t know how to play, so I’ve been teaching them.”

Clarissa Boggess, whose fifth grade son was in the chess club at Arcadia Elementary in Spring 2016, says it was a highlight of his time in school. “He talked about what he learned in chess every week and just as often talked about all his instructors and how awesome they were; how much he had in common with them all,” she says. “It means so much to me to know that Lucas had such an incredible experience. ”

Every Move Counts is a studentled initiative. Students involved in earlier semesters of the program return as program leaders through an honors independent-study course. This structure facilitates expansion of Every Move Counts and gives students an ownership stake in the initiative.

Winstead says the most rewarding part of Every Move Counts is being able to use his knowledge to help kids learn new skills, and that he’s proud of his participation with the program. “Other endeavors over the course of my college career I’ve done by myself, for myself. But for EMC, I’ve worked extensively with others, for others,” he says. “To me, that’s a new kind of motivation and a new kind of gratification.”

To learn more about Every Move Counts, visit cesr.ua.edu or contact the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at cesr@ua.edu or 205-348-6493.