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Sixth-graders Brooklyn Vomacka, left, Rosa Tripp and Grace Fanowiel discuss imagery used in the novel “Holes” with teacher Kara Bousquet Aug. 24 at St. Thomas More School in Omaha.

Consortium pilots blended learning

Sixth-grader Myla Bowen has noticed a development she likes at St. Thomas More School in Omaha – growing use of small group learning and discussion.

"The groups help each other," she said. "I feel like the teacher is more understandable."

Teachers and administrators say the change stems in part from a pilot program called blended learning, which was introduced this year to fifth- through eighth-graders at St. Thomas More and the four other schools in the Omaha Catholic School Consortium. The technique uses small groups and online programs to provide more individualized, student-directed instruction.

Bowen recently was among groups of three to five students as they rotated in language arts from a computer station to areas for independent work, then to part of the room set aside for discussions with the teacher, Kara Bousquet.

Bousquet used an iPad to pull up the novel "Holes," and a laptop computer with her discussion questions and a program tracking all of the students’ online progress, to more quickly focus on individual challenges and opportunities.

And it wasn’t just Bousquet doing the checking. Computer programs known as Lexia and Reading Plus help the students monitor their own progress and suggest assignments to help them hone their skills.

"It’s like adding another teacher to the classroom," said Donna Bishop, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools and executive director of the consortium, which also includes Ss. Peter and Paul, Our Lady of Lourdes and Holy Cross, all in Omaha, and St. Bernadette in Bellevue.

Language arts is the blended learning emphasis this year at the five schools. But math and other subjects could be added in the future, and the methods and programs could be introduced at other schools, Bishop said.

Gary Davis, St. Thomas More principal, said the small groups and computer assistance "shrink the classroom," bringing more individualized instruction to each student, no matter the class size. They also encourage students to take ownership of their learning, he said.

"It’s putting the kids in charge of acquiring that information, not just the teacher giving it to them," he said.

The consortium is the incubator for the programs, just as it was two years ago for a system of small-group, more individualized instruction called guided reading that has spread to other schools in the archdiocese.

The five schools’ close collaboration in areas including professional development, marketing and administration make for a great laboratory for ideas, Davis said.

Back in the classroom, Bousquet said the students love the blended learning approach.

"I think it might be a little too early to assess the program’s effectiveness, but the dramatic increase in our students’ motivation is promising," she said.

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