Innovative chess program teaches Detroit students critical thinking

When Chevelle Brown learned to play chess in the 10th grade, it was her English teacher, "Mr. Lombardini" at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side who inspired her.

She says that she immediately began to see the benefits of learning the game in her wider life. Benefits like the improvement of her memory and concentration as well as enhancing her problem-solving and decision-making skills. 

“The things chess did for me is why I chose to teach it,” Brown says. “My son was my first student. I recognized the benefits of chess for myself and wanted it for my son, and later his friends.” 

A 10-year Marine Corps veteran and a retired Detroit police officer, Brown currently teaches chess full time with her business aptly titled, I Teach Chess. She works in multiple school districts and non-profit organizations.

“Chess is a perfect vehicle to help children think logically for many reasons,” Brown says.

“Research shows that chess has a positive impact on math and cognitive skills as well as improved behavioral outcomes. Observational studies have found that children who play chess perform well in academic measurements, but many have wondered if chess makes kids smarter or if smart kids are just drawn to chess. It’s been called a ‘chicken-and-egg dilemma’.” 

Brown believes that children love games and chess requires them to think critically if they want to win. 

“The history of chess goes back almost 1,500 years,” Brown says. The strategy board game originated in northern India in the sixth century A.D. and spread to Persia. Chess was later taken up by the Muslim world and subsequently, through the Moorish conquest of Spain, spread to Southern Europe.

Research points to significant factors that influence the impact chess can have, including that the game accommodates all modality strengths, provides a variety and high-quality of problems, offers immediate penalties for errors and rewards for problem-solving, and creates a thinking system that breeds success.

Brwon also quotes studies that show that competition fosters interest, promotes mental alertness, challenges all students, and that a learning environment organized around games has a positive effect on students’ attitudes towards learning. 

“Children respond to learning the game in many ways,” Brown says. “Most enjoy the banter with the instructor in just learning the names of pieces and how they move. Many go on to play leisurely and some become competitive players.” 

Brown’s students have competed around the state many taking home trophies for their excellent skills in the game. 

She offers three different options for instruction. After-school programming can be retained by a school to facilitate workshops after school hours and she also teaches one-day intensive workshops and private, or small group, sessions. She notes that she has still been working with students virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Teaching virtually isn't a new concept for us,” Brown says of herself and her staff, “We have for many years taught chess using this platform. We found that as students got older, although they still loved chess they had other interests. Teaching virtually was a way we could teach and monitor students while they participated in sports and other activities that required them to be there physically.” 

Brown doesn’t just teach kids. She notes that engaging parents who may want to learn with their children are always welcome. It allows the child to develop quicker by simply allowing the child to teach the parent. 

“If children can demonstrate that they at least have the mechanics in a concept, but if they can communicate it to someone else, then we have some confidence that they understand.”
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Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.