Using chess to teach literature and writing
Title – Using chess to teach literature and writing
By – Lisa Suhay
My Pinocchio Moment
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 “
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. “
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
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:
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,”
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.
I have all my classes keep a Commonplace Book like Thomas Jefferson. I heard about it on NPR’s
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
Chess was my best strategy to date. I decided to teach all my British Literature students to play as a means of understanding
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.