“Overall, we’re examining how we teach,” says Jim Petersen, chair of the Liberal Arts/College Readiness Division at Blackfeet Community College (BCC) in Browning, Montana. “You can go to a lecture on how to swim, but we want to put them in the water. It’s an immersion activity: we’re developing programs at BCC using kinesthetic learning.”
Since its founding in 1976, BCC has been an integral part of the Blackfeet reservation community. Its role has evolved over the years. Initially, the institution provided a post-secondary choice for high school graduates, offering them an environment that stressed traditional Blackfeet language and culture. Some early graduates have credited the unique opportunities offered by BCC with helping them find their cultural center and leading to their current success.
Today, students enroll at BCC not only to find themselves in a culturally familiar environment, but also to springboard to career pathways that include four-year degrees in health-related fields, research opportunities, and a growing number of workforce development areas. One of the more exciting programs at BCC is its use of chess in teaching critical thinking to both BCC students and elementary students in Browning.
Dr. Mark Anderson, a nationally rated chess player, uses the game to convey pattern recognition, strategy, long-term thinking, etiquette, and other skills. Having taught more than 1,000 students in some 40 schools to play the game, Anderson helped bring the program to BCC. Together with Peterson, they are taking new forms of learning to college students, as well as to elementary students and their families on the Blackfeet reservation.
Anderson teaches chess to second through fifth graders in two schools in Browning (Napi and Browning Elementary schools), often with help from members of the BCC chess team. In coop eration with school administrators, students come to learn the game during their lunch hours and after school. It’s been such a hit he’s had to expand the program, and thanks to a National Institutes of Health grant awarded to BCC, the chess program will be ongoing throughout the summer.
Both Anderson and Petersen are extremely interested to see the results of standardized testing in the elementary schools this year so they can compare chess players to non-chess playing students. “We’re looking at their attitudes toward school,” Anderson says. “Chess brings many side benefits in behavior at home and in the community. We’re now starting to get information from teachers about chess players versus non-players in terms of their performance and behavior.”
While chess may indeed help improve academic performance, it also serves an important community function. “It’s a big thing with those little kids,” Petersen says. “I saw some pictures with Mark, and the smiles on those kids’ faces were heartwarming. At the chess tournament [the John Small Memorial Tournament held in Browning last February] a girl said to me, ‘I’m no good at basketball or football, but I can play chess!’ They’ve found their element. Mark has a very compassionate heart and interest in helping kids.”