Quinten Loucks helps set up the SMART board for a presentation on the American Dream by Marah Zinnen ( St. Mary, Burlington), Eddie Pencak (St. Monica, Whitefish Bay) and Nic Schuller (Port Catholic, Port Washington) during a Discovery Class project at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Milwaukee, Jan. 22. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina/www.photoventures.com)

Last spring, when the grass was sprouting and flowers were budding, something else was springing back into existence in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee – the Discovery Project, a program that allows academically gifted seventh-and eighth-grade Catholic school students to take high school level courses in place of their language arts course or for enrichment.

The original Discovery Project, which began in the ‘60s when Marquette University offered classes for kids on its campus, dissolved due to a lack of funding. Today, the program exists as nine-week online courses and three face-to-face half-day workshops at high schools within the archdiocese for seventh and eighth grade students who meet three requirements: They must be earning an A in their language arts class, be between the 95th and 99th percentile on their standardized tests and have a teacher referral.

Lynn Ann Reesman, principal of St. Mary Visitation School in Elm Grove, and a member of the steering committee, said her involvement in the original Discovery Project when she was a seventh-grade student was one of the greatest experiences of her life.

“I mark that summer as the time when I really started to learn to think for myself because prior to that I was able to pretty much breeze through school,” Reesman said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, noting that she learned how to lead a good discussion, and ask critical and creative questions about the challenging literature presented to her class.

Project teaches stewardship

According to its mission statement, today’s Discovery Project aims “to challenge students to become better stewards of their God-given talents. The project identifies the gifts of high-ability students and develops appropriate learning opportunities and support for students, teachers and families. As young disciples, students are encouraged to utilize their gifts for the good of our church and the world.”

“Not all teachers are prepared to deal with the intellectual and/or emotional challenges of the very gifted learner,” Reesman said. “Now, we know all children are gifted. They’re gifted in different ways, but there (are) some students who have been just God-given with tremendous intellectual or artistic ability and we want to be sure that we reach out to those kids and help them as much as we can within the Catholic school culture.”

The first phase of the current project started before Brenda White, assistant superintendent of the Catholic schools office, began her work last year in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The program utilized a paid consultant who helped pull together formational documents like project goals, launch the project and help talented seventh and eighth grade students take classes through the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth.

“The first phase of the Discovery Project got some of our highly gifted children connected with an outside organization, to be able to take some higher level courses, so when I came on board in the archdiocese’s office for schools last year and started working with the steering committee, we decided to put our energy and our money into our own system – how could we take that same concept of offering these enriched classes for our really gifted kids, but do it by connecting our Catholic high schools to our grade schools?” White said of the project funded by a grant from the Finnegan Fund that was created in the mid-‘90s to be used by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for the furtherance of Roman Catholic education.

Catholic high schools are partners

The steering committee members asked high school principals to partner with them and to recommend what White described as “highly qualified” and “innovative” teachers who would work with the committee to invent a way to offer an advanced online class. Two high school English teachers – Quinn Loucks, Divine Savior Holy Angels, and Rick Wagner, Pius XI – got on board to design two courses over the summer of 2009.

“They each had a focus on how do we utilize very high level, good quality literature and expose kids to this advanced literature, and then infuse with that creative writing opportunities for them to really write at a higher level than what they’re currently experiencing,” White said of the classes to be held each quarter. “…A lot of times gifted kids can feel isolated or different and we wanted this to be an opportunity for them to come together and experience the kind of dialogue and the social benefits of being together as really gifted kids.”

Loucks’ class, “American Voices, American Dreams,” began last November, and ended Jan. 22, with the first 20 Discovery Project students who studied the American Dream and what it means to different generations. Loucks, who has a master’s degree in instructional technology from Cardinal Stritch University, said he designed his class around two pieces of literature that he loves to teach, “The Great Gatsby,” and “Death of a Salesman.”

“These are two books that are very complex, but on the simpler level, can be easily brought into a sense of what is the American Dream, and I really felt like eighth graders, in the sense of gifted and talented eighth graders, could grasp a hold of that idea of the American Dream,” said Loucks, one of the four teachers who will receive a stipend from the Finnegan Fund grant for teaching the course.

Course begins with face-to-face session

The course began with a face-to-face workshop at DSHA, where the 20 students learned how the class would work, how to log in to their online classroom with usernames and passwords and how to submit assignments.

“The way I know how to teach is in front of kids, so anything I thought that I might have a hard time doing online … I tried to get out that first day,” Loucks said.

Each day, Loucks explained, the students signed in from a remote location to a DSHA program called, “Moodle,” an online classroom environment that allows “asynchronous communication” in a forum, meaning the participants don’t have to be online at the same time to be involved in discussions. The students were then required to make so many weekly comments in the online discussion forum on a question Loucks posted regarding a short story or poem.

“They get into these really big conversations and for me, as a teacher, I get to just step back and read what they’re saying, kind of like in the classroom where you ask questions and you can talk about it, but in the online space, you capture it,” Loucks explained, “…I can really assess this is what they’re talking about and it helps me to see that they’re really having these deep, in-depth thoughts.”

Discussions far from ‘dull’

Loucks, who plans to teach one or two classes a year in addition to his regular class schedule and coaching field hockey in the fall, said he feared the online discussions would be dull.

“They were just answering my questions and putting their hands down but, then, as soon as they got online, they were just talking away,” he said.

Four or five weeks later, the group gathered at DSHA again with a paper due and to discuss expectations for high school writing. At this time, Loucks divided the students into six groups of three or four in preparation for the task that would end the nine-week class – a group presentation created by the students using only online communication. “This all goes back to more of a technology standpoint – they call it 21st century skills, this group of things that people in the 21st century are going to need to be effective workers and one of those is being able to communicate and collaborate over distances,” Loucks said. “So, these little eighth graders, you know, they have never done this except for maybe they’re on Facebook talking to their friends are now trying to plan a presentation without ever actually talking to each other.”

Student finds project ‘challenging’

Anissa Gladney, 13, an eighth grade student at Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Milwaukee, and one of Loucks’ students said the project that included an explanation of the interviews they conducted with family and people around them on their views of the American Dream was different from working on a project in a physical classroom setting.

“It was a little more difficult, but not too much. The most difficult part was not being able to communicate right and not being able to get our ideas to come together,” Anissa said, but her group overcame the obstacles by finding what worked and what didn’t through their online communication.

While her favorite part of the class was reading the literature, Anissa said she enjoyed “being able to see other people’s viewpoints on things that didn’t go to my school and that were from all over.”

Even though the course doesn’t offer students high school credit upon completion, to Anissa, the course was fun and worthwhile.

“I was excited that I was able to be a part of something other than regular school and something that would challenge me,” she said.

Nichole Gladney, Anissa’s mother, was excited when she found out that Anissa was a candidate for the Discovery Project and that she didn’t have to look outside of the archdiocese for a program that would fulfill Anissa’s needs.

“I knew that I wanted to get her something to challenge her because she, ever since she started school when she was 5 years old, she’s always been at the top of her class and not challenged at all … and then when I saw this I’m like, ‘Get out! No way!’” Nichole said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald.

Nichole said that Loucks’ class was something that allowed Anissa to be with other kids just like her.

“I mean, she likes to read Edgar Allen Poe and like totally understands him and most people don’t, but it allows her to talk the same kind of talk with people just like her,” Nichole said. “I mean she was amazed that there were kids that could quote Benjamin Franklin and sort of decipher some of the things that Benjamin Franklin talked about.”

“And the instructor, he did some really exciting things like posting on the Web and posting videos on his teaching methods on YouTube, and, I don’t learn like that,” she laughed, “but kids nowadays really learn like that and it was really engaging for her.”

‘Great step’ for Catholic schools, says parent

Linley Achtenhagen, 13, an eighth grade student at St. Paul School, Genesee Depot, who is in the third quarter group of students that began Jan. 25, said she was excited to be a part of the project. Linley was looking most forward to going online, “I’m interested to see what the online classes are like,” as well the challenge that she hasn’t been getting from her regular classes.

“Now that I get to do something more kind of not that everybody can get to do, it’s really exciting,” she said.

“She’s always kind of been a thinker,” said Linley’s mother, Amy Achtenhagen, in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, “and she does express herself well in writing and I just think that this well help to take that to the next level for her and then also I think the independent work and learning will also really enhance her responsibility and her independent working style.”

Amy said she was thrilled to find out that her daughter was chosen for the project so she could work with other gifted kids and experience the online courses that are becoming more popular.

“Especially when not just Catholic schools but all schools are facing such budget cuts and sometimes programs that enhance gifted learners are cut along with those that work with learners who have learning struggles and issues and so I just think it’s a great way to be able to do that and to offer that kind of a program,” she said.

The emergence of a program typically found in a public school setting may even cause parents to choose Catholic education, according to Amy.

“I was so pleased to see a type of a program come out like this through the archdiocese because it’s just one of those steps where, again, that might be a reason people would not want to send their children to a Catholic school because they don’t have gifted and talented programs and so forth and this is really a great step I think,” she said.

Four teachers, 44 schools, 150 students

The project, which has four high school teachers on board to teach at four sites – DSHA, Pius XI, Dominican, Milwaukee, and Catholic Central in Burlington, has a diverse group of about 150 middle school students participating from 44 grade schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Future project goals include expanding class offerings to include areas like mathematics, and the possibility of students earning high school credit upon completion.

“For right now,” White said, “the goal of the program was to expose kids to that higher level literature and challenging text and lots of rich discussions and presentations and exciting writing opportunities, so the goal wasn’t to provide the high school credit; it was to provide and meet their needs in a way that they wouldn’t get normally in the classroom.”

But another goal was to give students a chance to preview some of the high school campuses while showcasing the “incredible learning opportunities” that they have to offer, said White.

“That’s the beauty of it – distance no longer becomes a stumbling block for us to be able to reach out and provide outstanding learning opportunities for children and so we’re able to use interactive Web-based technology to really help our high ability learners. …” White said. “Gifted kids have so much potential and this is a way for us to be able to tap that potential and allow these kids to see how God has gifted them in their lives with incredible intelligence and something to be proud of, and we hope this is the way to help them feel good about all the ability that they have and see ways to use God’s gift.”