Photo of teacher Phoebe Pohlman with magazine article about Chess

Phoebe Pohlman and her gifted/talented students at Perryville Primary and Perryville Elementary are featured in the current issue of Missouri State Teachers Association’s School & Community magazine. The article by Ms. Pohlman is reprinted here, with permission. The entire article and photos are on the district website at

I am a gifted and talented education teacher for students in second-fifth grades at Perryville Primary Center and Perryville Elementary School. My classroom is a pull-out resource classroom, so I teach gifted students in small groups. I created an interdisciplinary unit around the game of Chess addressing multiple content areas including history, art, logic, and complex reasoning.       

Some people may be wondering, how can a game be turned into a learning opportunity in the classroom? Chess is a game of logic, cause and effect, inferencing, and risk taking. Students will be exercising their complex thinking skills without even realizing it, and I guarantee they will have a lot of fun while learning the ancient game! 

The first thing students learned in the unit was the history of chess. Students colored a world map to chart the path of the game as it traveled across the world from its origin in India. 

We discussed how the pieces of chess were redesigned and adapted to fit the royal lifestyle of Europeans as the game spread across Europe during Medieval times before moving to America.

After learning the history of chess, I taught students how to play the game.  Many gifted and talented students have psychomotor intensities and learn best when they are moving or actively involved in the learning process. To help students learn most effectively, I laminated 12x12 squares of construction paper and blocked out a 64 square foot section of the tile floor in my classroom. I taped the squares down to make a life size chess board.

 Students “became” the chess pieces; King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, or Pawn, and moved around the board according to their assigned role.  Physically adopting the role of different chess pieces helped students to quickly learn and retain the basics of the game.  

The chess unit culminated in an all-gifted program chess tournament.  I made a tournament bracket to post on the classroom wall, which was the first place many students went each day to check the tournament progress!  

We had a tournament winner in each grade level. Each of the grade level winners advanced to the semifinals to play the winner in the grade level above or below them. The two winners of the semifinal advanced to the final to compete for the title of Chess Grand Master. The tournament doubled as a performance-based assessment, and an opportunity to teach affective skills as students learned lessons about honesty, defeat, risk taking, and wishing opponents well. 

This chess unit was designed based on the Missouri Gifted Learner Outcomes (MO-GLOs). The MO-GLOs focus on strengthening and challenging gifted students’ thinking processes while developing six essential areas of leadership including complex reasoning, creative thinking, communicating effectively, global mindedness, affective processing, and executive functioning skills.  

As an extension, my fourth- and fifth-grade classes were challenged to adapt the game of chess to modern times, much like Europeans did during the Medieval Ages.  Students chose a modern topic and drew connections between the original chess pieces and characters, sports positions, or objects from their modern topic.  Some examples of modern topics students chose to use include; Mario Kart, Enchanto, soccer, football, Roblox, animals, and desserts.  Students used many different types of connections as their rationale including hierarchies of power, how the chess pieces move on the board compared to sports positions moving on a playing field, and  characteristics of movie and video game characters as they related to the characteristics of chess pieces.

Students then choose how they wanted to design their adapted versions of chess pieces.  Some students' choices included modeling clay, recyclable materials, craft supplies from our makerspace, or a digital creation.  Many students also created their own chess boards, so they could use their modern chess sets at home.    

Although the unit was designed for the gifted and talented classroom, any teacher could adapt the unit to fit their classroom needs for almost any grade level.  This chess unit was designed based on the Missouri Gifted Learner Outcomes (MO-GLO’s).  The MO-GLO’s focus on strengthening and challenging gifted students' thinking processes while developing six essential areas of leadership including; complex reasoning, creative thinking, communicating effectively, global mindedness, affective processing, and executive functioning skills.  This Chess unit most directly addressed the areas of complex reasoning, creative thinking, and executive functioning skills. 

Many of my students came back to school excitedly talking about how they are now teaching their families to play chess at home, or were able to bond with their grandparents over the game. 

Several of my students told their classmates about the gifted chess tournament. Soon after that, students from their homerooms started stopping me in the hallway to ask who had advanced to the next round!  

The most surprising part of the unit was that it seemed to spark an intergenerational interest in chess.  Students and families began practicing their complex reasoning skills while bonding over a centuries-old logic game.