Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Brooklyn Castle: Coming to a Theater Near You and Interview with the Filmmaker

Katie Dellamaggiore
By Sam Piha

Brooklyn Castle is a documentary about Intermediate School 318 – a Title I school where more than 65 percent of students are living below the federal poverty level, that happens to have the best junior high chess team, bar none, in the country. This documentary will be shown in the Bay Area beginning November 16, 2012 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley. 

There will be a free sneak preview of Brooklyn Castle in San Francisco on November 8, 2012 for educators and afterschool leaders at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema - One Embarcadero Center. You can RSVP by clicking here and view the trailer by clicking here. (We are currently trying to arrange a free screening in the East Bay and will keep you informed.)  

The team wins almost every tournament they compete in, and regularly defeats schools with resources I.S. 318 can only dream about. Chess is the cornerstone of I.S. 318’s vibrant roster of afterschool programs, and it has transformed the school from one cited in 2003 as a “school in need of improvement” to one of New York City’s most highly regarded. Assistant Principal John Galvin credits chess and the school’s more than 40 other afterschool classes -- as well as its tireless, dedicated staff -- with achieving this sea change, and creating a “culture of success” within I.S. 318. That success is now seriously threatened by a series of recession-driven budget cuts. 

Below is an interview with Katie Dellamaggiore, Director and Producer of Brooklyn Castle. 

Q: What drew you to the chess program at I.S. 318?

A: I was intrigued by the idea that the story defied expectations. People don’t expect a Title I school (a school with more than 60% of students from low-income households) in Brooklyn to have the number one chess team in the nation. I certainly didn’t, and I’m from Brooklyn! I was really proud to find out that we had this little gem of a school right here in our backyard, and I thought it was a really inspiring story that others would want to know about, too. 

Q: Based on what you saw there, how do you explain their success?

A: When I first got to the school, I didn’t know what to expect. The thing that surprised me most was how compelling it was to watch Elizabeth (Vicary) Spiegel teach the kids chess. Although I’m not a chess player, I was completely enthralled with watching her teach, even though I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I thought, "You must be a pretty darn good teacher," because even without following her, the level of enthusiasm that she had and the connection she was making with the kids was palpable. You could see it in her face and in the kids’ faces. There was just a great energy in the room and I think Elizabeth's passion and energy for teaching chess is just such a huge part of why the team is so successful.

Q: For the kids who participate in the chess program, how do you think this will affect them in the near and distant future? What did they learn that you believe will help them in their later life?

A: From the time I spent observing the chess team I definitely saw that learning chess, and becoming good at chess, nurtures the kind of critical thinking skills and self-reflection that kids need to face all kinds of challenges in life. But I think the real specific benefits of participating in the chess program differ from kid to kid. In the movie, each of the five kids we follow have very unique goals they are reaching for -- from overcoming ADHD, to gaining more confidence, to learning leadership skills -- and the lessons they learn on the chessboard definitely translate into the real life lessons they use to achieve their individual goals. One of the mantras of the I.S. 318 chess team is that if you work really hard and apply yourself, you can be successful. And the impact of that lesson, especially for kids that are already dealing with the hardships of poverty, can't be underestimated. 

Q: What do you believe are the lessons about learning that other schools and afterschool programs can take from this documentary?

A: I think this emphasis on afterschool and enrichment activities during the school day and after the school day at I.S. 318 is an excellent example for other schools to follow. Under the leadership of the late I.S. 318 principal Fred Rubino afterschool programs at I.S. 318 are not seen as "extras" but as a critical to educating the whole child. Mr. Rubino would hire teachers that also had a special talent they could channel into an afterschool program, like music, art, guitar or dance. And many of the forty plus afterschool programs that are offered at 318 are also offered as electives that kids can choose to take during the school day as a graded class. So there's this kind of this seamlessness to the school day, where a student can take a chess class during the day and then they can also be part of the chess team after school. Their afterschool chess instructor is also their chess teacher during the day, so there's also a real positive mentoring relationship being formed between teacher and student. And the kids are happy to be at school and to stay at school past 3 p.m. because they know they are going to get to participate in the activity that they've chosen, and that they're starting to build a passion for. 

Q: There is a good deal of attention being paid to the development of character and non-cognitive skills (like grit, persistence) because research is suggesting that these are more important to success than academic skills. Did you get any sense of this in your work at I.S. 318?

A: Well, I don't know if I can say that one is more important than the other, but I absolutely think that you can't expect kids to be successful by only teaching them traditional academics without also offering them the kind of non-cognitive development skills they need to become happy, successful, self-reliant, curious adults. The I.S. 318 chess program is featured prominently in Paul Tough's new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character exactly because Ms. Vicary's style of teaching chess encourages the development of these non-cognitive skills and I think that's made evident in the stories we captured in Brooklyn Castle.

Q: The Learning in Afterschool & Summer project is promoting 5 principles of learning that we believe all programs should embody: 
Learning should be active, collaborative, meaningful, supports mastery, and expand the horizons of participants. Did you see any of these principles demonstrated in the chess program that you document? Which do you think were most important?

A: Yes, all of these principles are demonstrated in the chess program. I guess the most important one I witnessed was that learning should expand the horizons of participants. In the film there's this quote from Diego Rasskin Gutman that states there are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the universe. And just being able to impart this idea of limitless possibility on a young mind is such a great gift to give a kid, whether they are contemplating all of the strategic and creative moves they can make on the chessboard or all of the strategic and creative moves they can make in life.

Katie Dellamaggiore is a documentary producer and director whose work has appeared on MTV, A&E, HBO/Cinemax and VH1. Over the course of her career, she has held various production and outreach roles on award-winning documentaries including 39 Pounds of Love, To Die in Jerusalem, 51 Birch Street and American Teen. Katie co-produced After the Storm, a nonprofit theater and film project that used art to revitalize the lives of young people in post-Katrina New Orleans, and directed, produced and shot UR Life Online for A&E Classroom, which explored sexual solicitation and cyber bullying and received an Emmy nomination for Single Camera Editing. Brooklyn Castle, Katie’s feature directorial debut, has received support from IFP Independent Film Week 2010, Chicken & Egg Films and the Fledgling Fund.

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