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Using chess to teach literature and writing

Title – Using chess to teach literature and writing

By – Lisa Suhay

My Pinocchio Moment

    One of my 16-year-old creative writing students is lying “dead” on the floor of my classroom, her fluffy black feather halo askew, orange CAUTION tape draped across her like a demented Miss American Teen sash. The class writes furiously on what may have caused this catastrophic, dark angel flattening, event. In walks the Head Master who blinks, nods his approval and leaves us to our work.

    This is after all, October, and by now my English classes have become sort of a guilty pleasure for me and my students. We are covering all the material in the books and mastering the required skills, but in a sort of performance art, teen-functional multiplexing miasma of music, words, wit and other people’s wisdom.

    Here, “Pink” isn’t a color, but a rock star whose songs serve as language lessons blasted from my iPod speakers. Rex Harrison laments “

    Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

    ” each time grammar goes awry.

    Writing to a specific audience becomes creating a bedtime story for five-year olds with students taking turns as vexing kindergartners to drive the writers to distraction over detail and description. Also, I have banned verbal homicide in school, i.e. “

    Mrs. Suhay, don’t axe me that. I just axed him, could he come over my house.

    No real teacher would do this, but that’s fine because I am not a teacher and up until I decided to scrap most of my conventional lesson plans and punt with a collection of my off-beat ideas cobbled together with those from HotChalk and some sent to me by Reading Specialist Dr. Maryanne Wolf [author of

    Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

    ] and her team of researchers at Tufts University, these kids didn’t act much like students. They hated books, words and when called on in class, were able to give very convincing performances as extra large possums.

    Dr. Wolf agreed to help when I called her and explained many students couldn’t “see pictures” in their heads while reading and had little or no retention/comprehension. She and her colleagues began to tutor me in the world of word webs, image making exercises and other tricks of the brain tickling trade. I showed all my students pictures of brain scans and explained that we were going to aim to “light up” more sections and build bridges of light to the dark spaces where all those lovely images live.

    I never thought I would find my calling at age 43 as the result of someone literally calling me (mom of four boys, author and journalist) to step in to fill the vacant shoes of the English teacher for the freshmen, junior and senior classes at an urban, private school for this year.

    Recessions make for strange bedfellows. I needed the money and these students needed an English teacher who marched to a different piccolo player. Clearly, it is a match made in Heaven and I am the fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread.

    I do not have a teaching certificate, nor have I ever trained to be a teacher. Private schools here in Virginia have the leeway to hire based on life experience, rather than book learning. Lesson plans were provided for only one of my four courses, 12th Grade British Literature. This is also the only course with a textbook. I also teach ninth grade composition, journalism and creative writing. If it weren’t for 22-years as a crafty freelance journalist who can shake down both the Internet and every available source for pointers I would be dead in the water. If anyone out there has any advice to contribute, I am still eager to learn.

    Other useful life experiences include: being the mother of four boys (4, 9, 13 and 15) and having lived for five years aboard a sailboat learning:


    Sometimes you have to go left to go right

    ” and “

    You cannot control the wind, only adjust your sails.

    All that and being a children’s author have somehow melded to form the bedrock of my teaching ethos. I realize the argument can always be made,”

    Show me a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none and I’ll show you a toilet that flushes when you turn on the stove.

    ” All I can say is it’s a good thing there’s no stove in my classroom.

    Speaking of my teaching space, Oprah would have to give it a total makeover just to bring it up to Third World standards. I never knew how much teachers spend out of their own pockets just to provide basics from adorning the walls to providing students with educational films and various items of interest.

    The best way to describe my “teaching method” is performance art. I went in with Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare tucked under my arm to assign and have resorted to reading the texts aloud. The greatest find was a Podcast by “Some Guy from New York” who was forced to interpret the classics as an alternative to a prison sentence for an assault charge. He has an uncanny knack for communicating with the teen multiverse.

    Most of my students refuse to read books (text applies only to their phones)and have precious little comprehension when they do. Beowulf looked like a lost cause. On day three I threw my hands up and sent the students out of our tiny room and into the hallway. Laying the Beowulf book on the threshold, I instructed them to step back in and over the text. I repeated this process several times.



    Why’d we do that Mrs. Suhay

    ,” one sassy student demanded. I replied calmly, “

    Now if anyone asks you what we did in class today you can tell them we went over Beowulf – thoroughly.

    ” So it began. Wordplay. Word work. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I reckon you can’t get anywhere with teaching English literature and writing until the students learn how much fun this new language toy can be. Also, I believe to be a creative writer you must first be taught to be a creative thinker.

    I have all my classes keep a Commonplace Book like Thomas Jefferson. I heard about it on NPR’s

    Jefferson Hour

    while driving to my very first teacher orientation in late August. By the time I parked, I had a tool for kids who need to be lured into reading, but are great at zinging each other. They collect quotes and passages from books, the Internet, conversations, television, songs and newspapers (A new wonder! Text in print! It could just catch back on). They put them into their Commonplace books and each Friday we do a Quote Slam where they try and outsmart each other and me using other people’s words.

    Every day the classes arrive and I have them participate in a new wordplay. Some classes get lists of SAT words and then come up and act out the words while we all try and guess the definition. I keep a prop box. A magic wand works beautifully in demonstrating charismatic as “an almost magical influence.”

    In Brit Lit I printed out copies of

    The Lord’s Prayer

    in Old English, stuck it on envelopes and passed them out. Inside was the modern translation. They had 30 minutes to try and decode it while I played an MP3 file of the Old English being read aloud.

    Chess was my best strategy to date. I decided to teach all my British Literature students to play as a means of understanding

    Eleanore of Aquitaine

    and why the Queen has altered from weakest to strongest piece in chess as the result of her and Queen Isabella of Spain.

    Now we play street chess and all my classes have learned to play. We use the game to create stories: each piece is after all a character. We desperately need more boards. Two will no longer meet the demand.

    I live in terror of the day I fall ill and some poor substitute has to attempt my “lesson plans” which he or she will find in my desk amid the props, magic fairy star wand and fluffy pink tiara.

    This week I had my Pinocchio moment when, instead of being a wooden carving in the image of an educator, I felt like a real, live teacher. In my first class of the day, British Literature, my roll call produced an extra student. This has been happening more frequently, as students attempt to cut other classes as spectators.

    This was different because the young man in the chair graduated last year and had come back to sneak into the class he’d been hearing about – heaven knows where.

    So, even though I am not a teacher, I now feel like one. My students are truly mine and not just frothing, angry waves breaking over my desks. I will miss this profession terribly next fall when the school will no doubt find someone qualified. For now I can only say thank you to those who suffered me as a student as I have finally learned their lesson.

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Lisa Suhay

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