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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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From Brooklyn Castle to Ivory Tower: A Young Chess Master Celebrates Her Teachers

Rochelle Ballantyne in a scene from the documentary film "Brooklyn Castle"

Editor's Note: Raised by a single mom from Trinidad, Rochelle Ballantyne is a champion chess player. See her chess moves against Garry Kasparov. Her inner city junior high school chess team was profiled in the 2012 documentary, Brooklyn Castle, and celebrated for winning more national chess championships than any other junior high school in the country. Recently, this chess champion received a full scholarship to Stanford.

My name is Rochelle Ballantyne. My mom and grandmother decided very early that they wanted me to have a better life than theirs. My grandmother was a teacher back in Trinidad. She taught me so much -- even after her death, I'm still learning from her, learning to be better than the day before. In the third grade, I learned chess, and it has had such a dramatic affect on my life that it's surreal.

My goal is to be the first African-American female chess master. In the 11 years that I have been playing chess, I've won three Girls' National Titles and was featured in the critically acclaimed documentary, Brooklyn Castle (I'm not just saying that because I'm in it). I also represented the U.S.A. in the World Youth Chess Tournament in Brazil.

So how did I get here? Extraordinary teachers contributed to my success. In the sections below, I want to share my feelings on how teachers can best help their students succeed at school and in life.

To Instill Excellence, Don't Act Like a Parent

A teacher's definition of excellence doesn't matter to a bunch of elementary or junior high school kids. It's not your job to define excellence for us. We have to discover it for ourselves. A teacher is a child's de facto second parent since he or she spends so much time with kids. But don't act like a parent. Teach.

Push Us

My teachers were more than just a huge pain in the butt -- they molded my life and better prepared me for college in a way that my parent could not. All of my coaches worked me and then overworked me. So did my teachers, because they believed in my dreams. (Also, I couldn't play chess if I came home with anything less than a 90, but that's not the point.) Kids need someone to support their ambitions.

Believe in Us

All students need one person to believe in them when everyone else does not. I worked harder when my teachers said that I'm the only person who can stop me from becoming great. Some teachers did not believe in me, and I praise them as well, because that just made me work twice as hard to prove them wrong.

Go to Extreme Lengths to Show You Care

In high school, I decided that I would be more than the chess girl. Playing chess in JHS was deemed cool, but not in high school. I just wanted to do more. During the winter of my freshman year, my grandmother passed away, and it was the hardest thing I've ever had to go through. In reaction, I returned to chess and played in my first big tournament since eighth grade, the Girls' Nationals. The first place prize was a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas, and I had to win it, not only for my mom, so that she didn't have to pay for college, but also for my grandmother, so that she could somehow forgive me for temporarily giving up the game that we both loved.

Three days later, I won and told my mom that she didn't have to pay for college. But this was the darkest time of my life. Why did my grandmother have to leave me? I didn't want to talk to anyone, but one of my teachers cared enough to find out why I was acting strange. She refused to let me leave her office until I talked to her. It turns out that pent up emotions are bad.

Most teachers don't give us a reason to trust them, but we really want to talk it out. Teachers just have to take steps to show that they're on our side. If you don't care, we won't care either.

Celebrate Us

My teachers congratulated me for every single success. Even when my achievements became repetitive and expected, they congratulated me. This showed that they supported me through all my endeavors.

Find Cool Ways to Teach

My best teachers worked with me when I struggled. Some made learning fun by telling stories to go along with the lesson and relating the content to modern events. Finding cool ways to teach shows students how much you love the subject and makes them more eager to participate.

Also, nothing is cooler than being able to learn from doing rather than sitting down in a chair all day. Therefore, cooking and forensics have always been the most engaging classes for me.

The bottom line is that you can't force excellence on your students, but you can be the deciding or motivating factor that makes a kid want to be better and do better. Those actions helped me then, and continue to do so.

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Cindy Johanson's picture
Cindy Johanson
executive director @ Edutopia and mom of 2 kids
Staff

Thanks for sharing your perspective, Rochelle. Our @edutopia team just screened Brooklyn Castle -- a wonderful, inspiring film about you, your classmates, the educators and parents who have created such an enriching education environment. Congrats on all you have achieved so far!

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Education researcher at Edutopia
Staff

Wonderful advice, and I loved watching Brooklyn Castle -- such inspiring stories! Being a 1st-generation college student myself, I could relate to so many of the stories. Definitely recommend that everyone check out the documentary, if anything just to see how chess can help kids of all types learn to how to focus and persevere.

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