Esperanza Women Series: Gabrielle Moshier

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This Women’s History Month, Esperanza recognizes three women who are doing outstanding work in our Hunting Park community. We asked Gabrielle Moshier (bottom left in the photo above) about her role at Esperanza Academy Charter School:

What is your role at Esperanza?

I started at Esperanza in 2014 as a seventh grade English teacher. I now teach 8th grade Honors English and one section of regular 8th grade English. In addition to teaching, I have at various times coached girls’ basketball, girls’ softball, written curriculum, and worked as the 8th grade Student Assistance Program (SAP) coordinator. I am also a Mentor and I design the Middle School schedule during the summer.  I like to stay very busy. And, of course, the most time consuming of these, outside of teaching, is coaching chess. I’m not sure that this was really a role that was meant for me at Esperanza – It didn’t exist when I started working here; I kind of assigned it to myself, and it wasn’t paid, at least to begin with. But one of the things I love about working at Esperanza Middle School is that my administration is super supportive of new initiatives and ideas, especially ones that will benefit students. So, I guess, in that respect it is a role that was meant for me at Esperanza.

How is your work contributing to transformation in the lives of students, in the neighborhood, etc.?

I came to teaching and chess a bit backward. When I left my corporate job at Pfizer, I didn’t even know if I liked children and I wasn’t very good at chess (I hadn’t played chess more than once or twice since I was a child). I did know that I wanted to make a difference in the world. I started my teaching career in an Outward Bound type program that worked with adjudicated youth from Philadelphia and D.C. in a wilderness setting. I loved my job. I loved my students. I played chess with them as a way to build report and learn about their lives. But, I watched as year after year they were on the losing end of the school-to-prison pipeline. I asked for a transfer to the Philadelphia holding facility in hopes I could get closer to the heart of my students’ problems. Using chess and chess tournaments, I was able to take students’ minds off their incarceration and teach valuable skills. I also got a little better a chess. However, I still felt it was far too late for most of the students I was working with – making a difference involved helping and teaching students before they could ever enter the pipeline.

Working at Esperanza finally makes me feel like I’m doing something, something to stem the tide of the school-to-prison pipeline before it’s too late. Teaching English, how to read and write, how to have and share your voice, is a big part of that. People think English is about a book or a term paper, but really it’s about ideas and voices. The student body of Esperanza has historically been silenced. The neighborhood of Hunting Park was historically redlined and denied prosperity. So many schools in Philadelphia want their students to sit down, be quiet, fill in a worksheet. So many areas of Philadelphia are pushing the poor out, cleaning up, just to gentrify. 

Ideas and voices are allowed in Esperanza and it’s going to transform Hunting Park. That’s being an English Teacher.

Chess is more tangible. It’s a tournament. It’s a trophy. It didn’t start that way though. Four years ago, there was no chess team at Esperanza. When we started, there were four kids and a chess board over a lunch period. It took a whole year of going to tournaments before we brought home our first trophy. Things have picked up since then…. Now between the club, the team in the High School and the Middle School, as well as our all Girls’ team, there are about 60 students at Esperanza who can claim chess. Chess Club happens just about every day after school for two hours. Tournaments are facilitated on the weekend at least once a month, year-round, and students compete, and win, at a local, city, state, and national level. It’s really exciting to win. Our Middle School team just brought home a State Championship. They really deserved it. Those kids worked so hard.

But, it’s not even really about chess. If you want to transform the life of a student, all you need to do is care and spend the time. Chess provides a safe space during and after school as well as on the weekends where students can not only feel safe, but gain confidence and a sense of belonging. Students who want to compete need good grades. A chess tournament lasts, at a minimum, 10 hours. A single game can go upwards of four hours. Chess sure teaches patience. In a student body where many have never experienced winning at anything, watching my students get their first chess trophy after a year of hard work is amazing. It’s amazing for the student and their parents. Forget that though, Chess tournaments and chess club provides food. One in five students in Philadelphia experience food insecurity. When you’re at a chess tournament for 10 hours, you feed your students. Forget the food, it provides a heated building. A number of our chess students are itinerant or homeless and the extended hours of chess provide a place to be.

Going to these chess tournaments across the state and the nation expose the students to places and people outside of Hunting Park.

This is good and this is, er, educational. When we travel, if a tournament is not at a college or university like Temple or Drexel or Haverford, we try and make a special side trip to one. Hearing students start to talk about higher education is so important. You need to implant that. Getting out of Philadelphia and going to places like Nashville for Nationals opens their eyes. They learn to talk to people who aren’t like them – other kids, adults, the media. They see things. Just things. It’s not about chess, it could of been any activity. I’ve seen people do it with Scrabble or Basketball teams. It’s about time and caring and with enough of that – I’m hoping I can follow my teams all the way through into college. I honestly don’t care if they never play chess again after that.

So, it’s not about Chess. But, it also is about Chess. A lot of people think I teach Math because I’m the Chess Coach. But, Chess is all about analytics and critical thinking. That’s an English skill. There are numerous studies that show that even minimal exposure to chess will increase standardized test scores in Reading as well as Math. Students come to Esperanza often behind already in their education. We need to make up that gap to help them be successful. You need to be as creative as possible to get that job done. Chess helps with communication, writing, reading, social and emotional skills, patience, as well as algebra, geometry and graphing. If you are 12 years old and can win a three hour chess game by figuring out what the other guy is thinking ten moves ahead, write all your moves down, and do this seated in total silence – I’m pretty sure you can take over the world. What twelve-year-old do you know that can do that? By the end of each year, I have over 30 of those. That’s how I know I’m transforming the lives of my students. That’s how I know the Hunting Park neighborhood will be transformed.

They’re going to do the transformation. I’m going to help them find their voice for their ideas in English class and then make them Masterminds in Chess Club…. Be prepared!

Who is a woman you admire and why?

There are many women that I admire. Some of them I know; they’ve been my mother, sisters, friends, When I go to answer this question I always want to say my grandmother, Betty Lindabury Kearney. She’s so classy. She’s 98 now and still lives on her own in a condo in New Jersey. She just retired from real estate this year – although she is still involved in some of her business ventures. She raised four head-strong girls on a farm and recounts numerous stories of shooting copperhead snakes with shotguns while keeping an eye on babies in high chairs. She’s also traveled the world with her best friend Gail: ridden camels to the pyramids and carried canoes with monks to Tibetan weddings. She has a collection of fine China. She is involved in the church and local politics. She is strong in a way that does not require her to be loud or use physical force. She is a force herself – things get done and you do not tell her no. A matriarch. But she never yells. But she never yields. Well-traveled, well-rounded, full of conviction, full of life, full of love. I admire my grandmother, and no matter how many times she tells the same story, as she is wont to do now at 98, I enjoy listening to it like it’s the first time.

I always want to say my grandmother, but the woman I really admire is my mother, Laurie Price Moshier. She has not traveled the world. She does not have her own business. And certainly any fine China she might have had, my sister and I broke when we were young. But, unlike her three sisters, she married my father and has been married to my father for 40 years. I admire that. It hasn’t always been easy. My father is a recovering alcoholic – whom I also admire – and has been sober for 30 years. For the first ten years of their marriage, my mother did not abandon my father or their union, she worked hard to get the man she loved the help he needed. Since he’s been sober, that’s not been easy either. But, I’ve learned that making marriages and relationships in general work isn’t easy. I admire my mother for doing that not flashy, not classy work. She also chose to have my sister and me and raise us. It was a choice and a dedication that again was not flashy. Many people have children. I feel that not many dedicate themselves to parenthood the way that my mother has and still does. I know that she wanted to travel like my grandmother did and is a brilliant woman with many talents for local politics or whatever.

I think that admiring those that are in the media or rise to fame is nice, but the true heroes are people like my grandmother and mother. The things that they do are everyday things that most people don’t notice. But, it’s everyday things that happen behind the scenes that get things done in this world. And the way that they do those things are with quiet strength and enduring dedication. I aspire to be like them in everything that I do.