Go In the Schools: The Unending Game

Filling In The Gaps And Expanding The Territory Of Your Public School Go Program

The Third of Three Articles on Teaching Go by Sasha Orr

Now that you have sketched out and settled your position, unlike in a real game, your opportunities for continued growth and development are endless. After you have a solid go curriculum in place (see Part One and Part Two), some problems and issues are bound to emerge. In this article I will tell you a few true stories from my classroom, detailing my responses to several interesting situations and to the special needs of a couple of unique children (whose names I change to preserve confidentiality).

Reaching out to needy students

Go has obvious appeal to your average math-loving child, but my experience has shown that it also has inherent qualities which are remarkably accessible to many children that are certified as special education students. As a matter of fact, in a few cases, it is the only educational tool that I found that effectively reached out to certain needy children.

One such student, Lenny, is a very kind child who was formally diagnosed with learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder. Lenny would work well when I sat down next to him and encouraged him or gave some assistance, but when left to his own self-monitoring, he would get almost no work accomplished. He would literally forget that he was at school at times, and, when reminded of the fact, he'd get down to business once again for a short while.

Lenny's academic records were upsetting to him. Throughout his six years in elementary school he'd scored in the bottom percentage range of his class in all curriculum categories. This lack of success wore Lenny down; he plodded through school with his chin down and his spirits generally low.

When I began teaching go to our fifth grade class, Lenny took an immediate liking to the subject. Although he initially played at an average level for beginners, as the year proceeded, Lenny pulled ahead of the pack. Soon he played even with the strongest few kids in his class. His peers took notice. This was not the old Lenny that everybody routinely topped. This was a Lenny to watch out for!

Though Lenny sometimes struggled to read out endgame sequences, his pattern-recognition skills were so strong during the fuseki and middle game that he could afford to sacrifice a few points in the closing and still win his games.

At year's end, Lenny was unbeatable. He won the fifth grade tournament, beating out all 90 contestants. His chin held high, Lenny had found himself. Where no previous classroom's academic curriculum had accessed Lenny's latent talents for identifying shapes and relating to complex patterns, go had given him a torch that he could hold high to claim his self-worth.

Another moving story involves Alvin, a brilliant child in his math and science work, but the hellion of the school when it came to behavior. Every teacher knew Alvin. He ran in the halls, ignored interventions or rudely shouted back when reprimanded by adults, poked his peers with pencils and scowled or scoffed at anybody who would dare to tell him the proper way to act. Alvin was certified "emotionally impaired," and I was warned to keep a tight reign over him when he first entered my classroom. I try my best to avoid beginning my relationship with a student with a prejudice already in hand as to his or her potential. I therefore ignored my peers' warnings and gave Alvin the space to be a new person.

When he began breaking my rules, I decided that he needed to be given more power (since this is what he was obviously seeking). I had already discovered that he loved computers, so I put him in charge of our classroom Macintosh. In no time he had devised a database that optimally organized sign-up times for students (in order to share the computer).

He took to go like it was a language he had always spoken. When we began playing games on the Internet Go Server, Alvin quickly became the UNIX expert upon whom all his peers called on for support.

One day I found Alvin playing an internet go game and rudely accosting his opponent with American macho slang. I interceded immediately and taught him about internet etiquette and emphasized the responsibilities of his position as a representative of our school. As I saw it, this emphasis would once again employ my approach of giving away power (as opposed to using punishment) as the best way to lead Alvin on a constructive path.

Becoming a classroom ambassador appealed to Alvin. Not only did his interact behavior quickly align with my highest expectations, but one day I found Alvin jumping up from his seat in response to another student's inappropriate remark to her internet go partner. (He always chose to sit a hair's breadth away from the computer.) The offensive message was deleted before it could be sent! Alvin followed up his lightning-fast intervention with a lecture on etiquette, quoting the points I made weeks earlier to him, almost verbatim!

Alvin's passion for internet go gave him a new role to play. The old pencil-stabber had changed his self-image and hence his relationship with his classmates. Alvin had become the model for proper behavior on the internet, exemplifying the personification of ethical gamesmanship.

Expanding beyond teaching go at your assigned grade level

Once my classroom go curriculum was firmly in place, I looked at how to reach out to other grade levels within my building. Rather than try to train other teachers on staff to teach go, I decided to let my students become teachers for classrooms of first graders. Fifth grade students love to reach out and help much younger children, so my program was happily adopted by my class. Teaching staff approval quickly followed; publicity from my efforts at the fifth grade level resulted in both excitement and encouragement from my peers whose first grade classes were selected.

Here's how I set this up: each fifth grader is assigned a "go buddy" (although, depending on your circumstances, I've found that two fifth graders per single younger child also works). Once per week the buddies meet for another go lesson. We begin with teaching "first,capture" (see Bill Cobb's AGJ article: Volume 30 Number 2).

It takes repeated reminders for the older kids NOT to jump ahead and teach at a pace which exceeds the natural rate of self-discovery of the younger kids, but these reminders are important. Rushed teaching teaches application, but skirts a deeply meaningful understanding and intuitive appreciation of go.

After the first graders have graduated to comfortably playing one another, we then reach out to additional younger players, forming new buddy relationships.

I have the go-ahead from our principal to start a funcii hour go club for the current 97-98 school year. I look forward to using these meetings to provide a supervised playing space for the young go players taught by my previous two years of fifth grade go teachers.

The success my last year's students experienced in teaching go led them to eagerly accept an invitation to visit a school across town in order to teach another fifth grade class how to play. This field trip was great fun for all involved and has led to requests from three more schools that wish to experience our introductory go sessions.

This year I envision regular cross-town tournaments as these schools join our expanding family of young go players.

Keeping students playing go after they graduate from your class

In order to keep the ball rolling after my students graduate from elementary school, I started up the Forsythe Middle School Go Club. The club meets every week for an hour and a half. The middle school staff has played our announcements over the P.A. and has otherwise helped to promote the club. Besides former students, some students new to go also attend. I marshaled supportive parents, who lobbied the local school board, advocating attention to a section of our teachers union's contract that encourages establishing coordinator positions for academic game clubs. This political effort eventually resulted in my receiving support from administration to be modestly paid for my after-school go club work.

Parent support is vital for a club in other ways as well. They can tend the credibility to a club that introduces it to other parents as a valuable asset. Ask them to help get your club some publicity in the local newspaper. This level of public interest establishes your credibility even further. Moreover, once a child's parents are on board, a student is usually steered your way with a deeper level of commitment than a child investigating the club of her or his own volition, out of simple curiosity.

Four of my club parents take turns providing snack food for each club meeting. Food is essential to reaching out to and satisfying the needs of middle school kids. I am not kidding; don't leave it out!

I am lucky to have a particular parent, Susan Weir, who has attended all the club meetings and has helped me with the planning and development of the club from the outset. If you can get a co-coordinator like this, don't be shy. There is always room for more help.

Club events have included tournaments (with prizes) and lessons presented by both advanced club members and local adult players. This last May, professional go-player Janice Kim even visited our club to teach a lesson and answer questions!

We have also had fun with some crazy-go variations; particularly popular are four-color go (played on a 13x13 board) and edible-go (played with marshmallows and M&Ms, where captured pieces are eaten). These less serious versions of the game are great for casual chatting and building the noncompetitive relationships necessary for club solidarity.

Managing discipline while facilitating a high level of spirited fun

Any teacher worth his or her salt will have no problem maintaining discipline while teaching go as curriculum within their normal school day. just as all go-players each initiate their own favorite joseki during the fuseki, teachers all have their own techniques for maintaining reasonable behavior, and the children respond to and expect these teacher controls. Discipline in an after-school club is, however, a trickier matter.

Since attendance is optional, I decided that I could not play the 'heavy' and demand a level of focus and the quiet atmosphere which I'd personally prefer for a club setting. Kids will be kids, and I easily imagined my club membership quickly dwindling to nothing if I gave them no room to be jovial and the space to unwind from their day of school.

Initially I wore "kid gloves" in this respect, but over time became fairly unsatisfied with the result. Membership showed high attendance levels, but rowdiness became contagious and my polite interventions showed only momentary results.

What worked in the end, was to place the matter before the club in one of our pre-playing,time forums. Several of the kids had attended the Ann Arbor Go Players Club and were familiar with the benefits of a more peaceful setting for facilitating concentration and, hence, for making better moves. These club members easily persuaded their peers that this is what our club needed.

How to actually achieve this change in group dynamics became a bit more complicated. The kids voted on and passed a couple of simple rules, the forum ended and then go-playing ensued. Susan and I then had to help them learn to recognize rule violations when they occurred and garner the group's support to be sure the rules were understood, respected and enforced. Once kids started pointing out rule infractions without our assistance, we were home free. Children desperately want to please their peers, so this self-policing became very effective.

In our forums, we have since revisited and revised our set of rules several times, based on Susan's or my observations or the concerns of club members. Each new or refined rule then needs our same gentle assistance to bring it into the group mind as a point of normal awareness and practiced implementation. Our rules to date are as follows:

  1. No put-downs.
  2. No commenting on anybody's game, including your opponent's moves, unless you are asked.
  3. You may comment on your own moves if you wish, as long as your comments are not intimidating to your opponent.
  4. Computers may be used only for go activities.
  5. You may not observe a game unless both players give you permission.
  6. Talk, but do not shout.

In Closing

In these three articles I have given you a myriad of options for integrating go into your public school program. My personal experience in implementing these ideas has been overwhelmingly rewarding. Is go the end-all and be-all curriculum? Certainly not - but to my reckoning, it has, without a doubt, gone places that no other curriculum has ever gone before!

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 31:4, pp. 28-32.