Sunday, September 29, 2013

On chess

In early July, I taught our kids to play chess. Barbara thought it was OK, but Sebastian ate it up. He now asks to play chess all the time and I, of course, oblige. The other day, he asked the esteemed Mr. Pierre to play. See the photo at right.

Here's the problem: I'm not very good at chess. I mean, I know how the pieces move, and I can think a couple moves ahead, but whenever I'm up against an opponent with any kind of chess training, I'm toast. So while I'm consistently beating Sebastian for now (brag!), I'm not really going to be able to help him become great. Because I think, in order to become great, your teacher know a lot about the subject - at least good enough to ask you great questions and push your thinking.

Here's the context for that photo: It was about 15 minutes before our first Achievement First Day of Practice for the year, which is a funny name for a day when all teachers get together for professional development. I've been to a lot of professional development over the past 10 years, most of it actually pretty good (I know this is not typical; I live a charmed life.) None of this PD, however, has been as focused on building teacher content knowledge as this day was. We dove into student work to engage in conversations about how to get our kids closer to excellence. We looked over the upcoming units we were going to teach, making sure we really, really understood the content we were going to teach and how we were going to go about developing it. We had each done several hours of pre-work, mostly in the form of diving into the content we'd be teaching, to make sure we were going into these conversations prepared to discuss big ideas. And at the end of the day, we definitely had a much better understanding of the stuff we were going to teach. 

I love this development, because you could teacher-move the heck out of a class, but if you don't understand the material, kids aren't likely to get very far. Conversely, when teachers deeply understand the content they're teaching, they can take kids really far. I think of John Rajeski in Atlanta, a professional writer-turned-teacher whose students consistently become solid writers. I think of my high school history teacher Mr. Ethen, who seemed to live and breathe history. Without the deep knowledge that these teachers possess, the ceiling for their students would likely be fairly low. But this doesn't mean you have to be a content expert before you start teaching. If you find yourself in charge of teaching something you don't know much about, you can learn this stuff - it just takes work. And I'm glad that, in the case of our small network of schools, we've decided to make this so important that we're spending a few days outside of school this year exclusively on educating ourselves.

Back to chess. Barbara is starting to come around (see photo), and now I'm even more psyched about our kids getting better at chess. This means, of course, that I'm first psyched about learning a lot more about chess myself. I've been practicing with a good book, but now that I've found Elizabeth Spiegel's blog and corresponding curriculum, I know where I'm going next, and I know it's going to be a lot of fun for everybody involved...much like I know our classes at school are only going to get better and more interesting as we continue to deepen our own content knowledge.

Game on.

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