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At St. Helen School, education flows in a STREAM

Eclectic program, developed from STEM, adds religion and art to math and science

First-graders at St. Helen School show their

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

First-graders at St. Helen School show their "Pigcasso" pictures. From left are Gordon Severe, Julie Nguyen and Bichard Deliscar.

LAUDERDALE LAKES | When Annette Buscemi went into education, she had a "certain school" in mind. It would "help others grow beyond their circumstances, to be a place of opportunity."

She feels that St. Helen School, where she's been principal for two years, is becoming that school, now that she and her 14 teachers have a new teaching tool: STREAM, a modified version of the popular STEM initiative, which boosts Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  

St. Helen School principal Annette Buscemi pauses by a poster in the school's hallway.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

St. Helen School principal Annette Buscemi pauses by a poster in the school's hallway.

To STEM, St. Helen's and other Catholic schools have added "R" and "A," for Religion and Arts. The eclectic approach blends methods from various fields to put together lessons — practical and spiritual, as well as academic.

"It's a different way of thinking about education," Buscemi said as her 202 students started a new school year. "It used to be compartmentalized. Now it's more integrated, across subjects and ages."

St. Helen's first-graders, for instance, heard the fairytale of the Three Little Pigs and the various houses they made: straw, wood, brick. Then they built their own little structures from materials such as straws and pipe cleaners and tried to blow them down, like the Big Bad Wolf. They even got to draw pigs in an abstract style dubbed "Pigcasso." Bottom line, according to guidelines in Quizlet, a teachers’ lesson planning tool: "understanding the need to insure that all have shelter."

Lessons for fourth-graders included peacemaking and "care of the other." The plan called for the students to imitate actions of a lion, an ox, an eagle and a winged human, traditional symbols for the four Gospels. That led in turn to Matthew 18:15-18, which the plan calls the "three-step approach" to conflict resolution. 

Sheila Pamplin shows the Spelling Tic-Tac-Toe system that St. Helen School uses with its students.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Sheila Pamplin shows the Spelling Tic-Tac-Toe system that St. Helen School uses with its students.

Even spelling gets a makeover with "Spelling Tic-Tac-Toe," a chart of nine boxes, all with assignments. The idea is to do three tasks each week, choosing them horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Lower levels feature tasks like writing each word in a different color, or writing a sentence with the spelling words. Higher levels involve things like mnemonic sentences and acrostic poems of the words. 

Higher-level students are getting into robotics, engineering, computer-aided design, even "spatial manipulation," said Carrie Roach, St. Helen's STREAM coordinator and middle school science teacher. She added that companies increasingly want young people who are familiar with such concepts. 

"We want to whet their appetite," Roach said of the students. And she apparently succeeded with sixth-grader Kensia Saint-Hilaire. 

For Saint-Hilaire, the spark was a video on inexpensive microscopes for children in other countries. That got her fascinated with 3D printers, which build solid objects directly from computer plans.

The 11-year-old began researching grant sources online, then was overjoyed to hear that St. Helen had lined up a donation from a supporter. The school now has its own 3D printer.

"I said 'Whoopie! Yay!'" Saint-Hilaire said. "I was excited."

Carrie Roach, left, and Annette Buscemi show a poster at St. Helen School. Roach designed the poster after learning that threads of the Mycelium fungus can interlink to form a circle.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Carrie Roach, left, and Annette Buscemi show a poster at St. Helen School. Roach designed the poster after learning that threads of the Mycelium fungus can interlink to form a circle.

STREAM is actually a confluence of, well, several streams in Catholic schools. Buscemi said she got the idea from the National Catholic Education Association, which held a first-ever symposium on the concept last June at the University of Dayton. The symposium drew 255 educators from 90 schools, including 11 from Florida.

"We looked at STEM and said none of it could be as effective and formative without religion," said Heather Gossart, director of NCEA's New Directions Project. "The purpose of all our Catholic education is to form, inform and, with God's grace, transform our students."

She estimates that more than half the 4,400 elementary schools affiliated with NCEA have started some form of STREAM, either as new programs or additions to existing ones. They’ll know better at the next national NCEA meeting in Orlando the week after Easter.

Even farther south, a STREAM bubbled up in another school. In Miami, Principal Carlota Morales of Sts. Peter and Paul School heard that nearby Immaculata-La Salle High School had added an "A" to STEM for Art. Morales decided last year that Catholic schools should add an "R" for Religion.

For Women's History Month this past March, the students gathered at a rally and heard from an artist, a zoologist, a firefighter, a math teacher, and Salesian Sister Kim Keraitis, principal of Immaculata-La Salle High.  

"Religion is the reason we exist," Morales said. "It's the mission of the Catholic schools. It's about everything we do; it's about who you are."

Sixth-grader Kensia Saint-Hilaire shows the school's 3D printer.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Sixth-grader Kensia Saint-Hilaire shows the school's 3D printer.

Gosnart of NCEA said she's "delighted" that individual schools are launching their own versions. "There comes a point where it makes sense. STREAM is the ultimate sense of how we must teach. It's exciting for us that a huge movement understands the relevance of teaching in this way."

Indeed, the new approach has helped change attitudes at St. Helen since Buscemi arrived two years ago. At the time, she found students uninterested in learning. She also decided the teachers needed to communicate better with one another.

One response was Quizlet, an online program the instructors use for planning and conferencing. Another was more activities, letting students learn by doing. Still another was a series of field trips, more than 50 this year.

Buscemi was delighted to see the results, she said. "They're now excited to come to school. And before, homework was a burden. Now, they're taking ownership."

Roach agreed, pointing out a poster in a school corridor. It spells out a cryptic phrase, in anagram/crossword style: "Common Threads Mycelium Stream." She explains that Mycelium fungi interlace to form mushroom circles on the ground, called Fairy Rings. They may be invisible in dry weather, but they’ll spring alive again after a rain.

"That's what I see St. Helen doing," Roach said.

Buscemi showed off another hallway poster that reads: "Success — there's an app for that. Apply yourself."

Success, after all, is where a STREAM is meant to flow. So is Catholic education, she suggested.

"I feel this is what Catholic school is all about: to offer the gift of possibility. Giving kids a better future."
Sheila Pamplin calls her first-grade class to order.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Sheila Pamplin calls her first-grade class to order.

Comments from readers

Mary Arnold, B.S.,M.S. - 09/24/2014 03:00 PM
As a former teacher of over 25 years in the Archdiocese of Miami, and now retired, I am conducting workshops. My area of expertise is teaching other educators "best practices for special needs students". My experience was achieved at St. Bonaventure School in Davie, at which time I was privileged to have Mrs. Buscemi and Mrs. Roach as my colleagues.
Recently I was invited to St. Helen by Mrs. Buscemi to conduct a workshop for the staff, and the accolades stated in the article above are well deserved, as I was so fortunate to witness. Mrs. Buscemi and her staff are to be commended for first, their love and desire to minister to the children in a Christ-like setting, and two, showing their concern and professionalism to help each and every child.
I am so proud of the milestones achieved at St. Helen, and again commend Mrs. Buscemi and her staff. I am so happy I was able to spend the time I did with your staff and you.
God bless you as you continue to follow the example of the greatest Teacher, Jesus!

Mary Arnold, B.S., M.S.
Educational Consultant
Specializing in Catholic Education

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