Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, February 18, 2018

shnb sunflower webPatrick Kulis, a sixth-grader at Sacred Heart School in New Britain, explores the Fibonacci numbers in the head of a sunflower as part of his school’s Creative Learning Module. (Photo submitted)

NEW BRITAIN – Nearly 30 years after Sacred Heart School added a Creative Learning Module (CLM) to its curriculum, former students, who are now doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers, come back and tell educators what a difference the one-on-one learning experience made in their lives.

CLM for gifted and talented students was inspired in 1987 by former principal Mother Mary Jennifer Carroll of the Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception. It was her vision to create a challenging program that met the emotional and academic needs of high-achieving and gifted students.

At the time, Christine Wasielewski, who had just started as a new teacher at the school, was asked to begin developing CLM. Now three decades later, the eighth-grade religion and math teacher continues to run the successful   program with great results.

Twice a week, students in kindergarten through eighth grade leave their classrooms for a 40-minute, small group class with Mrs. Wasielewski to explore special interest areas not covered in the traditional curriculum.

Students are selected according to their classroom performance, test scores, teacher indicators, and, on occasion, parent recommendations. And some students may be particularly strong in one area, not necessarily in all subjects.

In developing CLM, the school initially looked at testing students to track results; but when that fell through, “we evolved into an enrichment program,” said Mrs. Wasielewski.

They also researched a variety of resources for ideas, including the national MathCounts enrichment program, as well as a young people’s debate program.

“Initially, Sister Jennifer guided me on how to look for challenging subjects,” said Mrs. Wasielewski, “and then she left it up to me to come up with ideas that would challenge students and also be very hands-on.”

“Being hands-on was important to us,” she said. “You just can’t do everything with a computer. Some things you just have to feel and experience.”

Eventually, she settled on topics that wouldn’t be covered in a regular class, or that were ripe for exploring in greater depth and from a different perspective.

For example, students recently studied the Fibonacci sequence –an integer sequence that begins 0, 1,1, 2, 3, 5, etc.

“It’s been found that numbers from that sequence [appear] in nature,” explained Mrs. Wasielewski, such as in sunflowers. “So we had students plant sunflower seeds, photograph the flowers with their iPads, project it on to a Smart Board, and then count the petals to find the sequence.”

“It was a math-oriented module during which they learned how to generate sequence, investigate ratios and remember numbers,” she said. “They learned that math underlies order in the universe,” such as in sequencing found in sunflowers, broccoli, pine cone, and cauliflower.

“We’re taking students already in our regular classes and giving them the chance to learn something new…the chance to think for themselves; and for some of them, the chance to fail, too,” said Mrs. Wasielewski.

“To some students, learning comes so easy that they’ve never experienced failure nor experienced the need to ponder something for a longer time before coming up with an answer,” she said.

Parents, too, are happy with the program. “It’s like a hidden secret,” said Katherine Muller, principal of Sacred Heart School. “A lot of parents put their children in our school because we offer this program which is unique for accelerated students.”

The opportunity for accelerated learning is not unlike programs in other Catholic schools.

“All of our schools reach out to exceptional learners,” said Valerie Mara, assistant superintendent of academics for the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools. She explained that accelerated offerings in other schools range from robotics, forensics, performing arts, engineering and music to more formal programs such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Program.

“They all bring their talents and they all bring their gifts,” she said. “It’s not how smart are you; it’s how you are smart. They all are talented, they all bring gifts to the table and we work from there.”