Developing the Whole Child

 Developing the Whole Child

St. Gertrude fosters its students academically and spiritually

Corinne Minard

While many of us think purely of academics when we think of school, St. Gertrude School in Madeira is focused on developing the whole child.

“[When you talk about the whole child], typically you talk about the social, emotional, spiritual, academic, just the whole picture of what it means to be human,” says Sister Maria Christi, O.P., principal of the preschool-through-eighth grade Catholic school. The school fosters students’ academic and artistic sides with features like its active theater program, Latin classes and outdoor classroom, but St. Gertrude also works to develop students’ spirituality, even with students as young as age 3.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
St. Gertrude School is the only school in the Tristate that uses the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd method. Developed by Sophia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi in Rome in the 1950s, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses Montessori principles to assist children in understanding Catholic teachings and developing a relationship with God. St. Gertrude first developed its atrium (a dedicated space specifically designed for this type of learning) five years ago and has seen the program grow since then. Students ages 3 through 9 participate and the program even has its own staff.

“We’re really trying to continue to build this and make it an important part of their week while they’re here,” says Cindy Wurzelbacher, director of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. Gertrude.

When students are in the atrium, they are presented “works”—interactive figures or displays that showcase biblical, liturgical or historical concepts. Students are presented the work as a group and shown how to interact with the figures. Wurzelbacher uses the Annunciation as an example.

“That’s the story of when the angel Gabriel came to visit Mary and invited her to be Jesus’ mother. So there’s a house and there’s a little Mary and there’s a little Gabriel peg doll—although we don’t play in the atrium, we pray, so when I use the word doll let me be clear we are not playing. And then we have a Holy Spirit dove that’s part of it. We read directly from the scripture, even to our youngest friends. And then as we read it … we will move Gabriel over to Mary and then they will talk. And then you will ask pondering questions. I wonder how Mary felt. I wonder did Mary question whether she should say yes or not. You just ask a lot of pondering questions,” she says.

Once a student has received a presentation, they are able to interact with that work during their time in the atrium. And as a student gets older, they will be brought back to previous works and asked more complex questions to help them further build their understanding.

However, much of each student’s time is spent interacting with these works by themselves or with a partner.

“It’s all work, whether you’re 3 or whether you’re in the fourth grade. This is your work time. And they treat it as such. And they’re quiet and they’re prayerful, for the most part. It’s about learning grace and courtesy. It’s about learning that my friends are also praying right now, so I need to be respectful of that,” says Wurzelbacher. ““It’s really a quiet, contemplative meditative environment where [we’re] asking pondering questions, trying to create wonder and awe in the child to slow them down and to ultimately build a personal relationship with Christ.”

Virtue Program
Another way St. Gertrude is looking to develop the whole child is with its Virtue program.

Assistant Principal Travis Johnson says that the program was first created by the sisters at the school and was developed to help students learn to be virtuous people.

“There are three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity, or love. We focus on one of those every three years,” he says. “What we do is we have these subvirtues, nine of them, that follow under that theological virtue, faith, hope and love, and then every month we’re focusing on a different virtue, whether it’s patience, whether it’s temperance, whether it’s zeal, whether it’s justice, prudence, forgiveness, responsibility, and we highlight each one of those every month and the teachers talk about it in the classrooms, they integrate them into their curriculum and their lessons.

“The emphasis is on them becoming virtuous and therefore being happy, but being happy in a virtuous way.”

The virtues are also integrated into activities, mentioned during announcements and connected back to saints on their feast days.

“It’s actually putting into the concrete, putting the virtue into a concrete person, which when you’re trying to inspire children to be virtuous people, holy people, good people, you can talk about it all you want, but in the end we need an example,” says Johnson.

Second graders even put on a Gallery of Saints each year where they dress up as different saints, line up in the halls and give presentations of the saints to those who walk by.

“I think by doing the virtues program, it creates an awareness of not just the rules of not doing the wrong thing but really trying to strive to be the best person we can and the best response to the truth of who we are,” says Christi.

Youth Ministry
St. Gertrude’s active youth ministry keeps students actively involved in their faith as they get older. The school and parish offer both a junior high and high school youth ministry, keeping kids connected even after they leave school.

“The youth ministry has been a paid position here since 1999—the parish has seen that the ministry is an important part of parish life,” says Kristen Eggers, Office of Youth Evangelization assistant.

She says that Brian Wells, who leads the junior high youth ministry, actively works to get students excited about their faith with activities like group hikes or get-togethers like the morning event Jesus and Doughnuts.

“Brian’s a lot of fun. He stands outside at dismissal and not only greets the junior high kids but everyone who walks by, you know high fives, handshakes. Just to have a relationship with them. And then through that he can help lead them and guide them in prayer,” says Eggers.

Wurzelbacher, who is also a parent at the school, says she appreciates how involved the youth ministry is.

“It’s not just a junior high youth ministry thing that’s done over [on the side]. It is an active and visible part of our school campus,” she says.

And it’s just one more way that St. Gertrude looks to develop the whole child within its students.