Sean O’Hanlon is the Director of Chess Programs at The Speyer Legacy School in New York, NY. In this role, O’Hanlon leads the curriculum and implementation of chess programming in kindergarten all the way through fourth grade. The Speyer Chess Team has held many national recognitions. In 2018, the K-6 team won the trifecta of championships and was crowned the city, state, and national champions. O’Hanlon sat down with Chess in Education to chat about his own chess journey and the impact of chess in the schools.
Beginnings in Chess
Ashley Lynn Priore: Thank you for joining us. I do really appreciate it. Could you tell us a little bit about you and your background, and how you got started in chess?
Sean O’Hanlon: I’ve been teaching chess or working in chess education for more than 20 years. I played chess with one of my uncles and basically he was the guy that taught me everything. When I slept over at my Uncle Vinny’s house, that’s all I ever wanted to do: play chess. In college, I started to get a renewed interest and I was playing with friends and started to read some books. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a chess book until I had graduated college.
My first job was teaching chess in the schools. It was shortly after I graduated college, and I was doing a bunch of odd teaching jobs. I was teaching adult literacy to high school dropouts who were trying to get into vocational school to learn how to become mechanics and air conditioner repair people and that kind of thing. I was also teaching English as a second language to immigrants in Spanish Harlem. As a third job, I was working at the Hunter college writing center as a supervisor and workshop director.
Chess in the Schools – Success Academies
I was just trying to basically piece together a living when a friend from Hunter college told me about this organization, Chess in the Schools in New York City, where I could basically have a full-time job going into schools and teaching kids how to play chess. I was like ‘that sounds cool.’ Flash forward, I started working four days a week Chess in Schools and doing tournaments on the weekends. They provided a lot of professional development on how to run a classroom and also how to just become a better chess player. At the time I was only about 1100, so I started to play a little bit more tournaments at that time.
I worked for Chess in the Schools for about 10 years. Then I did my own kind of independent contracting for the department of education in New York for a couple of years. And then I found a school network – it was called Success Academies, and they were looking for chess teachers and they wanted someone to basically work at a school to be a school teacher. With Success Academies, there were two other teachers, and we would teach at our own schools and every so often we would get together and talk shop.
Scaling the Program
At some point, I brought a proposal to the CEO saying that we should start playing in more tournaments and we should be going to national events to compete. She thought I was crazy, but she liked it. So, we started to do just that. And so what I was able to do was work directly with schools and help them develop chess programs at all the other schools. I helped scale the program to 40 schools and brought us to nationals every year. Then in my final year at that program, one of our schools won the all girls national champion championships which was very exciting. I was then recruited to come work at the Speyer Legacy School to lead their chess program. That’s basically my career in a nutshell!
Impact of Chess
Priore: I love how you learned how to run a classroom. I think oftentimes chess programs are thought of as just clubs, and, while chess clubs are great, there is a difference between a club and a class. I’d love to hear about some of the impact that you’ve seen about chess in the schools and how students have been positively impacted.
O’Hanlon: I think it’s an important distinction what you make there between a chess club and a program. I guess the difference is that in a program, you’re teaching everybody how to play chess and you’re making chess part of the culture of a school. At the Speyer Legacy School, we win national titles on a regular basis. Those are great accomplishments, and I’m really proud of those kids, but I think it’s important to state that this isn’t just a program for kids. It’s for everybody at the school.
In terms of success stories, when I set a goal for a class, that means everyone in the class over the course of the school year is going to solve a hundred tactics puzzles. Everyone gets assigned something at a different level so that they can be successful and they can be challenged. That’s a success to me – like when I can know enough about kids, so that I can assign four different levels of tactics work in a single period and have everyone engaged and challenged. This is a success for me.
In the end, it is all about developing a cultural literacy for chess and taking a kid who maybe is never going to play in a chess tournament but providing them with the skills to succeed outside of the classroom. Sometimes when I meet students, they have this real low tolerance level for ambiguity. I kind of raise that threshold for them. Like they can learn how to deal with, and kind of think about things, in a very abstract sense without actually knowing the right move.
Priore: I love that, especially because it’s those tiny things, right? It’s critical thinking and being able to problem solve, and just to be able to think about a problem in a more complex way, oftentimes problem solving is not taught enough in schools, especially when it comes to strategy. Everyone freaks out when they hear the term “strategic planning,” and chess is all about that, right? You’re thinking ahead. Maybe you’re not thinking ahead like five to 10 moves, but at least you are thinking about what someone’s response to something might be.
O’Hanlon: I think as chess players, we can get sucked into a line and I’ve seen even master level players do this. They see a move, they know it’s bad, but they make that move anyway because they’re in time pressure instead of thinking what’s any other move that I could come up with? I’ve seen a national master lose a game because he made the only move that he could think of, and he knew it was bad. And he told me that, but he said that he didn’t have any other ideas. We teach building systems of thinking. I think it is really important for chess, but also for life.
Starting a Program
Priore: Absolutely. And I’m really curious from your experience, if there was an organization or a school that wanted to start a chess program and get it off the ground, what advice do you have for them?
O’Hanlon: Well, I would say aim higher. I think it’s important to find the right person to do a program with. I think it’s an investment that schools have to make. I think that if you could hire an art teacher, you could hire a chess teacher. There is such value in students learning how to be creative, and you can do that in painting, or you can do that on a chess board.
And more and more schools are starting to say that we want chess to be part of our model. I used to tease one of the music teachers that I worked with at Success Academies. And I would tell them that their job is a lot harder than mine because when the kids in your room are playing music badly, everyone walks past your room and they’re like, “Oh, that’s terrible.” But when the kids in my room are playing chess badly, they walk past the room. You’re like, Ooh, wow, look how quiet and studious those kids are!
You can learn more about Sean’s work in New York City Schools here.