This spring, we had the chance to catch up with Robin Ramson, the Founder of DC Chess Girls: a Washington, D.C. based chess non-profit dedicated to encouraging more girls to play chess. When we spoke, she had just returned from a national tournament where her daughter got to compete with children from all over the country.
I know you have lots of stories about chess making a difference. Can you share one story with our readers?
The first one that comes to mind is that of a girl in our program who also participates in a school-based program. There weren’t many girls in the school-based program and the boys were much better than her when she started. Her mom said her daughter almost gave up many times, but ultimately had the courage to keep going due to her continued involvement with with DC Chess Girls. The other girls in the club were really supportive and we do a lot as a club to encourage tournament play. I think providing this kind of encouragement is essential. It takes so long time to get good at chess that recognition for effort and achievement of certain milestones can make a huge difference. I think girls respond well to people noticing their effort (not that boys don’t), so we make sure that we do just that. The other girls in our program are competitive, but they don’t participate in school programs. Even though the other kids on the school team had much higher ratings, it was this girl who ended up getting awards. In addition to the support, we’ve been lucky to have great coaching. I say ‘lucky’ because we are an all-volunteer organization and I hire only experts or above. Our coaches analyze games and provide lectures to prompt thinking about how the girls can take their games to next level. In addition to the chess improvement, the mom said her daughter has become more focused, less intimidated about taking tests, and shows more persistence when tackling difficult subjects.
What tips so you have for others who want to encourage girls to stick with chess?
Let them be themselves. Our club is chatty so you might not think they are learning. However, when they participate in tournaments, you can see that they learned what they were taught. I recommend that you allow and facilitate them getting to know each other and learn about the other person. This helps create a bond among the girls that is very motivating. Even when their chess motivation wanes, they still want to participate because they look forward to seeing their friends and don’t want to disappoint them.
What have you learned from running a chess organization that will help other coaches?
Have patience. Everything won’t come together at once or even one semester. At the end of each year, you will realize that the little accomplishments add up. It’s easy to think big and then get so impatient with the kind of slow progress building something big often takes that you give up. Being patient also helps you find the right people to help you. Try not to get too worked up about the result, quiet your mind, keep going and you will find people who fit with your organization.
What is your best tip for running a coaching organization?
I’m still learning a lot. If you are not a business person, you will need to consult with others with that expertise and learn as you go. I’d recommend that you invest the time to develop a strong support system of parents. When they are invested, there is a lot of help, great attendance, extra hands, good referrals, and great ideas. The best semesters we have had happened because of help from parents. We try to incorporate activities outside of chess like Double Dutch, birthday parties, and outside activities. Parents are great at facilitating and planning these types of activities. I think they are really important to developing group cohesion. I want DC Chess Girls to be like scouting organizations. You might not feel like camping, etc. every time, but because you are connected with your friends, you will keep coming. The same with a good chess club. Even if you fall out of love with chess for a bit, you will keep coming back, playing and benefitting, if you feel like you are a part of a cohesive team.
What tips do you have for working with kids?
I think it helps to connect what they are learning to their everyday lives. I hire coaches who are good at finding ways to connect to what kids already know, are interested in, and involved with to chess. Kids enjoy sharing and exchanging information. So, in addition to connecting what they are learning to everyday life, they need to encourage the kids to share what they know and talk about it. I find that when instructors don’t do this, students are less engaged and attendance falls off.
Another tip is to use rotating activities or learning stations. I picked this up from MATCH (see blog post here) and I love it. Kids don’t love lectures and I want them to love chess club. They don’t like to just sit and listen. Learning stations give them a chance to move around and increase engagement by switching activities. Kids smarter than you think. Many know how they learn best and they like jumping from one concept to another. Learning stations also help you deal with different levels of skill. A puzzle station, for example, can have puzzles with different difficulty levels. Stations also allow kids to explore concepts in different ways which keeps them engaged and helps them develop a deeper understanding. So, for example, they might do a puzzle that makes them think about a particular strategy, then hear a verbal explanation, and then do an integrating activity where discover something about it on their own. We use this a lot over the summer, because attendance fluctuates which makes it hard to have an ongoing thread of lessons. Stations can be designed to let students jump in where they are and still make progress without making other students repeat content. Stations also take pressure off of one person to create a big lesson. Each person can learn one activity. Even a non-trained parent or other volunteer can do this.
Is there anything that you wish you knew when you started running a club?
I really thought that I needed a fully flushed out business plan. I still think a rough business plan is helpful, but I think it’s important balance that with following your passion and getting stuff done. Don’t take this the wrong way, I still think it’s essential to make time to plan and assess your program, but, for me, being too focused on a fully flushed business plan stressed me out and I spent more time worrying about that than making things happen.
I also wish I’d realized how important it is to recruit and train help in a more serious, purposeful way. This includes volunteers. Spending time developing a cohesive and effective team really pays off huge dividends.
I really love the Pawn Mower puzzle books (check out some free puzzles for beginners here and mixed difficulty puzzles on FB and Twitter or the full books here). The kids love the puzzles. They are portable, so it gives them something to practice throughout the week. Even if their parents don’t play chess, they can understand and do the puzzles with their kids, giving them a way of participating without having to learn a lot about chess.
I also like the MATCH curriculum. It provides lessons, but also integrates academic activities, tracks progress, and provides professional looking worksheets and books that make my program look professional and reinforces to parents that we are learning a lot in our classes. It makes it easier to utilize non-trained volunteers to help with activities which means I have a lot more hands on deck to help run my club. It also helps with planning and has pre-designed activities so I’m not always re-inventing the wheel.
I really like ChessKids.com. It makes a nice adjunct to what we do in the classroom with activities and the curriculum. It gives kids a way to connect outside of the classroom. They can play chess with each other, but no one outside of the group can interact with them. It also reinforces things we learn in the classroom, keeping things fresh in their minds throughout the week. I can definitely tell which kids are using it.
You mentioned that your club runs so much better when parents are involved. How do you recruit parents to help?
I always hire instructors to run my classes, so I’m free to talk to parents. This helps keep them invested and gives me a chance to share how important (and easy) it is for them to participate. Then, I follow up with a lot of emails.
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Robin is the founder of DC Chess Girls. She is a native of Washington DC. She graduated from Howard and was a Radiation Therapist. She now uses her unique talents, compassion, creativity and imagination in combination with her resources and abilities to engage girls in the intellectual sport of Chess. Her goal is to help girls gain awareness of their full potential and bring out the best version of what is possible using the cognitive skills they develop in chess.