Principal Megan Dieckman (Our Lady of Sorrows School, Ladysmith) presented the largest attended afternoon sectionals for school educators. Her topics were strategies and classroom tools for students with special needs. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

New to the Fall Conference for this year were facilitated discussions during lunch. Participants were invited to join their peers by grade level or ministry in specific rooms or areas of the gymnasium. Two leaders in each group led discussions.

Sectionals provided in two blocks during the afternoon offered multiple tracks for Catholic school educators and two targeted topics for catechists.

Catholic schools and educators offerings

One sectional offered two sessions on the same topic, “Creating Cross-Curricular Units of Study,” on incorporating multiple subjects in one lesson.

Other offerings covered classroom management, literacy and writing across subjects, making phonics fun, use of STEM/STEAM/STREAM in engaging science instruction, and one on how to be creative with physical education where no gymnasium is available. Another, with significant attendance, was on “Google Suite and Technology in the Classroom.”

Four sectionals addressed specific student needs in reading, literacy and writing, math, as well as topics of learning disabilities and autism.

The last two were presented by Ladysmith’s Our Lady of Sorrows School principal Megan Dieckman. Dieckman has an undergraduate degree in early childhood education, graduate-level certification in early childhood special education and a master’s in educational administration with a concentration in special education and pupil services. Both sessions were popular with educators.

Superintendent of Schools Peggy Schoenfuss commented on the increasing population of students with these challenges and diocesan schools’ accommodations for them with limited resources, relying on the professional training of current teaching staff and outside service providers.

“Autistic children have been attending our schools for years. We help parents determine best school placement for them based on the child’s diagnosis and the resources our schools do or do not have. About 0.4 percent of our student body falls on the autism spectrum.

“Because some students with autism have more needs and may need more specialized services than our schools can provide, we do encourage parents to prayerfully consider the best placement for their child, and therefore many of these children do attend our parish religious programs as well,” she added.

Schoenfuss shared that the following schools have been at the forefront of these efforts in the diocese: Nativity School, Rhinelander; St. Francis Xavier School, Merrill; St. Mary’s School, Tomahawk; and St. Patrick’s School, Hudson.

She also mentioned that Adele Svetnika, religious education director for St. Peter the Fisherman Parish in Eagle River, formerly ran a camp in the area for autistic children with her husband. Schoenfuss said she has developed “a good process for incorporating these children into the parish program.”

Both of Dieckman’s presentations fleshed out teaching strategies and tools for classroom success. She acknowledged that early detection and intervention is very important and affirmed that “Catholic schools have a wealth of experience and knowledge in teaching children with all levels of abilities.”

With regards to students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the presenter reviewed subtypes and the common challenges they share – challenges with social interaction, communication and behavior.

Dieckman gave information covering facts and myths and gave numerous examples, with visual aids, of helpful classroom practices: defining spaces, break areas, structure provisions, visual supports and positive behavior strategies.

She also spoke on inclusive classroom practices and how the small classroom setting provides for children working together in a supervised setting, and how with proper education of students, parents and staff, students with ASD can enrich a classroom and be a learning and growth opportunity for all.

For students with specific learning disabilities, Dieckman spoke extensively on differentiation methods. Tailoring instruction to meet individual students’ needs can be done in regards to content, process products or learning environment, ongoing assessment and flexible grouping. She addressed how this differs from individualized instruction but can be used in conjunction with, and in addition to, personalized learning plans.

Dieckman told educators, “Most of you are probably doing it without even realizing it,” and added that differentiating for advanced students can be even more challenging at times. She encouraged them to work together with fellow teachers and staff to share knowledge and experience.

There was some discussion on GOAL (Growth Opportunities to All Learners), the program developed by the Diocese of Superior as the foundation for personal learning plans for each student, similar to the individualized education plans used in public schools for special needs students. Discussion followed on Catholic schools’ relationship with public school systems in regards to testing and services.

Dieckman told the Catholic Herald, “The key is providing the teachers with professional development on strategies and methods that may work for children with autism or with a learning disability. The Fall Conference is a great time for (that).

“We also can lean on one another as resources. Our principals and superintendent each offer a specialized area or areas of expertise. We are all willing to share and help out wherever we can.”
She concluded, “All that being said, the one ultimate advantage Catholic Schools have is being able to teach through the word of God.”

Tracks for catechists and religious education leaders

Carolyn Kohlhaas, a formation leader for “The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd,” spoke on the Montessori-style program. A Franciscan University graduate and Montessori-certified in primary and elementary level certifications, the presenter rose to the challenge of effectively showcasing the CGS materials with more than three dozen participants.

She exemplified some of the methods used and emphasized the role of signs, symbols and interactive learning.

The diocese’s assistant director of Catholic Formation, Chris Hurtubise, who works primarily with the religious education and youth programs, called Kohlhaas “an expert in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd” and expressed what a blessing it was to have her “come and share about focusing catechesis on a sacramental encounter with the Lord.

“Through demonstrations and rich catechesis, I think she opened all of our hearts and minds to the beauty of making catechesis a rich, encounter-driven experience for the children we’re forming,” he said, adding, “There were times when she was demonstrating her methods that I literally got chills. It was incredible. The young people that are gifted with this experience truly encounter Christ and learn their identity as his beloved children from an early age.”

Hurtubise explained that Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a Montessori approach to children’s catechesis, broken up into three age levels: 3- to 6-year-olds, 6- to 9-year-olds, and 9- to 12-year-olds.

He said the diocese is hoping to host a level-one, weeklong immersion course next summer, the first of a two-part training done over two years. He asked that anyone interested in this training contact Grace Geisler at .

The second session offered for this group was a discussion on training adults to lead small discipleship groups to reach more teens and provide them with a sense of belonging in the church. Annie Grandell, YDisciple Coordinator for NET Ministries, presented. After more than a decade in parish youth ministry, Grandell now develops resources and training for Catholic small group ministry.