Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Interview with Woman of the Year: Marisa van der Merwe

Marisa and Willem van der Merwe
My interview this week is with Marisa van der Merwe - who won Woman of the Year 2012 (Education Category)

Thank you for the opportunity to interview you for my blog.

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Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where were you born? Do you have brothers and sisters? Did you learn to play chess as a child? Do any of your siblings play? Where did you meet Willem? Did you know straight away that he was the guy for you? How long have you been married? How many children do you have and what do they do?
I was born in Germiston, Johannesburg, 57 years ago as the first child of two top SA chess players: Piet and Wynie Robbertse – in fact, both have well-known chess tournaments named after them. My dad Piet Robbertse was an actuary and well-known businessman, who taught my mom to play chess after they got married…she eventually became the SA Women’s Chess Champion for 11 years. 

I have a brother and two sisters – of which my brother Piet and baby sister Wyna were both very good provincial chess players.
I am married to my high school sweetheart, Willem van der Merwe, for 37 years now, and although the thrill was there from the first moment we met, I think a life-long relationship is based on more than thrills… I count myself very lucky to have a life-partner with whom I do share all the thrills, but also the same values, dreams and passions in life (note: not necessarily the same taste in movies, art and music!). We have 5½ children…let me explain: Vanessa (a passionate language teacher), Jan-Hendrik (an electronic engineer, like-father-like-son) and Pieter (a medical doctor), plus Elzanne (a ballet dancer, married to Pieter) and the ½ is Annerie Scheepers (pharmacist, engaged to Jan-Hendrik) … and then there is also the son-to-be: Piet Ludick (Vanessa’s life-partner, who is much-loved in our family).

Willem’s father, Jan, turned 90 this year, and we are very honoured that he is also part of our BIG family. AND there are the 3 dogs, 1 cat and 2 fishes that’s part of this family as well. Although the children are now already out of the house, they live close-by and we often eat & spend time together - quite a house-full!

How did you get involved in teaching chess?
When my children were small, I was a stay-at-home mom. Their school asked parents to get involved in the chess club, and I offered my help. I immediately LOVED chess training with the young-ones … I enjoyed every moment….and it fired-up a lifelong passion!! Although I don’t consider myself a strong chess player, the age-old game intrigued me because of its many facets: creativity, competitiveness, tactics & strategy, science, history, logic and fun – all combined with the human factor. It is fascinating!

What made you decide to use chess as a tool to help children learn better?
It wasn’t really a decision that I made on a day – it was a process that evolved over time and revealed it to me as a wonderful opportunity for all:
I ran a chess-school for 5 -13 year-olds in our home’s garage for more than 20 years. It was a lot of fun & sports, AND amazingly successful: it produced 27 junior national players and 100’s of provincial players! Although I was teaching the children a lot about chess, they were teaching me a lot about children. It came as a surprise to me when parents, teachers and youngsters reported much-improved academic results as well as improvement in self-confidence and maturity: many of my chess students became top-academic performers, captains of different sport teams and leaders in their schools.
Throughout my chess-coaching career, I have always been very analytical, critical and innovative in developing my students, and also my methods of training….you know: thinking about it a lot, reading, sound-boarding and rolling-around/pondering it in the wee hours of the night. As every child’s thinking patterns were unique, my approach to every child also had to be specific. It’s quite technical, but this experience proved to be the basis of chess-as-educational-tool, developing specific mental skills through specific techniques, chessboard-games, “minichess”-games etc. The idea developed and refined over the years through experimentation and on-going learning, to grow into a full program.
Then about 10 years ago I was invited by a top primary school in Pretoria to run a chess-in-school program for their foundation phase , gr.R to gr.3 learners (5 to 9 year-olds) – which gave me the opportunity to test my program in the SA classroom situation. I had to formalise the program – with projects and learner workbooks (4 levels), Teacher Manuals with structured age-specific lesson plans, assessment standards, teacher aids, etc.  It was a challenge and a wonderful learning curve for me: all the children in the foundation phase had to be included in the program and I knew that all children would not find chess easy, so I developed a program that started with the pre-learning concepts of chess – developing mental capacity though fun & games – and had remarkable success to take the benefits of chess to all learners in the classroom! Soon other schools got interested in the program… The non-profit PBO Moves for Life was established in 2010 and they also took the MiniChess program to disadvantaged communities by means of sponsorships. By July 2012 16,000+ children in all provinces of SA were doing the MiniChess program on a weekly basis, with positive feedback from schools, teachers, learner and communities on a regular basis. 
Grandmaster Garry Kasparov visited SA in November 2011, when he witnessed the MiniChess program in action. He was very impressed, and called it the “most scientific program in the world, linking chess with education”. He is interested to take it international by means of the Kasparov Chess Foundations in Europe, N-America, S-America, the Middle-East and Africa. Universities in SA are doing studies on the impact of the MiniChess program on school readiness, development of math-understanding, etc. 
It is my dream to develop the mental capacity of our youth, enabling them to thrive in a fast changing world - and what better way for youngsters to learn than to play games and have fun? We are now in the process of developing the first MiniChess Computer game. I am thrilled and honoured to be part of this fantastic journey!

Please explain to my readers what the Minichess program is about and how it works.
The MiniChess program is a practical-based “chess-in-school-time program” for gr.R to gr.3-learners (5 to 9 year-olds), linking chess with education in fun playful ways. Chess is the game of ideas, and are therefore an excellent teaching tool – rising above all barriers of language, culture, age, gender and even physical disability.
MiniChess is the pre-learning part of chess as a sport: breaking down complex abstract ideas into small simple steps. BUT, more importantly, at the same time it uses fun & games to develop the young mind - to think, reason, plan, solve problems, compete, master spatial concepts and number skills, shape- and pattern recognition, enhance life skills (like inhibiting impulsivity) and self-confidence, creativity, concentration, discipline, and much more …all aspects of school readiness and important early childhood development. The young child’s brain offers a window of opportunity to learn specific skills/concepts which are critical for later learning. The MiniChess program is designed to develop those critical areas by means of play.
The program is well structured, with tried & tested, progressive and age-appropriate Learner Workbooks (4 levels) AND Teacher Manuals with extensive lesson plans, assessment standards, and educational outcomes (including training and support for the teachers). The content and method of learning links-up with school curriculum in the foundation phase. Youngsters that would not normally be interested in chess as a sport, nevertheless enjoys the MiniChess program  a lot! Even teachers who don’t know anything about chess will be able to use this educational tool – and will eventually  also be (entry level) chess teachers! Learners and teachers get much benefit from this in-class program, and are accredited after completing each level. Please visit our website for sample materials, educational studies, photos, etc.

I know you have a large local interest in the program. Can it be used to benefit children in other countries as well? How do people contact you if they want to learn more about MiniChess? I understand that you have plans to take the program online. Can you give us a little sneak preview of what your plans are?
The MiniChess program can be used very effectively by children from different countries and cultures, as it is aligned to the generic educational outcomes for children aged 5 to 9 years old. The Learner Workbooks as well as the Teacher Manuals (with the lesson plans) are available in English at the moment, although translation into different languages are being investigated. Interested persons are welcome to contact us through the MiniChess website.  The MiniChess Software program 1 is under construction, with interest form international chess guru Garry Kasparov, who also wants to get involved. It is an adventure game which takes the player all over the world (and even into space!), linking to the educational outcomes of the MiniChess Level 1-program, with STUNNING artwork, and a wonderful surprise at the end!     

Congratulations again on winning Woman of the Year in the Education category. Your prize included a R100 000 for your program that I know will be well spent. But what plans do you have for the personal prize that you have won as part of the award?
I want to thank Shoprite Checkers again for honouring the work that SA women are doing in their communities, and for the generous contribution of R100,000 towards the MiniChess/Moves for Life programs countrywide.
The additional cash prize is such a WONDERFUL gift – it is not often that a “mother and teacher” gets money to spend on whatever she wants! I shared the prize with my fellow MiniChess workers and my family by treating them to special “celebration dinners” and I bought something special for my garden. The rest is in the bank, for now….