#Walkmyworld Totem

In this walk together we were asked to choose a totem that best represents ourselves. I thought long about this. I am not much of collector and hobbies will hopefully pick up when the diaper pail dries up.

So I tried to consider what has been a constant in my life as I have projected my identities into online spaces. What is something that cut across both my physical and digital spaces?

I chose chess. Specifically the bishop. Sure the Queen delivers crushing blows with her unlimited power, the rook can control a line and cut off retreat, the knight flanks with devastating forks, but for me I look to the bishop.

They can either make the first strike, remove pesky knights or lie in wait. A striker hiding and ready for a powerful pin or skewer. In many ways this what we do as teachers. We have to know when to advance and when to wait. We maybe co-learners but we first need to be leaders.

I think we do not speak to the qualities of leadership required in teaching. I think this is even more critical in our networked worlds. We co-learn with students, but we usually have knowledge and skills to share, we want to help a community grow. This takes leadership. From the King down to the bishop we all contribute in our 64-bit world.

CC-BY-NC. Little Sadie. Bishop's View. Flickr
CC-BY-NC. Little Sadie. Bishop’s View. Flickr

Chess has long, though not as much in the last six years been a part of my life. Don’t know when I first  learned to play (still learning) but I remember games with my Grandfather (if I could break him away from Othello).

Since then it has been the game I turn to most: online and off. I have played chess in many places. One of my favorite games was after jumping into Crater Lake in Oregon (note: I do not recommend climbing down and swimming in Crater Laker. Getting back up was dangerous).

CC BY-NC-SA. Nick Chill. Crater Lake, Oregon. Flickr
CC BY-NC-SA. Nick Chill. Crater Lake, Oregon. Flickr


I played overlooking Lake Tahoe on New Year’s Day when we could not ski because it was in the high 60’s to low 70’s. So we jumped in the Lake instead. It was still cold.

CC-By jcookfisher. Round Lake, Lake Tahoe.  Flickr
CC-By jcookfisher. Round Lake, Lake Tahoe. Flickr

I played in many places and a couple gatherings as I traveled across the US. For example here is one travel itinerary:

Virginia Beach, VA
Raleigh, NC
Atlanta, GA
Dallas, TX
Austin, TX
Phoenix, AZ
Ventura, CA
Mountain View, CA
George, WA
Maryland Heights, MO
Tinley Park, IL
East Troy, WI
Noblesville, IN
Noblesville, IN
Burgettstown, PA
Darien Center, NY
Limestone, ME

My chess set never left my side. As I traveled I kept my board and my journal in a murse. I was always looking for a game to pass the time. I didn’t carve out enough time to write.

Some of the greatest games were played on the deck of my budddy’s apartment in Hartford, CT. He lived across the street from Trinity College, and at the time it was a colorful yet poor community filled more with wordly flavors and sounds than the crime we see on the news.

Once the novelty of going out every night wore off we would enjoy the simple pleasures of a long night of playing chess.

Chess in Digital Spaces

I also played chess online. It is really when I fell in love with the game. I was in college when the Web exploded one of the first places I found and really began to project my identities were in the Chess rooms of America Online and Yahoo. I then discovered the Internet Chess Club.

I would play different games, hang out in chess rooms, feel days of elation and crushing defeat after great and not so-great games. Honestly some part of my brain has always been broken when it comes to winning and losing. This gets manifested in chess quite easily.



Chess has helped (only a little) learn to try and not model this behavior for my kids. Though there seems to be a genetic connection to the simple logic that games have two outcomes: winner and loser. It is as if my kids understand on some biological level that second place is really first loser.

We are working as a team to try and change this perspective. It is one of the lessons chess taught me. In fact chess taught me a lot about teaching.

Learning takes mentorship

I reached a point in chess where I wouldn’t get better. It would take learning. Serious learning. I tried to self-teach I bought books, watched videos but it isn’t the same as good mentorship. I needed to diversify who I played with and needed explicit instruction and not just pick up competencies while I play.

This mentorship takes expertise and leadership. It takes a community united by a shared goal.

Learning takes knowledge

One of my big fears with competency based and strategy based instruction is the assumption that knowledge is simply constructed in the act of doing. I don’t agree. There is some basic knowledge that is most efficiently taught through direct instruction. For example it helps for beginners to know fork, skewer, and pin (just as it is easier for those who know chess to comprehend my first paragraph). For advanced players they may memorize dozens of openings and end games.(I haven’t that. This is where I should start).

People in problem-based and inquiry learning attack me when I suggest the importance of background knowledge and direct instruction. I don’t see the dichotomy of, “You are either pro-DI or pro -discovery and you can’t be both”.

Knowledge is best exchanged when we are in a community of learners and mentors that share an intentional goal. This does not mean Direct Instruction is less effective. It means that you access it in a just in time and on-demand based on your current goals.

Learning Takes Time

Learning is hard. It takes work. Chess is not different. In fact the people I know who have done the most time are often the best players I have met. So time to me is more important than place. We do not have to be beholden to the industrial schooling model of the last century and a half.

Getting serious about my chess game has taught me learning spaces, when most effective, do not know boundaries of time and space.

Learning and Expertise Involve Problem Solving

While I defend the role of knowledge I do not under estimate how learning in many ways is problem solving. This ability makes us uniquely human. We can use the past to simulate the future. We can identify patterns in the natural world and draw conclusions using this data. We create on to the world.

So I believe in chess. In fact I am in no rush for my kids to start coding. The languages they learn today will not exist when they enter the workforce. I care not for the code but for the computational thinking. So I introduced my six year old to chess. I believe it is the OG way of learning to code.

I don’t make him play, but will play if asked. Also before he can play any sports game on the iPad he has to play an equal amount of time of educational games. He self selects chess.

Like every kid he is getting curious about Minecraft as his friends have been building worlds but the tinkering and tech just isn’t a big  draw yet. I am more than okay with that. The code doesn’t matter but the life lessons you can take away from chess can help you skewer any complex problem later in life no matter where you are on the board.


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