Just the Facts

Middle schoolers stepping outside the box

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Deena Bouknight

A first-ever chess tournament and a Holocaust remembrance wall were just two end-of-school year studious pursuits by some Macon Middle School (MMS) students. In fact, just a few days shy of summer break, on May 21, students from 7th and 8th grade congregated in the open library space to observe the two final competitors in a month-long chess championship that initially included 64 participants. 

Seventh grader Samson Dinh and 8th grader Levi Smith faced off during the first-class period of the day, while peers respectfully sat quietly to observe their strategies. Overseeing the match was MMS social studies educator Bruce Cumsky, who has guided and instructed students at the age-old board game this past school year.

“I play myself, and in this digital age I decided it would be nice for them to sit down and learn this game,” he said. “So, I decided to have the boards open and ready in my classroom. Students who finished assignments or tests could play. Some figured it out on their own and began teaching others. I taught some who wanted to learn and I gave them pointers.”

ON MAY 21, MMS eighth grader Levi Smith and seventh grader Samson Dinh face off during the final match of a month-long chess tournament. Samson won the final chess match against Levi. Macon Middle School social studies educator Bruce Cumsky (center) first made the chess boards available in his classroom. The monthlong match included 64 participants.

He added, “You just have to make these opportunities available to students. Chess is a game anyone from any background can learn, and it’s a game that keeps students engaged and challenged.”

Since “Mr. C.” (as Cumsky is known throughout the school) has been offering and encouraging chess, teachers in other classrooms have made the game available and are seeing students at “all academic levels become super excited to learn,” said Melissa Unger, who teaches English language arts at MMS. 

“Kids at this age are fine with messing up and not winning,” noted Annie Hornsby, a science teacher at MMS who attended the May 21 chess tournament. “They just enjoy learning, and chess is such a good thing to learn … it stretches them.” 

“And what has been so lovely to watch,” shared Cumsky, “is that at the end of every match, they have just naturally been civil and have shaken hands. No one taught them to do that.” 

He was so encouraged by students’ interest in chess that he decided to organize a tournament and to solicit prizes from local businesses, which donated around $250 for the chess tournament. 

At the May 21 final match, Samson and Levi spent about 10 minutes thoughtfully considering strategic moves before Samson exclaimed, “check mate,” which indicated the winning move. After the applause of students and teachers subsided, Cumsky presented Levi with the second-place trophy and a gift certificate and Samson with the first-place trophy and a gift certificate.

MR. C. answers questions at the end-of-school-year chess tournament.

“It felt great to win,” said Samson, a native of Macon County. He explained that his brother, Nixon, a 2023-24 Franklin High School freshman, plays chess with him, but that “Mr. C. got me more interested in chess.”

“I didn’t expect to even get this far,” said Levi, offering that his father and a cousin first sparked his interest in chess. “Mr. C. has been good about making time to help us with chess, but then he just leaves us to play the game and learn by playing.” Levi is passing on his growing knowledge of chess to his younger brother, Caleb, 10 years old, who attended East Franklin Elementary School this past year. 

Dark days in history

Within sight of the final showdown in the first MMS chess tournament on May 21 was a main hallway wall covered from floor to ceiling with Holocaust remembrance projects by world geography and social studies’ students. While the project is an annual one, it served as timely instruction considering the current news-garnering rise in antisemitism worldwide. 

According to Cindy Harrell, a 7th grade social studies’ educator, the Holocaust Remembrance Wall is the final educational project for the end-of-the-year World War II segment. In conjunction with Cumsky and other educators, such as Kirt Kettler, social studies, and Lindsey Raby, world history, Harrell works with 7th grade students to solidify understanding about the Holocaust, which was the 1933-45 systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi German regime and its allies and collaborators. Macon County 6th graders are first introduced to the historical event when they travel to Washington, D.C., for an annual field trip and visit the Holocaust Museum. 

MACON MIDDLE School’s Holocaust Remembrance Wall is the final 7th grade social studies and world geography educational project for the end-of-the-year World War II segment.

“They bring that knowledge with them into 7th grade, and then we teach them that history is so important because if they don’t learn it, they are doomed to repeat it … the bad parts,” said Harrell. “So, for many weeks leading up to the Holocaust Remembrance Wall project, we are introducing them to so many aspects of the Holocaust and its implications through reading, studying, researching, and watching film clips. Some of the most hard-core kids are brought to tears, but they learn what real hate is and what some people – and even children their age and younger – had to endure because of hate.”

The Holocaust Remembrance Wall project involves 7th graders researching a specific person of Jewish descent who lived through or succumbed to the Holocaust. Students must present to teachers and students a written and visual representation of that individual’s life and then hang the project on the wall. 

“We were able to have class discussions about how, back then (in the 1930s and ‘40s), the [German] government was able to control media so much more and so they were able to send out propaganda portraying the ‘work camps’ in a much different way than reality,” said Harrell. “All countries were able to downplay how horrible the war really was by controlling so much of what the media was able to release. We discussed how it’s really hard to cover up hate crimes and mistreatment of all races, religions, military, law enforcement, etc., and how stories can be edited and twisted based on who’s trying to get their own personal viewpoint out.”

She concluded: “The kids really were able to see how social media plays such a huge role in not only information, but misinformation as well, and they discussed how things could be seen from different viewpoints and perspectives based on bits and pieces of information given through class debates and discussion.” The Holocaust Remembrance Wall is always on display at MMS in time for the end-of-school-year awards ceremony so that students’ friends and family members can peruse the projects.