By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
MUSCATINE — Last summer, while trying to make COVID-19-friendly plans for youth religious education classes, Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish made the decision to go online.
Religious educators Tommy Fallon and Sister Cheryl Demmer, PVBM, weren’t sure how families would respond to the change. “We said… if 25 percent of kids participate, we’ll be happy,” said Fallon, coordinator of Youth & Young Adult Ministry. “But, participation has blown that out of the water, with kids responding and doing lessons.”
Currently, Ss. Mary & Mathias has 20 more students enrolled in religious education than last year. “It’s a real gift to see that,” said Sister Demmer, director of Religious Education & Faith Formation.
The Muscatine parish uses a free, web-based program called Flipgrid to organize lesson plans and interact with the students. “It’s simple and accessible… and I thought ‘free’ was a pretty good price,” Sister Demmer said. Fallon added that the program is similar to the ones used by elementary schools for online learning.
The parish’s textbook publisher, Our Sunday Visitor, offers weekly lesson plans, which include reading assignments, videos and activities. Sister Demmer reviews these plans and uses them as a template, making adjustments and additions to fit the needs of her students. That includes offering a Spanish option. Fallon offers technical assistance as needed.
Students and parents log on at their convenience to complete the weekly assignments and activities. Through video responses, students recite prayers and answer questions. Sister Demmer said she spends about four hours a week watching the videos and giving feedback on what students have learned.
Fourth-grade twins Riley and Libby Phelan said they have enjoyed the video response element of online religious education. “I like it because I get to take videos and say what I think, but also see what other people think,” Riley said. Libby said they learn a lot from watching other students’ responses. They also appreciate the opportunity to work through the materials at their own pace.
In a typical year, Sister Demmer takes on more of a managerial role, so the opportunity to interact with students has been an unexpected blessing. “I have probably gotten to know the kids better through Flipgrid, just hearing them talk about their faith. They’re just so sincere and so honest.” Sister Demmer also oversees religious education students from St. Mary Parish in Wilton through Flipgrid.
She also appreciates parents’ participation, which has grown because the online format requires more assistance from parents than in-person religious education. “It’s been a blessing seeing parents working with kids, seeing them praying with the kids.”
Fallon sees another blessing with the Flipgrid format. Introverted students, like he used to be, find it easier to speak up. “In person, you have a few kids who like to answer all the time; you hear from them. When I was in school it gave me an out!” With this program, each student is required to record individual responses. “We are hearing from everyone. It provides a way for them to share their thoughts in a way that is very comfortable. They don’t have to worry about being around their peers, and they have plentiful time to think through their thoughts.”
The flexibility of online lesson plans makes it easier for some families to participate, especially those who have other commitments on Wednesday nights. Online learning tools could come in handy even after in-person classes have resumed. “We had one year where we had to cancel a month of classes because of a polar vortex,” Fallon said. “In the future, should that ever be the case, we have options… classes won’t get put on hold.”
Communication is key. The parish uses e-newsletters and text messages to keep in contact with parents and Sister Demmer checks in with parents who have difficulties with the online format. ”It’s just being aware and being sensitive to making sure everyone is still kept in the loop,” she said. “It takes time to make sure you’re connecting with everyone.”
Parent Joey Peate said he initially worried that the transition to virtual education would hamper his daughter Daisy’s religious education experience. “Now I can definitely say that the last year has far surpassed all my expectations. Flipgrid was extremely user friendly, Sister Cheryl had every lesson plan very well mapped out on the application, and I thought the video posts were an extra fun touch and extremely easy to record and post! I think the video posts also helped motivate Daisy, as she was always excited to watch the other children’s videos and get the opportunity to see some of her friends! We could not have hoped for a better experience over the last year.”
Despite the success of the online program. Sister Demmer said she misses the energy of a full building on Wednesday nights, and looks forward to the time when that is possible. Libby Phelan said, “Even though I like virtual religious education, I miss in-person religious education. I am looking forward to being able to go back in person!”