“Miss Anjana, we like you, but if you are ever boring, we are outta here.”
One sentence I heard 3 months before my college graduation brought more truth and humility into my life than 4 years of higher education. As a GT student in Wisconsin I was challenged to think outside of the box starting in elementary school. That mindset served me well as a college student as I learned about human behavior and the current state of our education system from new anthropological and psychological perspectives. But my skills were truly put to the test by a group of 9-year-olds who lived in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of Pittsburgh during my final semester of college.
Six years ago I started teaching chess to girls in my hometown of Milwaukee, WI to address the gender disparity in the sport, and now, having mentored over 500 girls through six different camps, the number of female chess players in Wisconsin has doubled! When I started college at the University of Pittsburgh, I found that the city lacked a vibrant chess culture, so I decided to share my passion for the game by starting something new—explaining chess to people through the life lessons, such as teamwork and critical reasoning, I learned from the chessboard.
This past spring semester I volunteered for 10 weeks (once a week for 2 hours) at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA and implemented lessons plans for a chess-to-life learning curriculum that I created. On my very first day, I had an impromptu meeting with the 22 kids in the after-school program (9-13 year olds) and they very frankly told me, “Miss Anjana, we like you, but if you are ever boring, we are outta here.” Taking their words very seriously, I knew I had to be innovative with my chess curriculum. These kids had never played chess before and were hesitant to even learn the game because they thought it was “nerdy.” They would rather pursue their passions in singing and dancing than be bored with a complicated game. So I struck a deal with the kids—we would create a music video (one of their biggest dreams) AND have loads of fun every Friday all while learning chess.
Through 10-weeks of programming the kids not only learned how to play chess, but also participated in a chess Winter Olympics (to learn teamwork), painted Resilience Murals about their personal stories of perseverance (while learning about the pawn to queen promotion in chess), 3D-printed their own chess pieces, created (and ate) an edible chessboard, and produced a “Chess Do It” music video to teach the world how to play chess and show everyone that even a “nerdy” game like chess can be as “cool” as rap (the instrumental background of the song is to Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE”).
I initially played chess just to beat the boys who didn’t think girls were smart enough to play, but I now teach chess to boys and girls alike to instill in them values of perseverance and critical engagement while discussing life experiences in discrimination and resilience. Who knew you could learn so much in 64 squares?
While I was technically the “adult” in the room, the kids of Homewood taught me to be a better student. A student learns from the lessons taught in a classroom, but a better student learns lessons from her teacher and her peers (even if they are half her age). A student learns to paint within the lines, but a better student dares to channel her inner Jackson Pollock and express herself outside of conventional norms. A student learns to challenge her brain to do the impossible, but a better student challenges her teacher to teach the impossible. And most importantly, a student learns to make good grades, but a better student learns for the love of learning.
Please watch “Chess Do It”—you may learn that there is more to chess than meets the eye!