Monday, March 27, 2017


The first-grade classroom was tucked away in the back of the school. Thanks to the cold, the little children were dressed in bright blue track suits instead of the school uniform that the older children were wearing. It had been raining continuously from the morning. The children could not leave the classroom. They were peering through the windows curious about the visitors.

We had left Xalapa early morning so that we could get to the school in time.[1] But the rain and the fog and the wet, winding roads up and down the hills and valleys delayed us.The distance from the town to Chiconquiaco village was about fifty kilometres, but it took us almost three hours. By the time, we reached, the children and the teachers had been waiting a long time. Maestro Morales travelled from Xalapa with us.[2] Morales is a public school-teacher, who along with a friend had started using chess in the classroom not only for teaching children how to play chess but also using chess as a mechanism for improving reading and arithmetic and for developing spatial skills, reasoning, logic and problem solving. The teachers feel that chess develops children’s capacity to predict and anticipate consequences of actions and to think through various alternative strategies. Morales was keen for us to see how the whole thing worked with children in a classroom setting.

In Mexico, any public event is associated with formalities and rituals. Despite the delay, we could not go into the classroom directly. We sat on benches in the open space of the covered playground cum basketball court and listened to speeches by the school teachers and officers of the local education authority. Then there were two dances by the older children of the primary school. It was only once the performances were done that we could go to meet the first graders. There are chess activities in every grade but Morales wanted to show how it all begins with the little ones.

As we walked into the classroom, we were greeted in English. The children were amused to know that the visitors did not understand Spanish. Boys and girls sat in rows perpendicular to the white board. The chairs were meant for grownups. Practically every child’s legs were dangling way off the ground. There was a suppressed air of anticipation and excitement in the air. 

A young teacher, who was almost as impatient and as excited as the children, started the activities. Right next to the white board was a large chess board fixed on the wall. The teacher began to stick chess pieces onto the squares; some older children followed her. Others went around the class handing out small chequered and laminated chess boards to each child. Another set of children began to hand out chess pieces from a big plastic box. Everyone seemed to know the routine. Instructions were not needed. Closely following the teacher, boys and girls began to place their own chess pieces on to their personal chess boards. 

A boy walked up to the board. He began to slowly write. Big black uneven letters on the white board. “Rey Negr”. The teacher added an alphabet to complete the word to “negro”. Black king. Under the black king, the list began to grow. One by one children came up and tried to write names … "reina blanca" ” (white queen), "caballo negro” (black horse), “peon blanco” (white pawn), "alfil negro” (black bishop), "torre negro” (black rook) and so on. Every now and then, children corrected the spellings of their friends or they called the teacher to check what they were doing.

Soon the big chess board hanging on the wall was again the focus of attention. It had numbers and letters marked for rows and columns. “Okay” said the teacher “who will give me the coordinates?” A girl with a big pink ribbon in her hair jumped up. Her name was Margarita. “Se tres caballo negro”, she said. The teacher nodded with a smile. The girl ran to the board and wrote “C-3” next to the black horse. Within minutes, all the chess pieces were located on the number-letter grid, their coordinates neatly listed on the board. 

Now it was song time. Every child jumped up and came to the empty centre space of the class. A lively song began. Maestro Morales joined the group. Everyone sang together. It was a song about how the pieces move. Some dancing ensued – sideways, diagonal and of course everyone wanted to do the jump-jump-jump of the horse. The class was warm now with all the action. It did not matter that it was a dreary, cold, rainy day outside. 

After the song and dance, the young teacher was chatting with Maestro, but the children knew exactly what came next.  Long tables were pulled out. On each table, there were black and white squares – two chess boards had been painted on each table. One of the mothers who had been watching from the sidelines stepped up. She was Alicia and her son, a small boy with glasses was Alberto. She spoke of how difficult Alberto had been as a young child; aggressive and restless, never able to concentrate. The chess in the classroom seemed to have calmed him down a lot. Now he could sit and play a whole game. Alicia and Alberto demonstrated a math game on the chess board. Each square had a number and depending on how the game went, quick addition and subtraction calculations had to be done.

I was invited to come and play a game. I have not played any chess in at least twenty years. Seeing my hesitation, a tall boy called Mauricio reassured me. We sat down. Benches on each side of the table. Within eight or ten moves, the young first grader had vanquished me. From the many victorious smiles around the room, I could tell that there were many more “champions”around me.  To encourage me to not give up, I was given one of the personal chess boards to bring home.
Rukmini Banerji
CEO, Pratham Education Foundation
Mexico, March 2017

All pictures were taken by Sahar Saeed ASER Pakistan.
For more details about MIA’s activities, see 
The chess activities are also inspired by the Kasparov Foundation.

[1] Xalapa is a city in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. We were in Xalapa to attend the meetings of the PAL network ( This is the umbrella organization for the groups that are doing ASER like citizen led assessments in different countries. For this meeting, the Mexican group called MIA (Medicion Independiente de Aprendizaje) were the hosts. MIA is based in Xalapa in the University of Veracruz and in a research centre(Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology or CIESAS).Like ASER in India, the MIA group in Mexico also works closely with partners across many provinces in the country.One of these partners ran programs in the school we were visiting.
[2] In Spanish, a teacher is also called “maestro”. 

1 comment:

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