On Chess and Changing Lives

September 28, 2018

By Sophie Silkes

Mr. Lee and (some of) his chess team, with some shiny new trophies.

Lecroy Rhyanes is not just a teacher. He’s also leading a movement at Cobra Tech Academy (a New Tech network school in El Paso, Texas) and it’s about more than after school activities or team sports. It’s about youth empowerment — and chess.

This July, Lecroy attended one of our partner events, the New Tech Annual Conference (NTAC) in St. Louis, MO. It just so happens that St. Louis is the chess capital of America, so Lecroy was expecting that he might have some chess-inspired fun. What he wasn’t expecting was to find someone else at the conference on Braindate who was also thinking about how to leverage chess for change.

We caught up with Lecroy for a braindate of our own, to learn more about his vision for chess and empowerment, and to dive into how his Braindate experience at NTAC brought him a few moves closer to his goal.

Chess at its best is about mentorship and social connections. Photo courtesy of Lecroy Rhyanes.

e180: I’m so excited to talk to you about chess and youth empowerment (which inspired probably one of the coolest braindate topics we’ve seen). Can you tell us about how you got involved in chess-as-curriculum?

Lecroy: The first time that I brought chess into a classroom space was actually in a juvenile hall, where I used to volunteer. I was teaching a creative writing workshop, and in my spare time I was also playing chess with a friend of mine at the time. It wasn’t until I was 26 years old that I was taught how to play the game. Soon after, I saw a few films and heard about programs that were using chess as outreach tools to help connect kids together on a level playing field. It’s a competitive game that everyone can play, no matter the age, or who you’re playing against (could be a teacher or staff member, for example).

Once I got to the school here in El Paso, I wanted to see how the students might respond to a chess program. They didn’t have one at the time, so I introduced the opportunity for kids to participate in one after school — the Canyon Hills Cobra Chess Club, and it really took off. We slowly grew from there. The first goal was just to build interest, and the second goal was to actually get them out into the community to different chess competitions.

I’m also from El Paso myself: I was born and raised on the same side of town where I teach now. So it’s really fun to think about being able to build something from scratch, and maybe start a little chess movement out here through the kids that we work with at this secondary school.

What did you learn about incorporating chess into a teaching environment from your experience volunteering?

Since it was volunteer work [at the juvenile hall], I started to get a basic idea of how a chess program could work in another environment. The key was that there had to be some kind of structure where you give kids the opportunity to actually to compete with purpose. You need to create the idea of a tournament, for example, so that there’s motivation for the chance to win something. That’s as far as I got when I was facilitating workshops inside juvenile hall.

Photographs courtesy of Lecroy Rhyanes from his program Voices Behind Walls chess activities in Dona Ana County juvenile prison.

How did you end up at NTAC this year?

I just began teaching middle school, though I’ve been an educator for a while: in universities, as a creative arts facilitator, and in other non-traditional settings like after-school education, juvenile citation programs, and group homes. I’ve also worked in the non-profit sector, so these past two years have been my first time in a public school classroom. I was hired to work in El Paso Independent School District at a New Tech school called Cobra Tech Academy. New teachers head out to NTAC each year.

I was there to become familiar with the idea of project-based learning, and I wasn’t sure what to expect! It was my first time really learning about New Tech as well.

Aside from teaching humanities with Mrs. Pynes, I’m running the chess club at our school.

I’m trying to make that connection between how chess can benefit students’ critical thinking skills, character-building, and how they interact with each other.

Honestly, leading up to NTAC, I was just expecting to get more of a basic orientation in terms of what I needed to do for my new position. But when we got to the conference, Mrs. Pynes, with whom I co-teach, started looking into finding some subject areas at NTAC that might speak to my specific interest area — which is actually chess. She actually found someone else there who was also involved in incorporating chess into public school curricula, in their teaching, and encouraged me to book this braindate even before we touched down in St. Louis.

I was really excited about it! I was looking forward to attending the necessary workshops, but I was really looking forward to connecting with someone new who had experience in fusing chess education into the curricula and running a chess club. Braindate was a really cool way to build on this interest — I would never have found this other educator had I not had access to the Braindate experience.

The 2017 chess squad at Cobra Tech Academy! Photo courtesy of Lecroy Rhyanes.

So what was your experience with Braindate at NTAC like?

My co-teacher searched for “chess” as a keyword in Braindate, just to see. It turns out, there was actually one person who was there facilitating a workshop for New Tech who had taught in Atlanta and Detroit and hosted a chess club at his school in Atlanta. The subject of his braindate was about how to incorporate chess into project-based learning and teaching models. New Tech is all about getting kids more engaged with learning that matters to them, even through things like chess: learning that’s more connected to the community, and to collaboration with other students in other schools. It’s about having a bigger view of what their education experience could be.

The kids in our chess club are starting to realize that they have chess as an outlet: that there’s a program to go to if they want to choose to spend their time learning more about it and playing it. His braindate topic and his description connected deeply with what I felt, hitting on exactly what I wanted to discuss with someone.

There was only one person on Braindate who had posted a topic about this, so I was excited to connect.

What was it like? What did you get from your braindate?

It was really cool to have the opportunity to talk with someone at NTAC who had actually been able to see the benefits of chess in the classroom himself. I’m no chess expert: I don’t have a tournament background, so I had to ask a lot of questions about how I could help support these kids to have access to people that could help them advance as chess players if they chose. We even planted the seed for a future collaboration together! He also suggested the potential of sharing the impact of chess in school settings at a future NTAC events.

Photographs courtesy of Lecroy Rhyanes from his program Voices Behind Walls chess activities in Dona Ana County juvenile prison.

We have a few success stories in town such as the chess program at Henderson Middle School who went on to win state champions and traveled to national championships. Their coach Saul Ramirez even wrote an incredible book with John Seidlitz that I recommend for everyone, especially first year teachers like myself titled The Champions Game. Through our participation in local tournaments, I also got the chance to learn about an educator named Jose Placencia who’s actually teaching a class about chess at La Fe Preparatory School in South El Paso!

There’s an energy here, because chess is like a sport. It’s great to have parents who understand how chess can help kids out with their ability to develop patience, critical thinking, creative thinking, and an overall appreciation and respect for one another.

My braindate experience is something that I’ve brought back to help me teach my class. Its origins, its story, its history — chess goes through all kinds of continents. It’s a teaching tool more than it’s game. It’s about connecting kids and helping them to understand who they are through it: how they see themselves, how they see the challenges they have in front of them.

Lecroy Rhyanes and Dese Zuberi of New Tech, post-braindate!

In chess, it’s all about the next move. It’s about sacrifice. These are common themes that we explore in literature and more. It’s about de-stressing. I especially like to use it for some of our students who are dealing with a few issues socially. Instead of feeling down about having a bad time, we want them to come to chess, spend some time playing a game with somebody, learn from each other, and encourage each other…feel good about ourselves and our place in the school. Its one of the reasons we refer to our members as Queens and Kings. Also its a cool way to connect to our mascot the Cobras!

Had I not found him for this braindate, I never would have known that anybody else was even thinking about chess in education at this conference. I really didn’t expect it. I had no idea that I would find something actually within NTAC that was so deeply connected to what I’m passionate about. I never would have known had my colleague Mrs. Pynes not just searched for “chess” on the platform.

The conference itself was great! But it was really cool to connect on a really personal level with somebody who had actually done something around, and thought about chess in education.

I have a lot of ideas, but but it helps to know that there is a sense of community and structure around developing these ideas and taking a chance. And I look forward to connecting with more people like this who are doing this in our community and others when the time is right.

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