NCEA convention offers more interactive sessions, hands-on training

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SAN DIEGO — Megan Gonzalez connected brightly colored K'Nex plastic pieces into a triangle, part of a lesson exploring angles.She was one of several dozen middle-school teachers participating in a hands-on workshop on how to make math and science concepts engaging to middle-school students.

"The new buzzword is STEM, having kids up and moving around," said Gonzalez, referring to a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

The workshop was one of 275 presented by the National Catholic Educational Association at its annual convention and expo, March 29-31 in San Diego. The association represents 6,525 Catholic schools with a total enrollment of 1.9 million students from preschool to secondary levels.

Conference-goers attended hands-on workshops, professional development sessions and three eucharistic liturgies all the while celebrating their opportunity to combine their faith in God with their love of teaching.

This year, NCEA offered new "tracks" focused on exceptional learners, Hispanic ministry and STREAM, which adds arts and religious instruction to STEM-focused curriculum, an association initiative. That's in addition to the workshops focused on how to integrate technology in the classroom.

This year, the association moved away from lecture sessions to interactive workshops where participants learn in smaller groups, said Amy Durkin, the organization's director of events.

At the workshop Gonzalez attended, she and the other teachers built models from plastic parts and raced cars built from Legos with tires of varying sizes to see which one moved fastest, to illustrate math concepts such as circumference and angles.

Other sessions in the STREAM track included "Using STEM to Program Drones and Help Kids Love Math," "Incorporating Technology in Your Everyday Lessons" and "STEAM to STREAM on a Shoestring!"

The "Exceptional Learners" track included sessions on "Design and Implementation of Special Needs Programs," "Special Services in a 21st-Century Catholic High School" and "Including Students with Disabilities in Catholic Schools: Why? How? Yes!"

A session called "A Change of Pace: Differentiating for the High Ability Learner" focused on serving gifted students, also part of the "exceptional learners" population.

A number of workshops specifically focused on serving the nation's growing Latino student population. Latinos represent an opportunity not just for Catholic schools to grow but for the Catholic Church itself, Sister Dale McDonald said, noting that 16 percent of students in these schools are Latino. 

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