New York

Exclusive excerpt: Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”

This excerpt is drawn from Chapter Three of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” The chapter follows the chess team from I.S. 318, a public middle school in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as they compete in the National Junior High Championships in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2011. Much of the chapter’s focus is on the teaching techniques of Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s chess teacher. This excerpt connects Spiegel’s teaching to the work of some other educators and scholars discussed in Tough’s book, including David Levin and Dominic Randolph, the leaders of KIPP New York and the Riverdale Country School, respectively, whose schools are working together to create a character report card. In her chess classes at IS 318, Elizabeth Spiegel often conveyed specific chess knowledge: how to spot the difference between the exchange Slav opening and the semi-Slav; how to weigh the comparative value of your light-square bishop and your dark-square bishop. But most of the time, it struck me whenever I watched her at work, what she was really doing was far simpler, and also far more complicated: she was teaching her students a new way to think. “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.” Before she was a full-time chess teacher at IS 318, Spiegel taught an eighth-grade honors English class at the school, and as an English teacher she was, she says, a bit of a disaster. She taught composition the way she analyzed chess games: When students turned in writing assignments, she went through each assignment sentence by sentence with each student, asking, Well, are you sure that’s the best way to say what you want to say? “They looked at me like I was insane,” she told me. “I would write them these long letters about what they’d written. It would take me the whole evening to do six or seven of them.” Although Spiegel’s teaching style might not have been the right fit with an English class, her experience teaching English did help her understand better what she wanted to do in chess class. Rather than follow a set chess curriculum over the course of the year, she decided she would construct her academic calendar as she went, planning lessons based entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know. For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces, meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error. Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”