Maggie SparrowMaggie Sparrow

Interview by Linda Lee

“A mistake is a lesson on the way to being learned”

How did you learn to play bridge?

Bridge first caught my interest when we lived in England and my children were still young. A group of us young mums would meet once a month in each others homes to chat, drink a little wine and play a little bridge….in that order. It was a fun night out with the girls. We didn’t take the card playing very seriously, and we knew practically nothing about bidding except what someone’s mum had told her, but bridge seemed fascinating to me and I occasionally watched it on television and tried to read the Terence Reese books. When we moved to Canada I happened to see bridge lessons advertised in the City Recreation booklet and persuaded a new friend down the road to join me. Once we started and I realized there were bidding guidelines and that adding high card points made sense to reach the right contract I got really excited, and my new partner and I met between classes to practice, then went to play at the bridge club in Barrie as soon as our first course of lessons was over. That was in 1993 and we both joined ACBL and have been avid learners and players ever since.

What is your favorite bridge playing experience?

I think that my most thrilling moment as a newcomer was playing in my first Easter Regional Tournament at the Royal York in the 0-5 game. Some experienced members of our club urged my partner and I to go, and offered to drive. Boy, what a thrill for a new player. All those bridge tables in all those huge ballrooms, it was such a big deal, yet everyone was really nice and friendly. It was a great thrill winning our first red points and we were hooked. I’ve loved tournaments ever since and try to go to one or two a year and wish I could fit in more.

How did you start to teach?

I took the ACBL TAP course and the Better Bridge program and started teaching in 1996, when I realized that our bridge club needed to find and encourage new members. Since then I have taught regularly through our City Recreation program at seniors’ centres, and also at the bridge club. I found out about ABTA and joined just before their summer convention in Toronto in 2001. I was delighted to find a group of dedicated bridge teachers that I could learn from. Since then, I have attended several of their summer conventions and always return full of new ideas and enthusiasm. ABTA is a great organization to belong to and I would urge all new teachers to join. It is a great way to keep up with new teaching ideas, to find new material to use, to make new friends, and to gain confidence in your own abilities.

What is your teaching philosophy?

What I love about teaching bridge is seeing new players get excited about the game. I try to make my new students feel very comfortable in lessons, letting them know right at the start that I will never call on one person for an answer. We all know, and they soon realize, that there is a lot to learn. So I feed them the information a bit at a time and give them lots of practice in between. I tell them that we should all take mistakes for granted, knowing that we learn more when we make them, and that as long as we are tolerant of each other we can have fun playing. (One of my favourite sayings is ‘a mistake is a lesson on the way to being learned’.) I try to create situations in my classes where the students have to solve problems in their small group at the table, even setting them up for failure with one hand so that they realize the problem and find a way to solve it, then practice it on the next hand. Although I do recognize that people have different learning styles, I think that most of us learn best by doing. So I try to select, or write, lessons where the emphasis is with cards on the table and lots of hands for practice. In my lessons we play up to eight hands per lesson, and the students get the hand records to take home to practice again, as well as some bidding or playing notes. I use the white board only for my saying of the week or for bidding guidelines. I review a lot, repeat things in different ways, and use humour where I can. If the students are laughing a lot, it is a good lesson. If they are talking together more than I am talking at them that is a good lesson too.

What is your advice to new bridge teachers?

I would advise every new teacher to find a set of beginner lessons that you like (I use Pat Harrington’s but there are other good ones too) and know your material thoroughly. Arrive early to set up and to welcome students and start right on time, don’t wait for late comers. Learn all their names the first day, and use them. In later lessons let them know that early arrivals can ask questions or go over something before the lesson begins. Use the first five to ten minutes to review previous lessons, quick precise repetition of the common bidding guidelines is very valuable. With beginners these will be things like looking for a fit, estimating total points, should the contract be in game or part-score, bidding up the line, support with support, staying low with two minimum hands, etc. At the beginning, don’t worry about the nitty-gritty, that can come later, emphasize having fun with lots of hands to play. Allow them to shuffle and deal if time. And above all tell them that the only rule in your class is the ‘be nice to partner’ rule, lots of support for partner and absolutely no criticism, they need to learn this very early on.

Another question I think all teachers should address is “Where are my students going to play when lessons finish?”. I provide a Learning Game once a week and encourage new students to come after their third lesson. At first they can play as a little group and go through the lesson hands again, extra practice between classes really pays dividends especially with all the discussion that goes on. Once they have completed the beginner course they are welcome to join in with the rest of the Learning Game players. This game has a mini lesson first and then is a very relaxed form of duplicate, only 12 boards, no computer scoring, where they can ask for help, talk about their bids at the table, change their minds, use their notes, etc. It also gives me as the teacher a good insight into what they still need to learn, it allows me to reinforce concepts they may have forgotten, it gives me some ideas for future lessons to plan for and a ready made group of intermediates eager for new lessons.

What are your favorite bridge books?

My favorite bridge book is whatever I am currently reading! As I am on the book awards committee for ABTA I do get sent a lot of the new books, and my bookcase is now overflowing with well over one hundred bridge books. I do read them! I love to use books for reference too when I am writing my own lessons. My favourite authors are Eddie Kantar, Mike Lawrence, Marty Bergen and Barb Seagram. I also use the Bridge Encyclopedia for looking up reference questions that come up. For ideas for mini lessons I find Audrey Grant’s Better Bridge magazine a big help. For my students, if they want a good reference/review book I recommend Karen Walker’s Bridge for Beginners and beyond, available from her website. And of course Barb Seagram’s 25 series books once they start learning conventions, we were all so excited when those books first started coming out. The format and layout of those couldn’t be better. And now I see there is a new one for beginners, wonderful. Honestly, I don’t mind what my students read, as long as they read. Getting the information in lots of different ways is the best way to learn.

What will you try to do in your new bridge forum?

ABTA teachers can join the ABTA Discuss forum

I hope the new bridge forum on will be a place where teachers can have lively discussion on topics of interest to them. I have found through my membership in ABTA that networking with other teachers is for me the most valuable way of learning to be a good teacher. It can be so easy to feel isolated, yet now with all our modern technology we don’t need to be. For example, right now I’m the only person teaching bridge in Barrie, but if I have something I want to discuss with other teachers I know that advice and support are only a click away. It is great to be able to connect to teachers in other places to compare notes and ideas. There are teachers out there in big cities with huge classes, teaching full-time, and there are others in small places teaching only one class a week. Yet we all share the same love of the game, and we want to pass this on to our students using the best methods we can.

Tell us a little more about your life.

Although bridge is a big part of my life, I do have another job too. I work in a small public library in rural Ontario, a job I very much enjoy. I also have a large garden, two energetic dogs, a husband and three grown children, all of which need my attention from time to time. Every now and again I tell myself that one day I will get back to some of my other hobbies, but for now bridge seems to have taken over.