Monday, April 22, 2013

depressing complaining rant

I'm not doing so great on the blogging, I know.
I'm doing a lot of packing, as we are moving upstairs on May 1. Upstairs is twice as big as downstairs (2 floors), so we'll have room for baby, and for Helpful Mother-in-Law. Also our windows won't be at street level, so we can keep the blinds open and have lots of light.

Work is really getting me down. Every morning I try to talk Jonathan into playing hooky with me and spending the day at the beach. Even today when it's 50 degrees out. He always says no because he's way more responsible than I am.

I did my 3rd quarter grades today and it made me unreasonably angry. Our grades are all online throughout the year, so parents and kids can see their grades in every subject at all times. I give a few kinds of homework, but one standard weekly assignment in my advanced classes is 25 correct problems every week. It's due Thursday; I check every Friday morning. Late problems get only half credit. It's fine to do them in advance, and the exact number of completed correct problems each kid needs to have for each Friday is written in a note to each week's assignment.

If you haven't experienced, I use the site because it's free and it adjusts to each student's level. If you get a problem wrong, your rating goes down, and you are "paired" with an easier problem next. I make all my students start their handle with IS318, so it's relatively easy to check. I explain to them that working at these problems is one of the fastest ways to get better at chess.

I explain it's like going running: they have to work at it. I use the example that a runner could just get in a car and drive for five miles but say he went running, and people might believe him that time, but when the real race comes he's still going to be fat and out of shape. I say that chess is hard and you won't get better if you aren't willing to work and wrestle with the hard problems that aren't obvious to you right away.

So what happens? A significant percent of students just stop doing the assignment and fail my class as a consequence, despite weekly verbal and email reminders, even though they and their parents can see their grade decline each week. Even though they could sit down and do two hours of work at the beginning of each quarter and get an automatic 100 and never think about it again for 2 months.

Almost all of the kids do the problems by guessing as fast as possible, spending 10-15 seconds maximum because they know they will get an easier problem if they are wrong. Some of them go into settings and change the level from normal to easy, so each problem is a mate in 1, or its equivalent. Their ratings are generally 400-600 points lower than their actual ratings.

I gave all the nationals kids a tactics packet of harder problems to do in their week and a half spring break before nationals. I email the kids and their parents reminders to do the packet. More than half the kids don't do more than the first page. The ones who do more mostly just do the easiest problems, and write nonsense for the hard problems or write "castles" for every single answer. The best ones use Fritz to cheat, and I'm almost grateful that they even bothered. (I can tell the cheaters because if I take away their papers, they have no idea of any of the answers.)

I make online multiple choice quizzes, 10-20 diagrams each, for my students to test if they learned their openings. Each quiz has a practice module with exactly the same questions as the real test. You can do the practice as many times as you need to before taking the test, so you are practically guaranteed to get 100. A quarter of the students don't bother to take the test in the first place. Another quarter can't be bothered to do the practice, even though it gives you all the answers ahead of time, so they fail anyway.

Ten percent of my early morning students don't show up on any given day, and another ten percent are late almost every day.

Half the kids who sign up for a tournament don't show up, even though their $50 entry is donated by the tournament organizer. On Monday, they tell me they forgot or they didn't feel like going.

Parents complain all the time that I give too much work, that I should not penalize their child for late work, that I should not mark their child absent or late when they are not in class, and that I should not take points off homework for answers that don't make sense. Of course not all parents, and not all kids either. I have some amazing, hard-working students and some supportive, caring parents. Just not too many, and it feels like not as many as I used to.

I have the kids write reflections after nationals. One of the questions is "What would you do differently next Nationals to play better?" and almost every kid writes about being exhausted. On the next question, half of them describe the best part of the tournament as staying up all night Saturday night.

I know they are just kids, and I know as people get older they forget what it was like to be young and projct their adult selves backward in time, but I feel increasingly like having high expectations is beating my head into a wall for no reason at all.

I look at the advanced entries yesterday for this weekend's Girls Nationals, and notice what a great U12 team Weibel has. That leads me to look at their website, and I find their list of instructors:

Uyanga Byambaa   Originally from Mongolia, a FIDE Women's Master, 2nd year at Weibel

Ted Castro    Expert rated player, trainer & coach of numerous young chess champions, runs the NorCal House of Chess. 8th year at Weibel

Barry Curto  Correspondence Chess Master, A player, taught for many years for Success Chess, first year at Weibel

Ricardo De Guzman  Originally from the Philippines, International Master, 9th year at Weibel

Hailey Deaton Ohlone College student, taught Raw Beginners at Weibel last year, returning this year

Demetrius Goins Expert rated player, moving closer to Master every tournament he plays, 3rd year at Weibel

Arpita Khandelwal Mother of Weibel student, substitute at Weibel Chess last year, taught for Success Chess,first year full-time at Weibel

Alan Kirshner  Started Weibel Chess 24 years ago, claim to fame--he is still around

David Lee Has tutored many successful chess players, taught for Berekley Chess School, third year at Weibel

Elizabeth Livesay Ohlone College student, taught Raw Beginners at Weibel last year, returning this year

Hayk Manvelyan Originally from Armenia, became a Chess Master while at Mission San Jose High School, replacement last year, full-time this year

Kevin Mc Cue Works at Ohlone College in Biology Lab, active with chess there, 4th year at Weibel

Gaurang Mehta Originally from India where he ran a successful chess school, FIDE Chess Expert, 5th year at Weibel

Richard Shorman  Arguably the best known chess instructor in the Bay Area for near 50 years, wrote a chess column for  Daily Review, 13 years at Weibel

Don't get me wrong: I think it's awesome that other programs are so well-developed and well-staffed, it's fabulous for chess generally and for those kids in particular. I know I probably sound like a bitchy self-pitying complainer, but man, how is it possible for me to compete with that? When I can't even get my kids to complete a tactics packet and show up?  I guess it's the right time for me to have a baby/take some time off/ pull back a little from being so obsessed with work.


Gurdonark said...

I remember the woman with whom I attended law school, who assured me her two boys were never served food that was bad for them. I was slightly relieved when I met the fellows, who promptly assured her that they did not want to eat their vegetables.

Your post comforts me that even at IS 318, kids who can see what hard work can do still do not want to eat their chess vegetables.

Never mind that chess vegetables are cool mating problems, intoxicating "best move" positions, and intriguing endgames and even, like dessert, fascinating new openings. Folks don't eat their vegetables.

I was looking at my own ratings history graph as the other day. In 1995, I was rated 1820. Then I gradually fell over time to 1640. Now I am 1690something. In 1995, I studied my games and played regularly. Now I rarely study at all. I enjoyed getting my rating up to 1820, and worked at it, but I was not willing to eat the vegetables to aim for 2000.

It is understandable for you to feel frustrated, because it seems to me you have pretty irrefutable evidence that doing the work makes champions. Yet ultimately, there's a part of any good work that is like being a good library--you can stock the books but you can't make folks read them. Horse to water, all that.

But really, you do great work and your kids will clock great performances, and you wouldn't be human if you did not feel this way sometimes.

jeff weddle said...

that was beautiful!
Let it out.

There is nothing more frustrating in life than rooting for others to live up to potential.

Don't lose hope, but don't ignore the frustration either, no point in dying young.

Anonymous said...

You are not alone - most music teachers find that their students won't do scales.
Solving Chess Tempo puzzles is similarly boring.
It doesn't have t be that way. Solving puzzles where there is a story attached is always more attractive. "Blunders and Brilliancies" is awesome but Leonard Barden has also released some good puzzle books (based on his Evening Standard columns) with a paragraph to introduce the puzzle.

Michelle said...

Apathy. Bane of every teacher, any subject. I'm sorry you are feeling crappy and frustrated right now. Summer's coming!

Quandary said...

Anon: I've done ChessTempo and other similar problems for years, surely many thousands of them, and never once found them to be boring.

But, I've never HAD to do them (assigned to me). I guess that can make all the difference.

juggleandhope said...

thanks - great essay. your intelligence, hard-work, and well-earned frustration all make sense.

only the truth can make us free - not what we wish were true.

Anonymous said...

This may have nothing to do with the post you made but could you do another the student I am most proud of this year like you did last year

Elizabeth Vicary said...

it's kind of the opposite of this post

Anonymous said...

Your blog was just linked by a fairly well-known blogger . . . so here I am! Is chess really a class middle schools kids in Brooklyn can take for credit?

Nice blog. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Does this mean that other school has 14 instructors? for an under-twelve team? And are they (and you) paid just to teach chess?

Confused European

Anonymous said...

This post was linked by the economics blog Marginal Revolution, which is how I found it.

I have two high-achieving kids at a good school. Chess is offered as an afterschool enrichment activity. Both kids tried the local flavor and gave it up... they said chess is boring... and the way it is taught here, chess IS boring, especially when compared to the joy my kids find in exploring the wide range of other puzzles and intelligent games available online.

In your community, it's clear that many parents don't care enough to motivate their children, so the burden of motivating the kids has fallen to you. Chess, and learning in general, should be FUN, not just chores. And it IS fun, as long as people approach it like it SHOULD be fun!

Given that grades and chess ratings aren't sufficient motivators, is there any other way to reward your students for increasing their effort? What would make Chess fun for them? Can you add variety by tossing in a different game (one that requires chess-like logical thinking but isn't chess) from time to time? Deflexion is popular at our home; we call it "laser chess".

My kids don't like losing. They also, oddly enough, don't always like winning, because they generally play with friends and don't like hurting them. But playing against a computer just isn't the same as playing with a person. Is there a way to make Chess a game that everyone can win? Maybe some kind of "team chess" where the team has to agree before it can move?

I teach an outside-of-school enrichment activity on a volunteer basis. The boys get "into" head-to-head competitions, but the girls want to do things a very different way. I haven't learned the techniques for reaching the girls as well as I'd like to. I suppose with Chess, and with a variety of different kids, a wide range of techniques are also needed?

As for your kids and the Nationals trip -- I had the opportunity as a child to go to national tournaments in math -- and my fondest memories have nothing to do with the scores I got! I suspect that for your kids, it's not really about the score, it's about the adventure of the trip. And that's probably how it should be!

As for the chess-obsessed school in California that has you outgunned: forget about them! Any school which puts that much effort into such an esoteric competition has lost sight of what's important in life. Odds are good that many of their children are spoiled by obsessive parents, and won't amount to much anyway...

If you do get a chess-obsessed talented student, then she'll do fine in life regardless of chess, provided she sees that the world values her talents and is full of opportunities. Show her as much of those as you can... and remember it's better for her if you DON'T give her the world on a platter.

For the other 95% of your class it's important to remember that the nation's success was secured more by teamwork (the "99%") than by individual greatness. Washington didn't win the revolution by himself, he needed an army! And Jefferson might have written the Declaration of Independence, but it was the mass uprising of the people as a whole that gave birth to the nation.

JDelage said...

I think that to really progress at a competitive endeavor, you do need to do some "dedicated practice", which is by essence frustrating, boring, not fun at all. So you are doing the right thing, keep doing it.

With regard to your frustration, all I can recommend is to reserve your emotional energy for the children and parents who put in serious effort. As for the others, keep providing the guidance and counsel, but don't get emotionally involved.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

so maybe some background is in order for people coming from the marginal revolution blog. I'm a full time public school teacher at IS 318, a public Title 1 middle school in Brooklyn NY. (Title 1 means 65% or more of the kids-- 75% at my school-- live at or near the poverty line and qualify for free lunch). I'm a full time chess teacher, which probably sounds pretty strange, especially to Europeans, but my school has 1700 students, and a cooking teacher, a sewing teacher, a guitar teacher, so in that context it doesn't seem so weird.
Our chess program has had a lot of success: for example last year we won that national high school chess championship, despite being a 6-8 school. we've won the national junior high championship 6 times in the last 9 years, and the national elementary championship twice. Despite this, the budget gets cut every year and I have very little help. You can learn more about the program in the documentary Brooklyn Castle (itunes) or Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed.
All that basically is to say that I'm a fairly obsessive person, I've built this program for fourteen years, and so the goal/expectation is to win all or most of the time, as ridiculous as that might sound. Which is why I'm not too interested in the kids having fun. There's a time for fun and a time to work your hardest, and nationals is the latter.
But this year the kids seem less motivated, or maybe I'm doing a worse job, or getting burned out, I don't know.
Weibel is a public elementary school in California. I think their program is more an afterschool program funded by the PTA. I have more time with my students than they do, so I feel like I should be able to compete (/win! :)), but they have obviously a lot of talented teachers. While I have some help, it's not very much, and this year my students seem to lack a certain discipline they had in years past. Or I'm just frustrated. Hopefully the feeling will pass, but if it doesn't, I'm pregnant with my first child and can pour all my obsessive teaching energy into him/her. :)

Anonymous said...

This is from the Anonymous at 5:41. Thanks for taking the time to clue me in! I also read more of your previous posts.

In that context, I think your kids are lucky to have you at their school, and it's awesome that you've had so much success. It might just be spring fever but we've noticed out here that the kids are less motivated than usual as well. Maybe it has to do with all the bad news and parents getting a bit run-down?

I happen to live out in California, not so far from that Weibel place actually, and so I understand that demographic better than Brooklyn... at least nowadays. But kids are kids everywhere, aren't they?
Anyway, I can vouch from classroom experience out here in the 'burbs that there are undermotivated kids at every income level.

I shouldn't have said what I did about the parents not caring. Most parents care an awful lot, and more about their kids than anything else even. But as a parent you can't fight every battle, and some of the time you face tougher issues (especially when dealing with the loss of a job, spouse or parent), and maybe chess IS a bit of a luxury?

If you've got enough kids living up to your standards to bring home national prizes, you're certainly doing something right, and better than most of us!!!

Unknown said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I think your self-diagnosis is correct. You are putting yourself under too much pressure to be perfect. I prescribe an afternoon at the ocean. Preferably the Pacific. Preferably in Hawaii. 8-)


Anonymous said...

This reads like something that could have been written by my high school academic team coach, Melanie Krieger. That pressure and high expectations helped us (even the late ones, even the lazy ones, even the ones staying up all night before the Science Olympiad nationals).

For her sake and your kids: thank you for keeping that pressure on and the expectations high.

Anonymous said...

Wow! You really do teach chess. How many other junior high schools in the United States offer chess as an actual class as opposed to an extracirricular activity?

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Yeah, not many. One or two other public schools in NYC ( hunter, nest-m), a private school (dalton) and at least one chain of charter schools (success academies). I don't know of any outside NYC, but I wouldn't necessarily.

Kelly Czarnecki said...

Have you tried texting instead of emailing?

Michael Aigner said...

Certainly the demographics are quite different between Silicon Valley and the Bronx. I'm talking both financial and ethnic. Most chess kids have two parents with college degrees, often advanced degrees with high paying tech jobs. A large percentage of the chess families are Asian or Asian-American; even the Caucasians and Hispanics are influenced by the Asian culture.

The Weibel program is after school and the instructors are all part-time (some teach chess elsewhere or privately). Parents pay tuition each semester. The team meets twice a week for instruction and practice, but many top players have outside teachers.

Just 2 miles away, Mission San Jose Elementary has a similar program (organized by Joe Lonsdale) which has achieved national recognition. Finally, Gomes Elementary is a smaller but also strong program from the same city. MSJE won K-6 and Gomes won K-5 at SuperNationals three weeks ago.

Of course, New York City has many special opportunities that we can only dream for here in California. Don't complain too much! The touching stories shared in the documentary Brooklyn Castle (and also Michael Weinreb's book about Murrow H.S.) could not happen here. Make sure to look at the bright side and not just the negatives.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth. I read this and just thought you should know that my 9-yr old son said to me "Dad I want to play for 318 and that 'cool chess lady coach!'" We live way out in Minnesota and I think it's important for you to know that you have fans that you don't even know about. He has two posters on his wall; a pro hockey player and a picture of James Black from 318 !! His goal is to come to New York one day and take a "chess class at 318" !! We are huge fans out here and we are not even close to the only ones you have .... hope it helps!

CaptiousNut said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I concur. I teach accelerated math to some of the smartest mathletes on Long Island...

And it's the same story. They do 5% of the homework I take the time to prepare.

The problem, and I'm dead serious, is rooted in VIDEO GAMES and CELL PHONES.

Even an hour a day of this garbage does irreparable damage.

What do you think most of these parents are doing each day and night? They are watching TV and staring at Fbook and phones constantly too.

People nod their heads at my hypothesis about passive electronic media consumption all the time but they don't REALLY agree.

I've just about proven it too - as far as I'm concerned.

Take a look at my son - link - who's been denied all electronics.

The best methods, the most infectious teaching enthusiasm....nothing can compete with pouring acid into children's brains - which is what that junk does on a continual basis.

Philip Sells said...

@ CaptiousNut,

I just looked at your video there. Nice work your son does! I do happen to agree with you on the electronics. I have no TV or smartphone myself (though I could have used one very much at certain times when I got lost or things like that), and am resolved, if I ever marry, not to have one around as my children grow up.

@ Elizabeth, I have a couple of relatively high-maintenance students like that, who consistently don't do their homework. I occasionally change my "curriculum" around to accommodate this, as they often really are interested in chess, just nowhere near the skill level of a lot of your kids. But I notice that when it gets to the point where they don't want to eat the vegetables any more, so to speak, I tend to cease looking forward to those particular lesson times. When I get that feeling, I've taken to changing the lessons in such a way as to make them more fun for... myself!

The premise is twofold: if I'm going to have to sit there for an hour, at least I can do something to get myself through the time (that's the selfish part); but also, if I'm having fun myself, that sense of enthusiasm that I'm projecting--admittedly a little artificially, but mostly not if I pick good examples--can help reignite the student's genuine interest and make him/her want to learn more (that's the less selfish part).

So instead of trying to make that student chew through another exercise in endgame calculation according to the sequence that I use for that stuff (aha, today is Protected Passed Pawns #2!), maybe I pull out a game by Lasker or Tal to show instead. I try to use the ones that have some good content, not just the flashy stuff--especially nice if I find an example game that has an endgame motif of the kind I was going to teach about anyway. It's rather like dipping the carrots in chocolate fondue.

Is it possible that you can try something like what I'm suggesting? I'm sure you've thought of it already, but I just want to help you be happier.

Anonymous said...

How frustrating! I would be furious, given all the work you put into the program. But I come from a very different background from your students, and it would never have occured to me not to do my best to get a good grade in a class when I was there age. What do the students say when you speak with them about their not doing the work?

Anonymous said...

by just reading this, I'm even more frustrated than you. It's so great that these kids have someone caring like you.
Keep up the great work, it's the one or two kids that you can help that will make all this worthwhile.

My kids have no help. My son does an hour of puzzles in the morning and online games in the afternoon. There is no one here to encourage him, even after he tied for 1st at nationals. The chess schools around where we live are garbage!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your "depressing, complaining rant".

You are arguably the most successful chess teacher in the USA... and you still have exactly the same problems as the rest of us!

Anonymous said...

I have a young talented son who has been playing since the second grade, and he will be attending 318 next year. We are both looking forward to the opportunity for him to be taught by you. I can only imagine your frustration, but don't give up on them just yet. You have children who aren't even there yet that need you :)

Anonymous said...

As a former teacher and fan of your work from afar, I totally get the frustration in your post. It's totally possible that this year, for whatever reason, your kids really aren't as motivated or focused as they need to be.

If that's the case, it's totally fair for you to pre-emptively cancel their trip to nationals (or next major tournament, or similar). Sure, parents will go crazy and complain, but I can guarantee you that next year's class won't suffer from the same lack of focus.

Anonymous said...

I used to give prizes for homework in the chess club I teach after school. Few kids would do it, some tried to do the work in class and turn it in as homework. Several just wrote something down sloppily. I gave up on that. I don't set lofty goals anymore, just let them have fun...
I hear from some parents of kids who do not come anymore because they want to play video games instead.

Anonymous said...

I am starting a graded high school advanced chess class this fall. I suppose I will experience similar problems. I think I will have each student get account instead of a book, although maybe chesstempo would be better option. Thanks for your rant, you have prepared me for what is coming!

Check2Check said...

You don't need to compete with that other school in terms of staff and support... just do the best you can, and I believe you are.

As far as a kids motivation to do the work and improve their skill level, well that's up to each individual kid. You can only motivate someone so much but ultimately they will have to motivate themselves.

It's like anything else in life, when you have passion for something then the work is not really a burden but rather a labor of love.