Reading about something in a book is one way to learn. That coupled with active engagement allows the whole person to interact with the subject matter. A math teacher once said, “Math is like swimming – you cannot learn it by reading it in a book. You have to jump into the pool.” Within the classroom, CELC utilizes a comprehensive hands-on approach.

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CT Experiential Learning Center (CELC) Middle School is designed to empower youth during a time of life that is often regarded as a time to just get through, and fast! With physical changes, hormones becoming fully engaged, it is an intense transitional period, leaving childhood and moving toward the adult self. These early stages of this life change, during the middle school years, can be confounding for young people who contend with trying to “fit in” during a time that is, by nature, vulnerable and unsettled. This time is powerful. It can be joyful and exhilarating, filled with passion and new ideas about oneself and the world.

CELC’s education supports students and offers energizing opportunities both in and out of the classroom. Education and learning is not meant to happen in a vacuum.   Presenting young people the chance to interact and engage in authentic experience brings meaning, serving as an introduction to the many facets of the self, on the path to becoming.

A large percentage of the curriculum incorporates real-world and field experiences. Students venture outside the classroom, working with environmental educators in the field, partnering with organizations to apply the learning to real-world situations. For example, science class includes study of cells, learning about the cell parts and viewing cells under the microscope. CELC also provides a visit to a local biology lab, PhoenixSong Laboratory in Branford. Students interact with the scientists, conducting a lab to view their own human cheek cells. They also look at cells grown in a petri dish that are part of state-of-the-art cutting-edge technology and research toward finding a cure for liver disease. Each week students are “in the field”, being exposed to a wide range of meaningful and impactful learning experiences.

Within the classroom, CELC utilizes a comprehensive hands-on approach. For example, each year CELC students research a topic of interest based on a yearlong theme. This research takes the form of reading for information, developing a point of view, making an outline to frame how best to deliver the information, taking notes relative to the outline, and ultimately writing a formal research paper. Each step is broken down into smaller parts to have the most successful outcome. Following this research paper, students are then challenged to conceive of and creatively construct an elaborate display, in the style of a “living museum”, to represent their topic of study. Students then become that person or develop a persona related to the topic. This is immersion learning, providing a full multi-sensory and multi-dimensional involvement.

A large factor in having success within this type of experience-based educational setting is its size. CELC is small by design. Each student is valued, seen, heard, and integral to the whole. Social interactions equate to developing relationships. Students have a lot of time to express themselves each day, interacting with one another on a continuous basis. Knowing oneself starts with feeling comfortable to be oneself; this is not often the case for the young adolescent in larger settings.

CELC emphasizes its mission each day, “by providing a learning community based on the guiding principles of respect, integrity, responsibility, and individual learning, the innate desire of all children to learn, grow, communicate, and create is honored”.

Adolescence is a powerful time of life, when the person who one will become is forming. Students are asked to do hard things. Meeting one’s edge, whether it is academic or social-emotional, is not easy for anyone. Students are asked to try, to stretch beyond the comfort zone. Doing the familiar does not equate to real growth and learning. A “microschool” such as CELC allows for educators to take the time to work closely with students, a step at a time to achieve a goal. Authentic experiences are supported each day, serving as a bridge to give the academic and developmental needs a place to emerge, grow, and thrive.