Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2011


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The Educator and Community Builder: Tracee Reiser

The Educator and Community Builder: Tracee Reiser
Tracee Reiser. Photo by Bob MacDonnell

Eight years ago, Connecticut College students studied with growing concern the emerging data on rising childhood obesity rates and the connected issue of sedentary lifestyles. We talked with concerned New London elementary school principals and teachers. Children were sitting in classrooms, sitting in afterschool programs, and then going home and sitting in front of a television. We all agreed — too much sitting around!

We discussed how to best examine the issue, asking the questions: How could we integrate more physical activity in the children's daily routines? What are achievable fitness milestones for children and youth? How do we best teach healthy choices and good nutrition? And, since improving literacy is a high priority, can we tie in reading to this initiative?

Students studying a broad range of liberal arts disciplines focused their academic and creative lenses on these inquiries. We grappled with the challenges and out of our research, analysis and dialogue, we created Project Kids, Books and Athletics — or, as we fondly call it, KBA.

KBA is a simple and elegant project with two main goals: increase physical fitness in children and foster a love of reading and learning. Here is how it works: Trained Connecticut College students read multicultural books with children, using reading prompts that deepen critical thinking and comprehension skills; they lead 30 minutes of structured physical activities; and they all finish up with a healthy snack, a drink of water and an interactive discussion about healthy food choices.

The college students become mentors and role models. They inspire the children. And, at the same time, the children and their teachers and after-school staff teach our students how to better understand perspectives that are different from their own. They guide our students in developing basic tenets of a Connecticut College education, including democratic virtues of honesty, empathy, generosity, teamwork and social responsibility.

We rolled out KBA through the College's Office of Volunteers for Community Service with the broad involvement of our athletics department and the New London Public Schools. That first year, we trained 10 Connecticut College students — in literacy and guided-reading techniques, the state's guidelines for physical fitness, FDA nutrition standards — and then we set out.

Our first program was at Harbor Elementary School, where we met with 15 children in an after-school program. I was there that day. I can still see the joy and laughter on the children's faces — and on the college students' faces — as they read a story with themes of good sportsmanship and friendships, as they raced from one end of the gym to the other trying to better their time with each attempt, and as they paused to drink fresh water and talk about why water is a better choice than soda.

That day was another great beginning for Connecticut College — and for the children in the program. And word spread. Soon we had requests from other schools and from community-based agencies with after-school programs: “Can KBA work with us?”

Today, Project KBA trains more than 100 Connecticut College students each year. KBA teams work with preschool, elementary and middle school students. Teachers and agency personnel tell us they see new enthusiasm for reading and learning, increased fitness, and improved understanding of healthy food and drink choices. Our college students report deeper knowledge and understanding of education equity issues as well as increased abilities to teach, tutor and work as members of a team. Project KBA advances teaching and learning for all involved and it is one way for the College to be involved in its community.

One hundred years ago, Connecticut College was founded by people who cared deeply about learning and believed strongly that colleges should be good local citizens. The founders — including New Londoners — understood the power of an outstanding liberal arts education, that it could transform the students and transform the world. They built a foundation and cultivated a mission that ensured our students have broad opportunities to apply what they learn in the world. They understood that the very act of teaching and learning — in a community — powers the engines of thought and discovery. They built in the distinct expectation that Connecticut College students would become effective citizens in local and global communities.

Then and now, our students learn to collaborate and how to work with others to make a difference — a difference that guides them toward living their lives with meaning and purpose. They learn out in the world and bring that learning back to their classes. They discuss, analyze and propose new ways of seeing and doing, guided by Connecticut College professors — our students' mentors and role models. Project KBA is one small piece of this integrated and very powerful teaching and learning community.

Tracee Reiser is the College's associate dean for community learning, associate director of the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, and director of the Office of Volunteers for Community Service.

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