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Prairie Winds Elementary teacher helps sixth graders learn critical thinking through chess

April 8, 2016 Updated: April 8, 2016 at 9:05 pm
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Prairie Winds sixth graders play chess during a class with math teacher and chess club coach Peter Wise Friday, April 8, 2016. In the foreground are, clockwise from left, Barbara Battaglia, TianYu Melzer and Sadie Wahlgren. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

In the world according to Peter Wise, chess trumps Monopoly as the game of life.

Because not only does playing chess involve math and logic skills, it also requires studying the pros and cons of different options and choosing the best one.

"If you have the pieces in a good spot, good things happen, the same as having a successful life," said Wise, who is ranked as an expert chess player by the United States Chess Federation.

A veteran educator for more than three decades, Wise is in his 11th year of teaching math and social studies at Prairie Winds Elementary School in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument.

Six years ago, he started offering sixth graders who weren't interested in band to instead take a chess class during that period. He had one simple purpose in mind: "To teach thinking skills under the guise of a game."

The class gave birth to a chess club, an unusual but popular extracurricular activity for an elementary school.

The team has qualified for the annual state competition several times, placing second last year and third this year.

Prairie Winds sixth grader Kannon White-Corbaley had never played chess before. But he knew he didn't like band, so he had no choice but to learn chess this school year. Now, Kannon can't get enough. He was one of nine players who competed in last month's Colorado Scholastic Team Chess Championship.

"It's pretty cool," Kannon said. "Mr. Wise is really good at teaching us the fundamentals and gives us puzzles and lets us watch master chess players on video."

Wise's style of teaching is what elevates his class to the level of kids loving it.

He's been known to don a pirate's hat and eye patch, or jump on top of a desk and boogie, or use different voices to help deliver a lesson.

"The kids learn best if it's very active and exciting," he said.

Students eat it up.

"He's pretty much everything you'll want in a teacher," said 11-year-old Rhys Halaby. "He's funny and really nice and great."

Rhys' dad taught him to play chess when he was 6 years old. He learned how to move the pieces and what power they had but that's about it, until he took Wise's class.

"I like that there isn't any luck at all," Rhys said about chess. "I like saying he beat me fair and square."

Blaise McCabe, 12, said he enjoys playing chess because it can take so many twists and turns.

"You can be winning in one move, and in the next move be losing horribly," he said.

Forty-four students are in the class for 40 minutes every school day. Wise uses curriculum from the U.S. Chess Federation that imparts the basics in a logical and sequential manner. He also relies on computer software to do drills and strategize.

On an overhead whiteboard, Wise places a sample chess board with pieces in play and asks students which squares have weaknesses and why. Many hands shoot up and wiggle furiously to be called on.

Wise praises students who quickly deduce the right answer, as he rounds the room to look at their papers.

"He makes learning entertaining," sixth grader Sadie Wahlgren said. "Math used to be my least favorite subject 'til I had Mr. Wise."

His rhymes are awesome, and he shows students "all the tips and tricks," said Barbara Battaglia, 12.

Wise's energetic nature belies his age of 62. But he's still as passionate about his hobby of chess as he was when he first learned the game as a child.

"He's one of a kind," said Prairie Winds Principal Aileen Finnegan. "I call him our crazy professor. He's so passionate about math and chess and has such in-depth knowledge, it allows him to tell stories and draw kids in."

At the beginning of each year, some parents wonder why the school even has a chess class, Wise said.

"They ask if we should be teaching something else."

But usually, "All the parents come around and find the benefits and are on board with it."

And then, "I get emails from moms and dads asking what happened." They can't beat their son or daughter at chess anymore.

Parent Kim Brandon was sold from the start.

"He's one of those rare teachers you just don't hear enough about," she said. "He's dedicated to helping his students learn. He's the type of teacher I wish I had. If I did, I'd probably would've passed algebra."

Wise has authored several math books, has juggled up to four different math clubs with 78 kids, along with the chess club, and has a daughter who is the highest-rated female chess player in the state.

"I love seeing the light come on," Wise said of his students. "The belief and hope is that we stretch their thinking, improve their concentration, reduce their errors and plan for life before making any move - using chess."

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