Rutherford County, TN (by Justin Stokes) - Can the game of chess help prepare students for a bright and successful future? Some community leaders believe so.
“Chess is a game that requires integrity,” says Rutherford County Property Assessor Robert Mitchell. “Teaching it to a child can fundamentally change them. If you change them, you change the direction of a family, and in turn better their community for it.”
Rob tells the Murfreesboro Voice that chess is an invaluable tool in the classroom. On top of boosting a student’s strategic analysis, critical thinking, discipline, and emotional intelligence, it can also make foreign concepts in a lesson plan instantly accessible.
“Teaching chess to a child can fundamentally change them,” Rob says. “If you can reach a child, you can change them. Doing that can in turn change the direction of a family, and better the entire community for it.”
Sparks of Interest - Rob’s been promoting chess as a recognized educational activity in area classrooms since 2005.
“When my kids were growing up, I taught them to play chess,” Rob tells the Murfreesboro Voice. “My kids went to Walter Hill Elementary School. I arranged for chess sets to be donated to their school for my kids to play chess there. I later worked with Siegel Middle School to have chess sets available to students as well. I would leave work early every Thursday so I could work with my children and about a dozen others.”
After seeing the benefits of chess in Rutherford County schools, Rob became a staunch advocate of the game’s classroom adoption. His interest in incorporating chess into public education comes at a time in which he feels that students are academically falling behind.
“From what I’ve seen, we could be doing a much better job as a community to prepare our children,” he says.
Being an elected official, Rob feels an obligation to help improve public education outcomes. To make this happen, he joined forces with District 49 TN State Representative Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna) to help bring chess to Tennessee classrooms.
“Mike has a passion for people. He truly does want to make other peoples’ lives better,” he says.
Forced Move - Outside of an interest in chess, both Rob and Rep. Sparks share a common perspective of why students are underperforming in the classroom. According to Rob, students today face the challenges of digital overstimulation and an insatiable need for gratification thanks to social media and the internet.
“We’re taught to look for instant likes, or to post right at the moment we’re doing something, or to expect a whole lot of people to positively react,” Rob says. “This encourages some people to behave outrageously, as they’re wanting to get the maximum amount of attention with their post.”
Rob says that—unlike previous generations—the current generation of students in public schools is handicapped because attention spans and emotional control are diminished by social media. Living life in such a way puts students in a headspace where they’re simply reacting to the world around them, instead of proactively engaging with their challenges.
Rob says, “When you play a game of chess—or any game of skill for that matter—you have to put yourself in your opponent’s position when you’re anticipating their next move. You’ll ask yourself, ‘Why did they make this move? Why did they take this course of action over others?’ And what is an appropriate response to this challenge?’”
Mitchell’s Gambit - Rob offers a point of clarity in expressing his admiration for public school teachers. He shares that those educators in today’s classroom are faced with additional burdens from an ongoing tug of war for a young person’s attention.
“In my opinion, there is a great desire to manipulate thought. From advertisements to political parties… We are bombarded with information and choices constantly. We are forced to try and make the right decision in a very short period,” he says. He adds that games like chess provide a good foundation for how to think and that the workforce of tomorrow will experience problems that may be without an obvious solution.
Rob says, “If we can train them to use their minds and reason a correct path forward, then we’ve equipped our children for success.”
To bring this program to public education, Rep. Sparks has set up several meetings with fellow representatives and community leaders at the Tennessee General Assembly.
The first meeting he set up for Jerry Nash and Rob. Mr. Nash is the chairman of the commission on chess in education for the international chess federation.
“So this is global!” Rob says. “We have access to the number one authority in the United States for chess’s implementation into education programs.”
With Rep. Jeremy Faison, Nash held a presentation at the TN General Assembly. Faison liked the presentation, and in turn set up a meeting with Chairlady Moody and Chairman White, each of whom co-chairs the education administration and the education curriculum committees at the general assembly. This presentation was offered by Rob and company in mid-February.
Rob says, “They are excited about the concept of giving children the tools necessary to be successful.”
Addressing potential concerns from educators worried about this becoming an additional curriculum, Rob says “It’s not that. It’s an ‘enriched curriculum.’ And the teachers will be taught how to utilize principles from the game of chess in their current curriculum.”
He adds that he expects changes made to reflect this enrichment to cause minimal disruption to the current plans of teachers. “They will be able to implement the game of chess into their instructions.”
Jerry Nash taught Rep. Sparks graphing and a new language to other General Assembly representatives in less than five minutes using only a chess board.
The idea of this chess initiative has been presented to members of the TN General Assembly. “They agree that it has value.”
The next phase here is that the Rutherford County TN Board of Education will need to reach out to members of the TN General Assembly expressing our desire as a community to utilize this chess-enriched curriculum.
“Our local school board, if it is their desire, has been asked by Chairlady to pass a resolution requesting to adopt this program,
The state does not want to say “Here’s a mandate that you’re going to have to do that’s unfunded.” Instead, they want the local communities to request the help, and in turn initiate potential assistance for such a program through other parties to, say, fund it as a pilot from the TN General Assembly to certain select communities.
A Casual Game - Rob would love to see public park picnic tables designed with chess boards so that people can gather to play games of chess as they do in major cities.
“That’s community building,” he says.
In advance of getting this initiative pushed out statewide, Rob believes that it’s important for community leaders to step up and show the value of such a program to their respective communities.
“I’ve already reached out to folks in Hamilton, Knox, and Shelby counties just to see if they would be interested in having a charity chess match event,” Rob says. This event would hypothetically pit competing counties against one another to help benefit local youth charities and would feature elected officials and prominent community members as players.
“It would be a winner-takes-all elimination tournament,” Rob says. “This would raise awareness for certain issues in our communities, and children from all counties would benefit in some form or fashion.”
Rob hopes such an event could grow to the point of making chess a fun activity in households to help build excitement between parents and children in anticipation of these tournaments.
Whether or not people are interested in playing the game of chess, Rob feels that society is playing chess with them.
“We’re all involved in a ‘macro chess game of life.’ And with every decision that we make, we’re responding to a move made by other parties. We have to recognize that there’s a game being played currently and that we’re all at the table playing it.”
“I want to get people talking to other folks, and engaging in a mental sport at a table with a fellow human. This is something to be enjoyed in a one-on-one conversation, and not over a cell phone or a computer.”
Those looking to learn more about this initiative may find more information—including future updates—via Mike Sparks' social media. Further information about Rob Mitchell or the Rutherford County Property Assessor’s office may be found via the office’s website and social media.
See the previous WGNS News Story on Chess in Schools HERE.