I had the pleasure last night of seeing what I think was the west coast premiere of Brooklyn Castle, the already critically beloved movie about the nearly miraculous inner-city chess powerhouse at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn. (The screening came courtesy of Beth Schmidt’s terrific Wishbone* organization, which translates even modest donations into opportunities for inner-city kids to realize long-held dreams; and Beth’s co-hosts, Tim Ranzetta, president of the Innovate Foundation; and Wayee Chu, one of the founders of the NewSchools Seed Fund.)
If you haven’t heard about the phenomenon of IS318’s chess team, you will. Most students at 318 live in poverty, yet the team regularly crushes schools whose students have enjoyed every privilege, including chess tutoring from an early age. It has also minted several of the strongest African-American chess players in the country. Astonishingly (not really a spoiler alert, as this happens after the end of the filming), IS318 ultimately becomes the first middle school team to win the national high school championship.
IS318 also makes up a chapter in Paul Tough’s superb new book, How Children Succeed. Having now consumed both the movie and the book version of the school, I’m intrigued by the contrasts.
Let me start by saying that both versions are worthy of your time. Anyone interested in what enables students to do well against the odds ought to read Tough, and anyone with a beating heart and the slightest capacity for joy needs to see the movie. But… while they focus on the same people, time and place, they tell different stories.
Brooklyn Castle goes looking for one dramatic arc, and finds two, operating simultaneously: the battle of a group of underprivileged but incredibly scrappy kids to win a championship, and the battle of a school to stave off budget cuts that would kill the team—even a 1% budget cut would cut back or end “extras” like the budget to travel to competitions and maintain a chess program. The story moves briskly, alternating between tension and comic relief. It’s also profoundly inspiring for what we learn about the ability of utterly dedicated adults and utterly dedicated kids to conspire to excel in the most intellectual of pursuits—even in the most modest surroundings. In its way, Castle is the “Stand and Deliver” of a new generation—a story about a dedicated teacher who finds excellence in every kid, in a neighborhood where such achievement is extremely rare.
But what makes the kids excel? The movie doesn’t go deep into the answer. The teachers teach hard, and adore the kids, encouraging and consoling. But one might leave the movie wondering exactly what magic produced middle-school kids who could compete on a national or even international level, and against high school and adult champions.
By contrast, Tough’s chapter is all about the “why” and “how” of the story. In a book that examines the power of factors like grit and resilience, he looks closely at the mechanisms that make success happen. It’s not always pretty. The chess teacher in the movie, Elizabeth Spiegel, is all business, yes, but she’s optimistic, encouraging, warm, and happy throughout. You’ll meet a different side of the same person in Tough’s chapter. In a section titled “Calibrated Meanness,” Tough writes, “she does not hug.” He quotes from some her own blog, in which she says she sometimes feels like “an abusive jerk” to her students for telling them things like, “You can count to two, right? Then you should have seen that!!” Tough does not shy away from the complexities that accompany the teacher’s certainty that her students can vastly outshine their own expectations of themselves. He continues to quote the teacher’s blog:
I really believe that’s why we seem to win girls’ nationals sections pretty easily every year: most people won’t tell teenage girls (especially the together, articulate ones) that they are lazy and the quality of their work is unacceptable. And sometimes kids need to hear that, or they have no reason to step up.
Perhaps what pushes middle-school students to concentrate and practice as maniacally as Spiegel’s chess players do is the unexpected experience of having someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves.
Go see the movie to meet some kids and teachers you’ll remember for a long time, and to leave uplifted by the power of education in its deepest form—a pact that kids make with adults to search deep for the excellence that lives inside them.
Then, read Paul Tough to understand what made it work.
* Wishbone and its founder, Beth Schmidt, are terrific. Please consider a donation to this great organization.