By Elizabeth Hurley
Nativity of Mary in Bloomington innovates with Blended Learning.
Fifth grade teacher Holly Long has always enjoyed teaching. But with the changes Nativity of Mary Catholic School has made to its programming, teaching feels more rewarding.
“It’s fun. It feels more like student-learning than instruction-giving,” Long said. “With the new programs, it feels like students are more engaged and are getting more out of school.”
In 2015, Nativity of Mary partnered with the Minnesota Nonpublic Accrediting Association to evaluate key areas of the school. Since then, programs, models and partnerships have been added to improve the preschool to eighth grade school in Bloomington.
“We wanted to ensure we were a school of excellence in every way,” said Mindy Reeder, principal at Nativity of Mary.
Nativity’s programming caters to the diverse needs of the students, many of whom come from first-generation immigrant families. Forty percent of the student body is ethnically diverse, and five different cultures are represented.
Nativity of Mary has also worked to bring in staff members who represent other backgrounds. The school hired bilingual staff and a translator to help with conferences, tours and events.
“The culture at Nativity is one where students can develop confidence in themselves and discover God’s plan for their life,” Reeder said.
TAILORED LEARNING FOR EACH CHILD
Changes in programming help achieve tailored learning for each child. Blended Learning was one of the new programs implemented for the 2018-2019 school year. As part of a grant program with the University of Notre Dame, Nativity of Mary was one of five Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis selected to implement the program over a three-year period.
Blended Learning technology is integrated with each student’s personal learning experience; students rotate stations within the classroom as they work on skills and concepts. One student might work on an individual skill at a laptop, while another student receives one-on-one help from the teacher, and other students work together on either individual or group projects.
“It’s a traditional classroom with adaptive technology,” said second grade teacher Megan Thorpe. “The students use the software, so they can work on the topic or subject in a way that matches their skills. We as teachers use data from that software, along with personal observation, to be able to personalize the needs of the students.”
Personal observation paired with data collection allows Thorpe to know if a student is struggling with reading or if he or she needs more challenging math sooner than if she was working off observation alone.
“I’m able to meet the students’ needs on a different level, and I am able to differentiate specific needs to each student, no matter their academic ability,” Thorpe said.
MAXIMIZING TECHNOLOGY TO MAXIMIZE LEARNING
Knowing that technology is a part of a child’s environment, Nativity of Mary uses Chromebooks as a way to engage students in their learning. Although the program began before the school’s accreditation process, it complements Blended Learning.
In the program, each student in grades four through eight receives a Chromebook. Fourth and fifth graders only use their Chromebooks at school, but sixth through eighth graders take their Chromebooks home. Students use Google Classroom for assignments and Google-certified teachers for homework help.
Eighth graders Nathan Vodovnik, 13, and Yike Lako, 13, find using their Chromebooks easier and more helpful than doing homework on paper because Chromebooks allow easy access to homework help.
“In today’s society, technology is essential to reach kids where they are at,” Long said.
Nativity of Mary has done precisely that.
“Nativity has built a rich technology environment so that technology engages with a student’s learning,” Reeder said.
One way that Nativity of Mary balances the use of technology is with its Maker Space/STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program. This unassuming room, which houses a closet full of materials ranging from rubber bands and popsicle sticks to coding robots, is a room for possibilities.
“It’s fun to be there,” Yike said. “We do activities as an alternative to reading the information from the book.”
In Maker Space, students are given concepts or outlines rather than direct instructions to facilitate learning. In Thorpe’s second grade science class, students are learning about weather and weather safety. To teach her students how to be safe in different types of weather, Thorpe’s students built weather-safe structures in the Maker Space room, which they will test against a tornadic stimulation.
“I love that it’s an innovative way for the kids to express themselves and their learning,” Thorpe said. “It also has them problem-solving and collaborating, which are skills they’ll use later on in life.”
“It’s a really nice balance between technology and creativity,” Long said. “The fewer directions you give, the more creative students will be.”
Another model used at Nativity of Mary is the “responsive classroom” model, where teachers begin each day in an advisory meeting with students.
“It’s a time to check in with the students and for them to check in with me,” Long said.
The conversations range from what students learned in a different class to what they did over the weekend.
“Responsive classroom helped me to create a more welcoming, bonded community in the classroom,” Thorpe said. “I had that before, but responsive classroom reminds me to take time for the little things, the silly things. My job is academic, but it’s also much more than that. Academics and social skills go hand-in-hand, and the facilitating of relationships benefits everyone.”
It is also used as a classroom management tool. At the beginning of the year, students are asked to share their hopes and dreams, which are then used to create classroom guidelines. In many classrooms, the students’ hopes and dreams are hung right next to their guidelines. These guidelines help mitigate problems later in the year because teachers can reference the rules they created together.
“I love it,” Long said of the model. “It’s a great tool because it’s so positive. Kids feel they have more ownership of their learning. And that’s the point, it’s their learning.”
THE CATHOLIC SCHOOL DIFFERENCE
Yet, there is more to Catholic education than just learning.
“At Thursday Mass with the students you see what makes Catholic school different — that it’s not just the programs or academics — it’s that God is an essential part of school,” said Father Nels Gjengdahl, pastor of Nativity of Mary Catholic Church. “Kids grow up knowing God is necessary to who they are and their development. You see children experiencing that.”
Introducing their children into the Catholic faith was one reason Eric Shook and his wife chose Catholic education for their three children. Having moved from Ohio to Minnesota, the Shooks were looking for a school that had a well-balanced curriculum, technology, playgrounds and busing. After considering all the schools in the area, they chose Nativity of Mary.
Recognizing the value Catholic education places on families, Nativity of Mary added a multi-student discount to aid large families.
“We wanted to make sure we were representing and supporting the importance of family within the Catholic school and Church,” Reeder said.
“The multi-student discount is an added advantage, especially since we are a young family with multiple kids,” Shook said. “I think it has been great to make Catholic education more accessible to a broader range of families.”
Since adding the discount in 2015, Nativity of Mary has seen an increase in enrollment, especially with families with three or more children.
Nativity of Mary has also seen increased enrollment in its preschool. Of the 357 students enrolled at Nativity, 77 of those students attend preschool. Expansion of Nativity’s preschool program began in 2015. The preschool was licensed in 2016, and in 2017, was awarded four stars by Parent Aware. Nativity’s preschool offers two-, three- and five-day classes, with the option of morning or all-day care.
Nativity of Mary partnered with its parish to bring Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to its preschool program. Catechesis is an interactive program to educate students on faith. For an hour and a half each week, Nativity of Mary preschoolers learn about different aspects of Catholicism. The classroom is filled with miniature models and pictures of items and events that the children see at Mass: There is a miniature altar with the bread and wine, a corner that depicts the different aspects of baptism and other areas of learning.
“Everything is done in a smaller version that they can touch and feel, so they can understand the different aspects of our Catholic faith,” Reeder said.
Catechesis started before Father Gjengdahl came in October 2017, but he is a big fan of the program.
“It’s very experienced based, tangible and interactive,” Father Gjengdahl said. “Faith should be experienced, and we see a lot of fruit from that program.”
Because of the preschool program’s success, Nativity of Mary has added morning care and is looking to open a second location.
Student growth isn’t found solely in the classroom. Each week, Nativity of Mary’s “Pals” program pairs students of different grades to sit together with a staff member during Mass. The older students guide the younger students in proper behavior during Mass.
“There is a sense of family and community,” Thorpe said. “With the older students taking care of the younger students, they develop close relationships. And it is fun to see the kindergarteners now being the big kids. They’ve been the young pal, so they know what has been special, and they get to do that for their pal. It’s a powerful and important thing for children to know and learn.”
Students also spend time with their pals outside of Thursday Mass. Recently, students came together to make cards for Lynn Robertson, a kindergarten teacher on a medical leave of absence. Using paper in Robertson’s favorite colors — pink and green — older students helped younger students write and draw pictures on the cards.
“It’s fun getting to know the younger students and be around them,” Nathan said.
Father Gjengdahl said the sense of community represented within the Pals grouping is mirrored at Sunday Mass. After Mass, parishioners sit and converse together. A table of doughnuts and coffee is run by volunteers, and parents watch their young children play with others.
“The history of this parish is written into the fabric of the community,” Father Gjengdahl said. “Nativity of Mary is a place where people gather and connect, and where families grow together. The place and the people really entwined their lives. So many people know each other and grew up together, and now the next chapter is coming along in the young families attending Mass and Nativity of Mary school.”
Father Gjengdahl said the church and school community really comes together during Communion.
“At Sunday Mass, you see the whole church gathered; you encounter God reaching out to every single person,” he said. “Especially at Communion, you see the entire face of the Church. You see their different stories, histories