KENOSHA — When she was in the second grade, Christine Gill came home from school and told her mother there were girls on the playground using sticks and string and she wanted to do what they were doing.

St. Joseph Academy, Kenosha, sixth grader Lauren Santarelli knits Monday, Jan. 9, during J-Term at the school. For five days, students are introduced to a variety of skills and courses to broaden their knowledge. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

“It took her a couple of days to figure out I was talking about knitting,” she said. “Of course, coming from a big Italian family my Aunties and Nana had to come and add a row to my project, too.”

Gill teaches Upper Campus English at St. Joseph Academy, but shares her love of knitting with 52 students during the school’s J-Term, a unique hands-on learning session implemented three years ago, to provide students with opportunities that ignite curiosity, creativity and inspiration.

Wanda Jaraczewski, director of student success developed J-Term (J for January) because she wanted experiential courses for students, giving them the time and freedom to explore topics outside of their normal college preparatory curriculum.

“The inspiration for J-Term came from a desire to help our students discover their God-gifted talents and passions within our Catholic educational community,” she said. “This novel program provides students the context within which they can learn a new skill or acquire an understanding of a topic of interest without fear of failure. The focus is on exploration, discovery and encouragement.”

Gill’s course, “Knitting for a Cause,” helps beginners and more seasoned needle workers with knitting and crocheting scarves, hats and mittens to donate to the needy. After they complete their project, they are free to make something for themselves.

“My students are in grades 6-12 and I had one brave young man in the morning and four in the afternoon,” she said. “I have some beginners and some more experienced students. After I started an after-school knitting club, I found I had two students who were adept at crocheting, Lara Gonzalez and Aby McGonegle. They ‘co-teach’ with me in the morning and pop in, in the afternoon when they can.”

She said one of the secretaries, Charlotte Bishop, comes in the afternoon to help the crocheters.

“Many of last year’s classes enjoyed it so much, they’re taking the class again,” said Gill. “However, I ask them to do a more advanced project to keep their skills growing. They’re knitting and crocheting hats and mittens to donate with the scarves.”

Noah Tyler, left, and Dominic Zagra, seventh graders, play a Civil War game during a J-Term session, Monday, Jan. 9, at St. Joseph Academy, Kenosha. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Once the course is finished, Matthew Giunti, Upper Campus English teacher takes the knitted and crocheted items to the Shalom Center for the volunteers to present to their guests.

J-Term includes internships

The J-Term envelopes the entire student body and lasts five days. Students typically take two courses per term, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each session runs two hours and 50 minutes. In lieu of class selections, junior and senior students can secure an internship with an area business or non-profit organization.

“These internships have included placement in law offices, the medical field, finance and business experiences as well as county government,” said Jaraczewski.

As the internship leader, Linda Hantke, business instructor/department chair, said most students find their own places to intern, but the school has great family and alumni support offering to place students if needed. Some students did their internships all day and some went half day and took another J-Term class for the other session.

“We had students this year intern at Alia, Dumez and McTernan Law Office, Mura Law Office, Dr. John Matteucci, Aiello Family Dental, Aurora Medical/Genetic Counseling, physical therapy facilities, such as Sports Physical Therapy, Athletic Republic,” she said. “We also had them at Vernon and Pleasant Prairie Elementary Schools, Jockey International, BEI electronics, McTernan Wireless, Mobile One, Guttormsen Recreation Center, Andrea’s Gift Shoppe, Millian Financial Services, Market First LLC, Dyancoil, Lake Country Pipe & Supply, Regner Veterinary Clinic and Wilmot Ski Resort.”

Program offers hands-on experience

Hantke said the internships are helpful in that many students have gone on to school in a field related to their internships.

“The program gives them an opportunity to get some hands-on experience in their field of interest,” she said. “I just saw a former student tell me that her participation in the program allowed her to already do classroom observation as a freshman for her educational degree. She interned in special education classrooms during her junior and senior years.”

In addition to specialized courses and internships, SCJA offers grade level retreats during J-Term, facilitated by their in-house retreat team.

Ninth graders Julia Laventhall and Alex Daher, participate in an improvisational class during St. Joseph Academy, Kenosha’s J-term, on Monday, Jan. 9. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Senior Abigail Walther worked on the retreat team last year. As a core leader this year, she met once a week, beginning in the summer, with other members of the core team to plan the retreat experience.

“Each retreat we run has a theme, so we create activities and small talks and testimonies to go along with the particular theme of the retreat,” she explained adding that retreats are held at local parishes around Kenosha, including St. Therese, St. Anthony and SJCA’s Lower Campus. The sophomore and senior retreats were held at the University of Notre Dame.”

Students in grades K-12 can participate in the retreats, and Walther said the younger students enjoy having the older students lead their retreats.

“It’s refreshing to learn from fellow students, rather than just learning from a teacher in a traditional manner,” she said. “J-Term is one of my favorite things SJCA has to offer. The J-Term allows students to take classes that are not offered during the regular school year. This can help students get an idea of what career path they might want to pursue in the future.”

J-Term also extends to younger students

Including retreat participation, the elementary campus also involves itself in the J-Term experience.

“Teachers, parents and community members provide our youngest learners with a variety of incredible experiences including the art of calligraphy, sport statistics, Lego storytelling and exploring endangered animals,” said Jaraczewski. “This year, the elementary campus will move their J-Term experience to May, when Wisconsin weather provides better opportunity to explore outside.”

As the social studies department head, Kristen Peterson teaches AP Psychology, regular psychology and AP US Government, but during J-Term she taught an introduction to forensic psychology to 24 students in grades 10-12.

“I don’t have time to work the topic in during regular course time, so J-Term was a natural alternative,” she said.

Students learned the history of forensic psychology, how to compare TV to reality, profiling, jury selection, lie detection, eyewitness testimony, handwriting analysis, insanity pleas, trash profiling and cybercrime.

“I had Judge Barbara Kluka come in to discuss the use of forensic psychology in the courtroom and her personal experiences with it during her time on the bench,” said Peterson. “I also had a Kenosha County Sheriff’s deputy coming in to talk about lie detection and demonstrate the use of the voice stress analyzer used in Wisconsin. Students also completed a research project and did analysis of serial killer, Jack the Ripper.”

One of the benefits of J-Term is that students can explore a field that they may wish to pursue after high school. Peterson said several students interested in psychology took her course.

“They have started looking into degree programs at various universities,” she explained. “Some of the underclassmen have told me they are going to be taking psychology when they are able to, and some students have discovered they can combine science and social science for possible careers.”

Freshman Alexandra Daher took an improvisational class and musical theater choir during J-Term. In the past three years, she took cooking, theater and art classes.

“Every year I look forward to J-Term, as do my classmates,” she said, adding, “My improv and musical theater classes are so much fun. At St. Joe’s there are so many different choices in classes that you could take. The classes that I chose are just right for me and every day, I was so excited to get up and go to school.”

Offers respite from academic rigors

Daher said she also appreciates J-Term for the respite it gives her and her classmates from their rigorous courses in the sciences and humanities.

“In some cases, the courses really do help students with what they may want to do after high school,” she said. “For example, St. Joe’s offers law and order classes as well as some ACT prep classes, so it is fun and educational.”

The SCJA J-Term is well received by students, teachers and staff and was specifically identified as a “powerful practice” by their AdvanceED accreditation team in April 2015, explained Jaraczewski.

“Each year, teachers are encouraged to submit course offerings in areas they are passionate about, even if outside their normal subject area,” she said. “For example, one of our veteran science teachers loves cooking and offers an incredibly popular culinary boot camp class every year. One of our new high school English teachers brings his love of music history to a new J-Term offering on music appreciation. Student, teacher and parent feedback continues to inform and re-shape our J-Term, with course offerings adjusted on an annual basis.”

In lieu of grades, students receive pass/fail scores, which requires attendance, participation and good behavior, explained Megan Roffers, a junior at SCJA.

“This is my third experience with J-Term. In my previous years, I have taken interesting classes at St. Joe’s. This year I did an internship with a genetic counselor at Aurora Health Care of Kenosha,” she said. “I learned about human genetics regarding pregnancies and cancer patients. I decided to do this because I have had an interest in genetics for a couple years after learning about it in my biology class.”

The internship is helpful for Roffers in that it has given her an idea of the role of genetic counselors and the education needed for a career in that field.

“I like the opportunity J-Term gives for high school students to take an interesting class or internship and learn something new,” she said. “J-Term has given me an opportunity to learn about an occupation that I am interested, whereas during the course of the school year I wouldn’t have this opportunity.”