February 21 — 4:12 pm, 2012

Chess club in Kensington builds confidence

sheppard chess

This guest blog post about a chess club at Sheppard Elementary School comes courtesy of Marshall Bright, a 2011-12 Philly Fellow. Sheppard is one of the schools facing possible closure.


What goes on inside Sheppard distinguishes the school – one of the few in the area to consistently make adequate yearly progress – from the surrounding community. In a neighborhood area known for drugs and gun violence, not for academic excellence, the largest club at Sheppard is the chess team. Once a week students stay after school to hone their chess game – twice a week during the competitive season.

Mishell is a short 3rd-grader, with long black hair and wide brown eyes that shimmer when she talks about chess. “I like it because I can learn more, the moves we can do, and because I can have fun,” she said.

Mishell enjoys chess so much that she is even allowed to borrow boards to take home and play there. She hasn’t yet defeated her older sister, a former Sheppard player who first got her interested in chess, but when she loses she isn’t sad long.

“Sometimes when I lose I’m upset, but Ms. Roberts is proud of me,” she explains, “I feel happy – it doesn’t matter if you lose, if you just have fun.”

A subtle, yet serious message accompanies the fun. “Our team slogan is ‘Every move in chess has consequences – just like life,’” said coach Jamie Roberts, who teaches English to speakers of other languages at Sheppard. It’s a particularly significant lesson in West Kensington, where ill-considered actions outside the school often lead to heartbreaking outcomes

Darien, also in 3rd grade, is similarly enthusiastic about chess. When asked if he likes the game, he responded without hesitation, and with gravity, “I love it. I love it!”

Chess has even affected how Darien thinks about other things in his life. In both chess and his favorite game handball, Darien will “set the people in a trap” and let them think they’re winning, until he puts them in check or scores a point. Chess, and his involvement with the Sheppard Meditation Club, has also helped him mature – “When I lose [now], I don’t get mad.”

The fact that the chess club members are so articulate about their experience does not surprise Sheppard’s principal, James Otto. “They are not just moving plastic pieces around on a board,” he explained at his desk on the day of the final chess match. “I was down there earlier, and they were so concentrated on the game, they didn’t even notice I was in the room,” he laughed.

Just like the students on the Sheppard chess team, Otto recognizes the chess team as something special. “No matter what happens, we win, because we’re there, because we have our kids sitting face to face with someone they don’t know, older than them, bringing our very best.”

Otto is unequivocal on the benefits of chess, “Kids are learning that they have skill, that they can go out and compete in the world, and use their minds to carry them through.” 

the notebook

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