By Jean Strait
In Western Pennsylvania, ethics and hard work go hand in hand. Coal and Steel were the two biggest industries in Johnstown, Pennsylvania where Dr. Jean Strait grew up. The ethics of hard work were passed from generation to generation. Her mother, would tell you Jean was born a teacher, leading the neighborhood kids in just about anything. It is no wonder she grew up to become a strong advocate for service-learning and community engagement.
Strait spent her high school and college years attending to needs of the older citizens. On Thursday afternoons, Jean would drive her grandmother and friends back and forth to the local grocery stores. She would shop and deliver food for those who couldn’t make it out of their homes to do it themselves. Her grandmother insisted that she not schedule any classes on Thursdays because this was to be her job for the family. Jean always knew this was meaningful work she just didn’t know how ingrained it was in her core.
Today, she is a Professor in Teacher Education at Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota. For over thirty years, She has designed and implemented urban teacher programs that feature service-learning.
So what exactly is Service-learning? Simply put, service-learning is a strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and self-reflection to support a variety of goals: (1) enhancing academic learning, (2) teaching civic responsibility, (3) developing 21st century skills, (4) increasing global awareness, and (5) strengthening communities.
The service-learning approach is reciprocal in nature: the student group that provides the service and the agency that receives it gain equally from their interactions. One of its key components is critical reflection. Students must have the opportunity to mentally process the service they are providing and learn to integrate essential skills they employ into their strategy banks through practice. Hard skills refer to academic skills. Soft skills are more interpersonal in nature: listening and oral communications are considered soft skills. Many students access hard skills through soft skills. For example, it is much easier for a student to work on content if they can discuss it with a friend or work in a small group. The development of interpersonal skills creates cognitive pathways in the brain, which, when used on a frequent basis, make it easier for students to then access the academic skills. Soft skills are often referred to as civic skills or civic competencies, which are commonly developed through service-learning. The idea behind this pedagogy is to develop civic professionals through these new basic skills. High quality service-learning teaches students problem solving, critical thinking, decision making, public speaking, teamwork and how to interact with communities that are different from their own. It also teaches moral reasoning skills. Like character education, the experiences young people go through in this process help focus their understanding of the responsibilities of the individual and the community by integrating the cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions in moral reasoning skill development.
One of the most valuable service-learning projects Jean ever had the honor of designing was the creation of Each One, Teach One, a distance service-learning project that focused on rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Hamline University dedicated resources and time to New Orleans, Louisiana in its efforts to rebuild and reclaim the city. Days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Hamline sent students, faculty and staff to help with recovery efforts. The Education Club adopted Martin Luther King Science and Technology school (MLK) soon after to help in cleaning and rebuilding the school and sent over $20,000.00 in books, supplies, merchandise gift cards, food and water to help with this effort.
Still fueled by the great need in New Orleans for assistance, Jean’s team worked with Traveler’s Insurance Company and received a grant of $30,000 to start an online tutoring and mentoring program that would be staffed by Hamline University and Avalon High School students in St. Paul. Students traveled to New Orleans in March of 2008 to meet their MLK student mentees, help with self-esteem programming, and create relationships of trust and respect with the mentees.
Jean was honored when her contributions to the field were recognized in 2012 when she received the Rahima Wade Award for Outstanding Research and Leadership in Service-Learning. She has also published several books including The Future of Service-Learning and eService-learning: The Marriage of Experiential Learning and Civic Engagement.In addition to teaching Freshmen how to develop service-learning projects, Jean’s latest project (a collaboration with Claire Braun) is the Minnesota Rolling Thunder, a non-profit track and field team that works with youth to develop talent for the USA. Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program is one of the first inclusive running clubs in the USA for all athletes. They are a member of Long Island Track and Field, and its parent organization, USA Track and Field.
Founded in 1998 by Steve Cuomo, the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program (RTSNP) is a non-profit (501c3) organization dedicated to providing challenged individuals with the opportunity to successfully participate in all levels of mainstream running, walking or wheelchair racing year round. Rolling Thunder is open to developmentally and/or physically challenged individuals, age 5 or older, regardless of athletic ability. (RTSNP currently has team members ranging in age from 5 to 50+ years old). The team is also open to typical siblings and parents, and to any members of the community willing to volunteer their time and effort. RTSNP is a true inclusion program, integrating special needs individuals with their typical peers at all team practices, races and events. All team coaches are volunteers. (RTSNP has no paid staff). There is no membership fee to join or to participate in Rolling Thunder activities.
RTSNP’s goal is to teach special needs individuals the sport of running, walking, or wheelchair racing in an inclusive setting, while helping each athlete build independence, confidence, and self-esteem. By competing side-by-side with typical peers, challenged individuals earn the respect they deserve. Through sports, athletes will learn to make good decisions, to set and achieve personal goals, to practice good sportsmanship and to develop important life skills.
To learn more, visit the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program online at http://www.rtsnp.org/ .
Also, if you would like to get involved with the Rolling Thunder Minnesota Chapter as an athlete or volunteer, please contact President Claire Braun at (763)742-3286, and help advance this amazing work.