A couple of times each week I leave the familiarity of the English team room and run the gauntlet across the crowded lunchtime playground to go and help out at the Chess Club.
Pupils from all year groups are welcome to attend and the laid-back club leader fosters an ethos of mutual respect, healthy competition and peer learning, with more advanced pupils coaching the beginners. As a result a relaxed and friendly atmosphere pervades the library.
Students from different forms and year groups enjoy coming along either regularly, or just once in a while. Here they can escape the November chill, give their brains a work out, challenge themselves (and me!) and make new friends. My role as helper is to match students up with suitable opponents, address any misconceptions they have about the rules and, above all, foster their enthusiasm for the game. It is a lovely way to get to know them outside of lessons as well.
My Dad taught me to play chess as a young girl. I’m not sure how old I was, but I remember driving him mad by calling the pawns ‘prawns’, the knights ‘horseys’ and the rooks ‘castles’. I never played it at school, but enjoyed it a little at University and later, teaching my own children to play. It has been an unexpected joy to be able to come back to it during my school placement, and brings back fond memories of my Dad.
Some of the students at chess club arrive with the confidence of playing it from an early age, while others are just learning the moves. The beauty of it is that once they are secure in the basics, they are equipped for a lifetime of enjoyment. Whether they go on to develop a serious interest in chess, or see it just as a stimulating hobby, it is something they can come back to again and again.
As I look around the room, it seems to me that the chess club is as much about developing social skills as it is about bettering one’s game. It is a safe haven where pupils can come and be themselves, away from the pressures of the playground. Sitting across the table, eyes down, fingers poised above the pieces, the complicated demands of social and verbal communication are diminished. It is all about the game.
And yet, at the same time, the etiquette of chess gives social exchanges a clear structure; they provide a map for learning to navigate the social world. The well-worn rituals of choosing your opponent, carefully setting up the pieces, drawing to see who will play white, all give a reassuring rhythm. Conversation is intimate, and focuses on the match in progress. For half an hour, at least, the only pressure is deciding what move you will make next.
The year 7s tournament has just begun and there is a buzz of excitement in the library as the names are drawn and the competitors learn which group they are in. With everything to play for in the weeks ahead, I think I may find it hard to stay away!
Jenny, English Trainee Teacher, Greensward Academy