Game On!

by Jul 23, 2020Education, South Brunswick

Volunteer Jeff Mount has met great success in sharing his love of chess with elementary and middle school students in Brunswick County.

Walking down the hall at Supply Elementary School with volunteer Jeff Mount creates quite a commotion. A third grade boy runs to the classroom door and looks up at him with big, begging eyes.

“Can I be in your chess club?”

Mount first started his school chess clubs at Southport Elementary School for grades 3 through 5 in 2014. One year later, he started teaching chess at South Brunswick Middle School. And last year, Mount started chess programs at Supply Elementary and Bolivia elementary schools for students in grades 3 to 5.

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It’s not just the students asking to participate. Parents approach Mount in restaurants and send text messages asking to enroll their kids into the program. The chess programs’ increasing popularity requires that kids apply to participate. At Southport Elementary School, the program doubled in size when first semester students wanted to continue into second semester. The school added desks and chairs to accommodate all 38 fourth graders.

At all the schools, chess is an elective offered to students to provide enrichment to their normal classes. Students at Supply Elementary School fill out an application and write an essay. Those students selected to participate show up every Tuesday to play chess. Mount is there every week helping the 12 to 14 students analyze their strategies and moves.

Watching Supply Elementary School fifth-graders Charlotte Guy and Olive Price play chess is a real treat. Charlotte makes her move, smiles and then stares at Olive. Olive says, “When Chalotte does that, I know something is up. And so I look over the board carefully.”

Charlotte loves to play chess and says, “Chess is fun. I like to play with my dad on the weekends. It makes me think.” Her competitive spirit shines when she adds, “I don’t like to lose.”

Between moves, both girls document their play on paper using algebraic notation. Mount teaches notation to his students as they advance in learning the game. He says, “Algebraic notation teaches variables and coordinates like in the game Battleship. It allows the students to replay their games and play famous championship games. And it slows play, making kids think more about their next move. The bonus is that kids don’t realize they are actually learning if/then statements, one of the building blocks of computer coding.”

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At Southport Elementary School, Mount has volunteers who help with the program. Cheryl Graham, Mark Erskine, Rex Wright and Marc Pappillon are first year volunteers. Pappillon is fluent in Spanish, a real plus. Mike Van Allen has assisted Mount since the beginning.

“It’s all about the kids,” Van Allen says. “I thoroughly enjoy seeing how much they are into a classic old game like chess. In this video game world, it’s a pleasant surprise.”

Southport Elementary School fourth grade teacher Amy Kleva adds to Van Allen’s insight. “I love giving the children the experience of trying new things. And it’s great to see kids teaching kids and learning together.”

Stephanie Webster, parent facilitator at Southport Elementary School, says, “A change we have seen in students is their ability to grasp the logic involved in the game and have fun while doing it. The best thing about our chess club is the students’ enthusiasm!”

Southport Elementary School Principal Peg Bourne affirms that the chess club has also positively impacted teachers and parents. “Our teachers love how chess develops critical thinking skills. Parents love to see their kids compete in chess.”

Beverly Eury, the principal at Bolivia Elementary School, first met Mount through the Southport Rotary Club while she was principal at Southport Elementary School. When Mount learned of Eury’s transfer to Bolivia Elementary School, he talked to her over the summer about starting a chess club there as well.

At Bolivia Elementary School, interested students are given a permission slip that explains the details of the club. Once parents agree, students become official members of the chess club, meeting a couple of times each month.

Eury says, “There are not many opportunities for elementary students to be exposed to mindful activities like chess. The game involves far more than strategically moving pieces around the board. Chess teaches students life skills like problem solving and cooperation with other students who are not necessarily in their normal friend group.”

Bolivia Elementary School third grade teacher Miriam Venegas who loved to play chess with her siblings says, “As a result of the chess club, I have seen the participants become more confident in academic and social areas. They talk about their experiences in the chess club and how they shouldn’t give up in any area. They are so excited to learn!”

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Looking back, Mount really didn’t know what to expect when he started the chess programs. He now says, “Third graders are phenomenal! We underestimate their capacity to learn something as complicated as chess at that age.” He witnesses sportsmanship, etiquette, critical thinking and decision-making every week. Over the past five years, Mount estimates that he and his volunteers have taught chess to nearly 1,000 students.

Mount admits he’s not very good at relaxing. After a career including computer networking, personnel recruiting, project management at NASA, system administration at Boeing and 10 years at Booz Allen Hamilton at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, he still has a lot of capacity. “I see the positivity in kids and I feed off their energy.”

It’s the future of these kids that Mount thinks about the most. “We don’t know exactly what job opportunities will be like in the future, but if we teach critical thinking and adaptability, we can help kids build better futures.”

Eury is excited about the future of chess at Bolivia Elementary School. “I hope to see the chess club continue to grow and expand. I am thrilled to work with community volunteers to help create unique opportunities for the children of Brunswick County. The time, attention and dedication Mr. Jeff and his volunteers give to the students in our county are invaluable.”

Webster concludes, “I see chess being around as long as Mr. Mount is willing to do it. We are grateful for his support in our school!”

And that’s checkmate!

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