This excerpt is drawn from Chapter Three of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” The chapter follows the chess team from I.S. 318, a public middle school in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as they compete in the National Junior High Championships in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2011. Much of the chapter’s focus is on the teaching techniques of Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s chess teacher. This excerpt connects Spiegel’s teaching to the work of some other educators and scholars discussed in Tough’s book, including David Levin and Dominic Randolph, the leaders of KIPP New York and the Riverdale Country School, respectively, whose schools are working together to create a character report card.
In her chess classes at IS 318, Elizabeth Spiegel often conveyed specific chess knowledge: how to spot the difference between the exchange Slav opening and the semi-Slav; how to weigh the comparative value of your light-square bishop and your dark-square bishop. But most of the time, it struck me whenever I watched her at work, what she was really doing was far simpler, and also far more complicated: she was teaching her students a new way to think.
“Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.”
Before she was a full-time chess teacher at IS 318, Spiegel taught an eighth-grade honors English class at the school, and as an English teacher she was, she says, a bit of a disaster. She taught composition the way she analyzed chess games: When students turned in writing assignments, she went through each assignment sentence by sentence with each student, asking, Well, are you sure that’s the best way to say what you want to say? “They looked at me like I was insane,” she told me. “I would write them these long letters about what they’d written. It would take me the whole evening to do six or seven of them.”
Although Spiegel’s teaching style might not have been the right fit with an English class, her experience teaching English did help her understand better what she wanted to do in chess class. Rather than follow a set chess curriculum over the course of the year, she decided she would construct her academic calendar as she went, planning lessons based entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know. For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces, meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error.
Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”
It’s a little like what people ideally get out of psychotherapy, Spiegel says. You go over the mistakes you made — or the mistakes you keep making — and you try to get to the bottom of why you made them. And just like the best therapists, Spiegel tries to lead her students down a narrow and difficult path: to have them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them. “Very rarely do kids have an experience in life of losing when it was entirely in their control,” she told me. “But when they lose a chess game, they know that they have no one to blame but themselves. They had everything they needed to win, and they lost. If that happens to you once, you can usually find some excuse, or just never think about it again. When it’s part of your life, when it happens to you every single weekend, you have to find a way to separate yourself from your mistakes or your losses. I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are.”
At the heart of Spiegel’s job was a complex balancing act. She wanted to build up her students’ confidence, to make them believe in their own ability to overcome stronger rivals and master an impossibly complicated game. But the exigencies of her job — and the particularities of her personality — meant that she spent most of her time telling her students how they were messing up. It’s the basic narrative of all postgame chess analysis, in fact: You thought you had a good idea here, but you were wrong.
“I struggle with it all the time,” she told me one day when I visited her class. “Every day. It’s very high on my list of anxieties as a teacher. I feel like I’m very mean to the kids. It kills me sometimes, like I go home and I play through everything I said to every kid and I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I’m damaging the children.’ ”
After the 2010 girls’ national tournament (which IS 318 won), Spiegel wrote on her blog:
The first day and a half was pretty bad. I was on a complete rampage, going over every game and being a huge bitch all the time: saying things like “THAT IS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE!!!” to 11-year-olds for hanging pieces or not having a reason for a move. I said some amazing things to kids, including “You can count to two, right? Then you should have seen that!!” and “If you are not going to pay more attention, you should quit chess, because you are wasting everyone’s time.”
By the end of round three I was starting to feel like an abusive jerk and was about to give up and be fake nice instead. But then in round four everyone took more than an hour and started playing well. And I really believe that’s why we seem to win girls’ nationals sections pretty easily every year: most people won’t tell teenage girls (especially the together, articulate ones) that they are lazy and the quality of their work is unacceptable. And sometimes kids need to hear that, or they have no reason to step up.
Spiegel often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher, especially a good inner-city teacher, should interact with her students. I confess that before meeting her, I had a vision of the ideal inner-city chess teacher that bore a close resemblance to the character played by Ted Danson in Knights of the South Bronx, an inspirational 2005 A&E original movie in which Danson leads a ragtag band of kids from the ghetto to victory over a bunch of stuck-up private-school students, handing out hugs and motivational speeches and life lessons along the way. Spiegel is not like this. She does not hug. She clearly is devoted to her students and cares about them deeply, but when a student gets upset after a loss, Spiegel is rarely the one to go over and offer comfort. John Galvin, the vice principal at IS 318, who often came to tournaments as Spiegel’s co-coach, was better at that sort of thing, she said; he had more “emotional intelligence.”
“I definitely have a warm relationship with a lot of the kids,” Spiegel told me at one tournament. “But I think my job as a teacher is to be more like a mirror, to talk about what they did on the chessboard and help them think about it. It’s a big thing to offer a kid. They put a lot of work into something, and you really look at it with them on a non-condescending level. That’s something that kids don’t often get, and in my experience, they really want it. But it’s not like I love them and mother them. I’m not that kind of person.”
Researchers in neuroscience and developmental psychology have demonstrated that for infants to develop qualities like perseverance and focus, they need a high level of warmth and nurturance from their caregivers. What Spiegel’s success suggests, though, is that when children reach early adolescence, what motivates them most effectively isn’t nurturing care but a very different kind of attention. Perhaps what pushes middle-school students to concentrate and practice as maniacally as Spiegel’s chess players do is the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves.
During the months when I was most actively reporting at IS 318, watching the team prepare for the tournament in Columbus, I was also spending a lot of time at KIPP Infinity, tracking the development of the character report card. And as I shuttled back and forth on the subway between West Harlem and South Williamsburg, I had plenty of time to contemplate the parallels between Spiegel’s methods of training her students in chess and the way that teachers and administrators at KIPP talked to their students about day-to-day emotional crises or behavioral lapses. At one point, KIPP Infinity’s dean, Tom Brunzell, said he considered his approach to be a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy. When his students were flailing, lost in moments of stress and emotional turmoil, he would encourage them to do the kind of big-picture thinking — the metacognition, as many psychologists call it — that takes place in the prefrontal cortex: slowing down, examining their impulses, and considering more productive solutions to their problems than, say, yelling at a teacher or shoving another kid on the playground. In her postgame chess analyses, Spiegel had simply developed a more formalized way to do this. Like students at KIPP, IS 318 students were being challenged to look deeply at their own mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently. And whether you call that approach cognitive therapy or just plain good teaching, it seemed remarkably effective in producing change in middle-school students.
This technique, though, is actually quite rare in contemporary American schools. If you believe that your school’s mission or your job as a teacher is simply to convey information, then it probably doesn’t seem necessary to subject your students to that kind of rigorous self-analysis. But if you’re trying to help them change their character, then conveying information isn’t enough. And while Spiegel didn’t use the word character to describe what she was teaching, there was a remarkable amount of overlap between the strengths emphasized by David Levin and Dominic Randolph and the skills that Spiegel tried to inculcate in her students. Every day, in the classroom and at tournaments, I saw Spiegel trying to teach her students grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism.