Education

#Chessathome

18 Jul 2020

How to keep teaching chess under lockdown? Matt Piper explains how the UK charity Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC) operates online and into the future.

Top of a typical CSC worksheet
Top of a typical CSC worksheet

“When the pandemic started, CSC faced the question: hibernate or move online? Previously all chess was delivered by our charity in a physical environment. Our tutors went to 350 schools every week to give curriculum lessons in the classroom, and we supported many more schools in their chess activities. We were also in various libraries, after school and youth centres, old people’s homes and prisons. And we run the annual London Classic including a schools festival with 500 kids coming in every morning before the grandmaster event.

We decided to do our best to keep chess going. The UK was in lockdown since 20 March, some schools reopened on 1 June, since 22 June all primary school students are back in class, but very little chess is taught in the classroom now. By september all children in the UK will be back in school, but they will be in these bubbles with just one teacher. The idea of chess tutors going from school to school and potentially spreading the virus is off the table. School hours will likely be restricted to between 9 am and 3,30 pm. So we expect that for the rest of the calendar year we can only teach online.

What we are building now will hopefully not only serve us in the next six months but will stay with us in normality. Since March my role is to deliver the charity online. We started with creating online teaching, following the same curriculum that we use to teach in schools.

Engaging the children is really the biggest challenge. We do it through gamified learning, tournaments, puzzle competitions, and a consistent and regular approach.“

Our concept is pretty childfriendly: In the lesson on the rook we explain how it moves, followed by a puzzle on the rook, a mini game with rooks, and a slightly tougher puzzle, which we call the „grandmaster test“. We started with an inital offering of ten lessons and then added one at a time. We send our material to the schools, and it is also freely available on our #Chessathome page, a hashtag that we are promoting on our social media. The website consists of worksheets, kahoot quizzes, youtube videos and a blog that my colleague Sean Marsh is writing.

Sean’s blog is conceived as light hearted guidance to parents who are stuck at home with their kids. We used to deliver at schools and through schools. Parents is a new angle for us. Now we have 2500 families registered directly with us. We don’t presume prior knowledge from parents about chess. They can print these worksheets and kahoot quizzes at home and solve them with their kids.

Earlier we had offered Chesskid as an extra to the most active children in the 350 schools. Now we have a cooperation that allows us since 28 April to offer free gold membership on ChessKid for everyone in the UK. This lasts until the end of July, and we have negotiated a huge discount after that. 1400 institutions have signed up, mostly primary schools, but also some libraries, chess teachers and tutors. And we deliver directly to families. We are reaching 50 000 children through this programme.

A newsletter informs parents who subscribed their kids to CSC’s Chesskid gold membership offer.
A newsletter informs parents who subscribed their kids to CSC’s Chesskid gold membership offer.

Since our curriculum is not the same as Chesskid’s, we send out a weekly newsletter with curated content. That means we give guidance on how and in which order to use the ChessKid content. About 3000 parents have signed up for that newsletter. We think about merging the worksheets and newsletters. Sean is also creating videos for our Youtube channel.

We hold daily tournaments on ChessKid, weekly Star Rush puzzle competitions, and beat-the-teacher competitions. Safeguarding features are very good on ChessKid, yet we had to make some adjustments to the relatively strict UK rules, and we needed to make it acceptable for our school teachers. Even though it’s all free, it is difficult to get schools to sign up in the first place and then to get them to distribute the content to parents, as the schools are already very busy sending other materials to parents. The next layer is to activate the parents engaged, which we do through the weekly newsletter. Finally, we need to get the children to log in in spite of the amazing summer weather.

Engaging the children is really the biggest, but also the most rewarding challenge. We do it through gamified learning, tournaments, puzzle competitions, and a consistent and regular approach. Our tournaments always start at the same hour in the afternoon and are played in the same format. We have one kid that is solving 120 puzzles per day on the average. At the other end we have many accounts of children that only log in now and then and don’t play as often as we might like.

Since we don’t expect to teach in the classrooms and many schools will also not continue their school chess clubs any time soon, we are preparing to give lessons through Zoom, either on our own materials or in conjunction with ChessKid. It is all very well to have forty kids online, but the challenge is how do you make sure that these kids really take part in your lesson.

If we push head teachers too hard, they tell us to go away. So we have to very careful when and how we communicate them our proposals how to continue chess.”

We also started to run online chess clubs through Zoom. We push the idea of schools distributing Chesskid and set up Zoom chess clubs for children to log in from home replacing their usual chess club at school. Any offering has to be flexible and varied, and we have to be ready to change it. If a school prefers Skype, we do Skype. We just want to be back in the classroom. But head teachers have a lot to do. One of the last things on their mind now is chess. If we push them too hard, they tell us to go away. So we have to very careful when and how we communicate them our proposals how to continue chess.

Matt Piper is Online Director and London Coordinator of Chess in Schools and Communities.
Matt Piper is Online Director and London Coordinator of Chess in Schools and Communities. (private)

We used to have well over a hundred tutors across the country, fifty of them in the London area. Our tutors are self-employed, we have no longer work for them. We try to keep them together, we gather every week for a chat and a tutor tournament on Lichess. We are doing webinars on how to teach online, safeguarding guidelines, advice on how to set up a school chess club, financial advice to help them deal with the situation. Some of them will not be with us by January when we expect the schools to reopen for us.”

The article is based on Matt Piper’s presentation at our webinar Hybrid Chess. It is part of a ChessTech Special: Educational Chess in cooperation with the FIDE Education Commission and with support by FIDE.