The ChessTech 2020 conference organized by ChessPlus in December 2020 attracted over 500 participants from more than 40 countries. Jerry Nash had the opportunity to lead a question-and-answer session on the first day of the conference with Principal Salome Thomas-EL of the Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington, Delaware. This is Part 1 of a 4-part series featuring his responses to various questions regarding his background in education and his belief in the power of chess as an educational tool.
Q – What led you to use chess as a classroom teacher?
Well, Jerry, to be quite honest with you, I found – as a new teacher – quite a struggle to get students to think and problem solve and really embrace the struggles that they were facing.
I started teaching in the inner city in high school and in the middle school. It was in a community where I grew up where it was a very high poverty community. I grew up raised by a single mom in public housing and housing projects in Philadelphia.
And so, I went away to school and came back and started working in television, I spoke to some students in one of the high schools and they said, “Listen, you know it’s great that you’re working in television, but my teacher basically saved my life and supported me.” They basically said, “So, why aren’t you a teacher?”
So, I decided to dedicate my life to teaching kids in the inner city. As soon as I began my career, I saw that these students were struggling to overcome so many obstacles outside of school and they impacted what happened inside of our school.
I decided to start teaching some special education students first. Mathematics on the chess board. Teaching them the Knight’s move of right angles. Bishop moves on diagonals.
And I thought I was just giving these students some mathematics tips. But what I was really giving them was intellectual capital. They were walking around the school carrying chess boards. Students who were known to struggle in school who were now viewed as being intelligent. And I learned early on as a teacher that smart is not something you are, it is something that you can become.
And so, all of the students wanted to start learning to play chess and I saw that there was a tool that taught these students who were living and struggling communities that they had to be able to not only see their turn in life but see around the turn.
And these students went on to start competing in local and state competitions, and national competitions, and going on to college. Some went on to law school. I saw that chess had a great impact, not only on the immediate success of students, but also long-term success. So, my goal became to share that message with the rest of the school community but also with the local and national community here in the United States.