Go In the Schools: The Opening Game

The First of Three Articles on Teaching Go

by Sasha Orr

Political Dynamics

In recent years, schools have increasingly taken an expanded role in the life of the student. As family structures and the workplace evolve, teachers are flooded with additions to their curriculum, often times without any cuts in other subject matter to compensate for this added workload.

When I decided to introduce go into my classroom, I knew I wanted to translate my passion for go-playing into teaching my fifth graders the game, but my experience as Secretary of the teachers' union told me that there was a political angle to this enterprise that should be explored carefully. Adding to the curriculum meant cutting somewhere else, and teachers are rarely given carte blanche to make such substitutions.

Before approaching my principal, I developed a rationale, placing my proposed curriculum in the context of the school district's current goals and objectives. I linked the teaching of go with five principles I knew to be highly valued by my school board:

  • Curriculum enrichment to challenge gifted children
  • Hands-on learning experiences
  • Teaching respect for multicultural traditions (especially giving students direct experiences of these traditions)
  • Opportunities for the full range of "multiple intelligences" exhibited within a classroom
  • Teaching problem-solving in math from a pattern-recognition perspective (rather than having students solve algorithms formatted as lists of problems)

Armed with this array of reasons to teach go, I crafted lesson plans that were clear implementations of these district values. I approached the principal with my plans and received the nod to proceed.

Besides the benefit of having received an official endorsement for my program, this preparatory work also put me in a good position to answer questions from concerned parents. When I was first confronted by a parent with opposition to my go curriculum (in six years this has happened only twice), I was able to carefully spell out benefits received by his child as a result of my program. Potential conflicts can often be defused by a clearly stated rationale. With the solidity of moyo, a strong rationale projects power across the "board" that can be drawn upon in future, unpredictable conditions.

The Curriculum

I begin each year with a thrilling account of the history of the game, presented in a story-teller's format , describing in detail how a samurai developed strategic thinking skills by playing go, or the remote setting in which Buddhist monks kept the game alive over the centuries, playing in their pristine temples.

Having whetted my students' appetites, I then write a "bare bones" description of the rules on the overhead projector which I require that students copy word for word. I prefer this to handing out a printed copy of the rules, because the multisensory aspects of the writing process -- using graphomotor skills as well as visual integration and other aspects of the learning process -- enable new concepts to penetrate more deeply, and even generate working ideas that the children are ready to apply. After each rule is written, I demonstrate it on my large magnetic demo board. If you do not have one of these, a live TV camera projecting onto a monitor is a workable alternative. Or, if all else fails, borrow the music teacher's tool, that comb-like instrument that holds five pieces of chalk, and you can make a 9 x 9 board in four strokes.

I have found that letting the children play a few times with a simplified understanding of the game is the best way to get them started. Too much information at the start can easily overwhelm many young beginners. For example, I teach the rule of ko (not capturing directly back), but not how ko threats are made in order to allow taking back the ko.

My experience has taught me that children will more likely embrace a new field of study if they are in a position to choose or reject it. With this idea in mind, and after teaching the rules, I explain that go is part of our math Curriculum, and that each child may now choose between playing go or tackling an alternate math lesson which I have prepared. Though I risk losing some students, this approach is truly in keeping with the go adage, "Play away from strength." The beauty and power of the game itself, and its inherent attractiveness, is disrespected if beginners are forced to play it.

In keeping with this observation, as you might expect, when children are allowed to choose, go is the virtually unanimous choice. I continue to offer alternate lessons as we proceed in our go-playing over the months ahead. Although a few children sometimes drop out, I believe that the ownership of the game that the other children establish makes this free-choice policy a good one.

When playing begins, I circulate around the room, helping out, particularly pointing out groups in atari or dead stones. As the first round of games draws near to closing, I pick a fairly well-played match which I use to teach the whole class about how to end the game (final moves to close off walls, filling in dame and the counting process).

I select ten children to form a circle about this go board (4 seated and 6 standing). To allow the rest of the class to easily view our actions as we wrap up the game, I use my TV camera hooked to a monitor.

I give each of my students paper materials that they fold, decorate and staple in order to form a "go folder." I require that they keep their rules in the folder, as well as a journal entry for each game that they play. Each game entry must also have comments attached, where they evaluate the strategies they used and consider what they will do differently in their next game. In future lessons I require additional materials to be organized and stored in these folders, too.

After children have completed a few games, they are ready and eager for more help on pattern-recognition and strategy. Look for these continuing lessons in Part Two, "The Middle Game: Developing a Go Curriculum and Keeping Public School Students Enthusiastic about Go."

Sasha Orr is a fifth grade teacher in the Ann Arbor public schools and winner of the 1996 American Go Foundation Teacher of the Year.

-- from The American Go Journal, Volume 30:4, pp. 13-14, 19.