Sunday, May 29, 2016

Johnny McCants Signs to NMSU Aggies Basketball

Oñate's McCants to Play College Basketball at New Mexico State
by Mark Rudi Las Cruces Sun News

"The 6-foot-7 McCants led the Knights to a District 3-6A tournament championship his junior season and both the district regular season and tournament championships and the Class 6A state semifinals his senior season. McCants led Oñate to a No. 1 ranking most of this past season.

McCants averaged 19.7 points, 12.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 4.9 blocks and 2.6 steals per game his senior season with three triple-doubles and 22 double-doubles. McCants was a first team Class 6A all-state selection by the New Mexico High School Coaches Association this season and a finalist for New Mexico Gatorade Player of the Year. He was also a second team Class 6A all-state selection his junior season."

Rudi, Mark. "Oñate's McCants to Play College Basketball at New Mexico State." Las Cruces Sun News. USA Today Network, 17 May 2016. Web. <>.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Students Develop Skills Through Chess

Life lessons: Students develop skills through chess
Damien Willis, Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES – Students at Loma Heights Elementary are learning valuable lessons and life skills at the chessboard.

Loma Heights now has one of the largest chess clubs in the Las Cruces Public Schools district. Thirty-two students showed up Friday afternoon to the club’s final meeting of the school year. Many students play every chance they get — on the playground at lunchtime, after school and at home with their parents.

“I started playing chess with the students last year,” said Yvette Colmant, a counselor and social worker at the school. “I found it helpful in connecting with at-risk youth. Many kids saw the chessboard in my office and naturally gravitated toward the game.”

As interest grew, Colmant applied for and received a $3,000 grant from First Move, an organization working to integrate chess into second- and third-grade classrooms. Studies suggest teaching kids to play chess improves science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, teaches critical and creative thinking, and improves cognitive thinking skills.

“I teach chess to all second- and third-graders, and found the use of chess helpful to both the advanced and struggling learner in promoting psychosocial development,” Colmant said.

This year, close to 200 second- and third-grade students at Loma Heights learned the game through hour-long lessons every other week. Loma Heights students recently won first, second and third place at a chess tournament the club participated in, and interest among the students has been growing exponentially, Colmant said.

“I have been fortunate to enlist the help of local chess teacher Jesse Vick, who has been volunteering his time to work with the kids in learning the art of the game,” she said. “He currently works as one of our lunch monitors and takes a few chessboards out on the recess playground. He has found that it helps with social interaction and good sportsmanship.”

Parents see results

While the chess club only began a few months ago, parents have already begun to notice a change in their students. Vanessa Herrera, the mother of Loma Heights third-grader Michael Hignight, 9, said he has been playing for about five weeks.

“Michael has a short attention span, but learning chess has helped with that,” Herrera said. “He’s able to sit there and play for quite a while, and he’s actually pretty good at it, which is nice. It helps him with his problem solving, and to look ahead and really think about what he’s going to do next. I’ve noticed a huge difference. It’s crazy.”

Herrera said the game has helped with Michael’s memory, too.

“He played a game against a seventh-grader, and the seventh-grader won within six moves,” she said Friday. “Last night, we went to play chess at the church, which they have every Thursday. He beat another kid with the same moves.”

A local chess group meets Thursday afternoons at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces, 2000 S. Solano Drive. Vick plays with the group, and several Loma Heights students have begun playing there as well.

Herrera said she bought Michael a chessboard to play at home, and that she has started learning the game and playing with him.

Leah Plaatje is the mother of Zachary Plaatje, 8, a third-grader at Loma Heights. She has also seen a change in her son in the two months he has been playing.

“He has ADHD, so being in chess club has helped him learn how to focus,” Plaatje said. “He’s doing better in classes, and he feels so much better about himself. Because chess is a game, he’s able to focus because he wants to win. Kids with ADHD, their minds just run a little bit faster — so he’s able to process his opponents’ moves way before they do it.”

Plaatje said Zachary has begun playing in United States Chess Federation tournaments, and the family also plays chess with him at home.

“This is one of the best things that we could have done for him, to help him with all of his problems,” Plaatje said. “His grades have gone up. His behavior has improved in class and on the playground. He’s learning how to slow down, and he’s learning impulse control.”

Eight at a time

At Friday’s meeting of the Loma Heights Chess Club, the group was visited by Sophia Moore, 11, a sixth-grader from Camino Real Middle School. Last month, Sophia was crowned New Mexico Girls State Chess Champion, K-12. She is the first girls champion from Las Cruces.

She began playing chess three years ago, while attending Desert Hills Elementary. On Friday, she won more than 20 games against Loma Heights students — playing eight games at a time. No one beat her.

“I like chess because it’s just very interesting,” she said afterward. “You can’t move just based on instinct, you have to think it through.”

Sophia said she is usually thinking two or three moves ahead. She said that playing eight games at once presents a unique set of challenges.

“Your mind just has to be able to shift from one game to the other,” she said. “I like doing that, because I like to multitask.”

This summer, Sophia will represent New Mexico in the national girls Tournament of Champions in Indianapolis. She said she is grateful to her teachers, including at the End Game Chess Club and a group of senior citizens she plays with each week at the Munson Center.

Strategies and sportsmanship

“Chess teaches me to make better decisions,” said Jonathan Carrillo, 11, a fifth-grader at Loma Heights. “It’s like (Stephen Covey’s) Seven Habits. One of them is ‘begin with the end in mind.’ And it teaches you to make a plan before you start. You need to know what you’re going to do before you do it.”

Jonathan said that Vick has taught the club some common chess strategies and the importance of good sportsmanship.

“It’s a huge sense of accomplishment, seeing them grow in their abilities from week to week,” said Vick, who is one of the highest-ranked chess players in Las Cruces. “It’s great to see the excitement on their faces when I take them to tournaments, and seeing how passionate they are about the game.”

Vick said he has seen students develop a greater attention span, respect for authority and improved patience.

“A lot of these kids have disabilities and problems,” Vick said. “I have Tourette’s Syndrome, and chess has helped me so much. And I see these kids who can’t focus on anything else, but when they’re at the board, nothing else bothers them. Nothing else matters.”

As a social worker, Colmant said she has seen chess help students develop better social dynamics and communication skills.

“On Friday, two children who were playing chess in the corner waved their hands and asked for help,” Colmant said. “When I went to their table, one student let me know the other may have been cheating. Their solution was to annotate their moves so there would be no question about cheating. These were two second-graders. They didn't lose their tempers or yell at each other, they solved the problem. That was a clear, real-life example of what chess brings to our school.”

Damien Willis may be reached at 575-541-5468, or @damienwillis on Twitter.

Willis, Damien. "Life Lessons: Students Develop Skills through Chess." Las Cruces Sun News. N.p., 1 May 2016. Web. <>.

Thoughts on #YesWeCode Initiative

In effort to archive Blogpost's from our website, I'll be sharing those posts on our Google Blog as well.  Below is a post from November 30, 2014, titled 'Thoughts on #YesWeCode Initiative by Lecroy Rhyanes, Jr.'

My name is Lecroy Rhyanes, Jr., 1/3 of the family of brothers that contribute to the Ever1Plays site.  The oldest of the three I maintain web updates and lead social media and other digital media including some of the videos created and posted on our YouTube.  I graduated from New Mexico State University in 2008 and in 2011 joined the Criminal Justice Department at NMSU to teach courses online that focused on subjects related to creative expression and juvenile detention.

Most recently, a former student named Bridgette sent me a website through LinkedIn about the #YesWeCode initiative.  On November 29th, I started listening to a few YouTube videos about the group, including a video conversation with founder Van Jones and others involved with #YesWeCode.  This was my first attempt to understand what the group was about.  When I glanced at the site and thought about the #YesWeCode message, it resonated with me because of how I got into college thanks to my high school Spanish teacher, mentors, and family.

At the start of my senior year at Andress High, my Spanish teacher made an announcement about a program she was helping to start up after school.  It involved getting high school juniors and seniors together with college students & faculty from NMSU to work on a research project using computers.  In 1999, I was barely learning how to turn a computer on so I don’t remember being very receptive to the invitation.  I don’t remember anyone else in my class being receptive either.  At the time we didn’t really know anything about computers and the world wide web.  I nor anyone I knew had access to the world wide web at this point.  Technology to us was mostly video games and consoles.  My Spanish teacher wouldn’t give up though and finally convinced me and a handful of others to participate.

After school, our Spanish teacher introduced us to a few students and faculty from NMSU that would help mentor us.  My teacher also explained to our parents that the program would involve us taking a few trips to NMSU from Andress (located in El Paso, Texas) to work with our college mentors at the university’s computer labs.  Our activity was for a competition called the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge. I think we were the only school outside of New Mexico invited to participate.

My involvement with the group after school caused a few scheduling conflicts with the Varsity basketball team.  I recall asking my coach before a practice if I could be excused to go on one of our trips to NMSU.  Already annoyed by my poor performance on the court, he was irritated that this would free me from practice… In a condescending tone he replied, “What are you trying to be an astronaut?”  Little did I know, joining the Supercomputing group with our Spanish teacher and New Mexico mentors would be the best decision of my life.  By the end of the year, I’d develop the stamina to appreciate the writing & research process and was learning how to use a computer.  It was also an opportunity to build with people that were in college and willing to help us understand how to get there.  For many of us, including myself, we’d be the first in our families to attend a four year university, so our knowledge of the college experience was about as bleak as our knowledge of computers.  Upon graduation I not only received a scholarship to attend NMSU through my participation in the supercomputing challenge, but I was even offered a job by my mentor to intern at the the Los Alamos National Laboratory during the summers.  My internship would focus on web design, learning HTML code, and understanding different computer applications.  At the time I wasn’t confident about the decision to take the internship since I didn’t even own a computer.  I wasn’t sure if I had what it took to contribute and I also didn’t want to disappoint anyone by my moving up there. My mentor convinced me to think about it as a learning opportunity and a chance to be on my own since I’d have to relocate and live in New Mexico independently.  Long story short, I decided to go thanks to my parent’s who fully supported my decision to make the move. That summer, I was supplied with this huge book about HTML coding.  This began a lifelong passion for teaching using digital technology and utilizing web design to promote the activities we got going on in our lives.

Since then, I’ve applied digital technology to just about every aspect of my educational & professional career, including the work we’re starting as a family with the Every1Plays initiative.  I’m excited to learn more about #YesWeCode and the conversations taking place locally regarding digital learning and what opportunities are available, especially for young people.

To learn more about the #YesWeCode initiative, I encourage you to visit the website at and also check out the video below.  Listening to the conversation Van Jones, founder of #YesWeCode had on YouTube, I’m going to assume that for some young people it may be tough understanding where to begin and why.  Especially for those in the digital divide that may not be aware of the benefits digital technology brings to a person’s future goals and creative network.  This is especially true for youth in the juvenile justice system and other communities throughout our region that are disconnected from technology due to their location, poverty level, or the disinterest/disassociation from their schools, community, detention centers, homes, etc.

Below is a photograph and link to a report that I was featured in with my mentor over 14 years ago.  In a lot of ways, this was the #YesWeCode before the millennium era for me and my school.

My Dad's Mentor, Donald Martin

#MentorStory: My Dad’s Mentor, Donald Martin
@MENTORnational #MentorIRL

In 2013, I had a convo with my dad about mentors in his life. Around that time I started documenting family stories.  I’d sit down with my mother and father and have conversations about specific moments in their lives.  Some of their stories focused on specific siblings, childhood memories, grandparents, or stories my mom or dad shared after observing an old photograph.  As my mom and dad shared their stories I pressed record on my audio device, asked questions, and typed notes in my laptop.

This activity kind of started because of old family photographs. At one point, our family photos were scattered everywhere.  Some were in old worn out photo books, photo envelopes, tucked away in boxes, or in the shed.  Over the years it seemed like my dad was always finding another stack of old photographs that were thought to be lost.  I decided to organize all of the photographs in one place.  I created labels for the photographs and organized them by immediate family members, members of my mother’s family, father’s family side, and others based on location. For example, I have a collection of photographs from our time in Germany in the 80s.  Other stacks are of my mother’s many brothers and sisters.  Other collections are sorted by extended family members and different branches of our family tree.  One of the oldest photos I have was given to me by my aunt Maggie who found what is believed to be a photo of my great grandmother on my mother’s side.  It is the earliest known photo I have of my grandmother as a child and her mother who passed away at a very young age.  I think the picture is close to 100 years old.  My goal is to organize the photographs into albums and scan some of them to combine with the thousands of digital pictures I’ve collected ever since I started shooting photos ten years ago of my family and friends.

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down to document family stories but I think about the process all of the time.  I hope to return to it on a more consistent basis.  Recently, for reasons related to what’s going on in my own life and some messages I exchanged with one of my mentors, I’ve often thought of my father’s story about his mentor, Donald Martin.  When I revisited the notes I jotted down of my dad’s story which I titled “Donald Martin”, I remembered my dad asking me if I could help him find his mentor.

Through the Every1Plays FaceBook account we have, I tried to search for “Donald Martin” by typing in Pennsylvania towns my dad mentioned in his story.  It’s a common name and there are quite a few Donald Martins out there.  I didn’t have much luck when I searched for specific locations in the Tri-state area.  After looking through a few profiles, I noticed a comment in one of the profiles that mentioned the name of Mr. Martin’s wife which my dad shared in his story.  Looking through some of the pictures in the Donald Martin profile I found a newspaper clipping titled “Philadelphians in ‘Bennington Program'”.  I maximized the size of the article to get a better view of the faces in the picture and noticed my dad sitting on top of a school bus with more than a dozen other students.  The article was published in 1972.  A couple other photographs posted in Donald Martin’s profile included a Vermont camping trip with a clearer view of all of the students.  Immediately, I noticed my father in both of the pictures, including a shot of their class trip to Washington, DC.  Mr. Martin was responsible for one of the first alternate high school programs in Pennsylvania.

For my father, he describes Mr. Martin as someone who literally saved his life.  My father had dropped out of high school and after a few months was encouraged by Mr. Martin to join the Bennington Program and get his life back on track.

I look forward to sharing this note with Mr. Martin.  Maybe I could explore this mentor story further to learn more about the Bennington Program and how it impacted Philly’s youth at the time. Looking back, it sent my dad on a journey of success as a soldier, leader, educator, community member, husband, father, grandfather, and friend to many.  Thinking about it, it makes me wonder how the creative and positive encounter my dad had with Donald Martin inspired what my father envisioned for me and my younger brothers. While I’ve heard many reference their parents as their mentors, my dad encouraged and supported the involvement of people outside of our family that we could trust and that had our best interest at heart when it came to our future.

I’m inspired by Mr. Martin’s story through the memories of my father and the creative ways Mr. Martin was able to connect with disconnected youth from Philly and surrounding areas.

There are many mentor stories out there we plan to post.  One day I hope to share my own and talk to my brothers about theirs, and also continue listening to my mom’s stories about the mentors or “donas” that opened their doors to her when she was young and on her own in the U.S. for the first time.

I also plan to post stories from others, including some of our sports and music heroes whose mentor stories are just as powerful.  Stories like Louis Armstrong’s mentor King Oliver or Arthur Ashe’s mentor Dr. Walter Johnson.  Every day, a documentary film, interview, or news article sheds light on some of the inspirations behind some of the most influential people of today and yesterday’s time.  There is a lot more we can learn from these stories to understand just how unique each mentor story is from the other.

Thank you Donald Martin for inspiring our dad before we knew him as such.

-Lecroy, Jr.