Shooting for Stars with Professional Development
Episode #91: Kepler Academy means “big things”. Lynette Ventura describes what prioritizing professional development for staff has done to help children thrive. Through professional development, teachers have identified what their impact really is – hear about the Brain Story – a 30 hour, 19 module course that helps educators certify their skills. Play and professional development are connected at Kepler Academy – Using play to assist children with anxiety and stress has been researched and proving to be an excellent tool. “By creating a safe environment for children to have a desire to learn and by having a solid team that takes pride in the actual growth and development of all children.”
HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #91 – Lynette Ventura Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – April 06, 2018
It’s not like a sit-down classroom or anything like that. All the materials they think that they’re just playing, but they’re actually learning through them. And then that consistency and active learning, listening to the children and using their interests and questions to explore the environment.
Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.
Lynette, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
So, Lyn, you’re the executive director of an organization called the Kepler Academy. Can you tell us what Kepler Academy is and what makes you unique?
Yeah, for sure. So, we are a new childcare company. We just started up in January, and we kind of took childcare to the next level. So everything we have done to create the program has been very much research-backed. We took different focuses and then we just ran with those to create our own personal curriculum.
Okay, so what do you mean by that? So you looked at different approaches and combined them to create your own specific type of curriculum or approach?
That’s right. So we combined [the] Reggio method, the Waldorf approach as well as Montessori, just because we thought that all children learn in different ways. So by combining all three it sets every child up for success. So we made our own curriculum. We call our curriculum the Exploratory Education Approach.
Okay. And I also really like the name of Kepler Academy. Can you tell our listeners a little bit where that name comes from and what it means?
I can. It comes from the synopsis with [the] Discovery [Space Program]. So the Kepler Telescope of NASA they use to discover distant planets, to the namesake Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion. So “Kepler” means big things, so “Kepler Academy” means big things.
Cool. I’m a big space geek so that’s why…
Yeah, we want children to reach for the stars.
Yeah, totally, totally. I like it. And so one of the things that I was reading on your website is that professional development is something that was quite important in terms of your training and ongoing development for early-childhood educators in your programs. And so, for from your point of view, why do you think professional development is important? And how are you fostering that at Kepler Academy?
At Kepler Academy, professional development is very, very important for us, just in the success of the whole program as a whole, starting with the children the staff and the families. So we give our staff the support and the tools the resources to succeed in their roles. For example, before Kepler even opened its doors the entire team was given a full one-month training with continuous encouragement of learning thereafter, as well as group and individual learning.
So when we we’re doing our training, the most critical time in a child’s life is the first five years. So we dug deeper into that, and we went into the child’s brain development. And our whole team now is Brain Story certified. The Brain Story is a 30-hour, 19-module course that is self-paced, and it’s so rewarding at the end. We’ve actually been contacted by the AFWI, which is the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative – they’re actually located in Calgary – to have a sitdown with them because they were so impressed that we were the only childhood company that has actually done the Brain Story certification.
Interesting, interesting. Can you explain a little bit more about what was involved with the Brain Story certification? Because one thing that I also think is really great is taking research-based information and applying it practically in the classroom. That’s what we all really want to get to an early-childhood education. Was that a key part of the Brain Story certification?
It certainly was, yeah. When you go through the Brain Story certification, each module touches on a different part of the brain. So at the very beginning when there’s infants, how important the serve-and-return interactions are. And then as they grow those interactions are still important, but then you have different ways of applying those.
And from your experience so far in the Academy, what do you think the benefits of the Brain Story certification have been for the educators in your programs?
All the educators have actually been able to realize what the impact really is, on the words that they’re using, how the environment is set up and how to actually interact with the families to let them know that certain things that are happening in the home which could cause toxic stress, and then that affects the child’s brain and their development as well.
Cool. And did you receive any feedback from the educators on your teams about what approaches and types of professional development they have found most useful and applicable?
Yeah, the serve-and-return interactions, definitely. They never realize how important it was to have that. They just thought that if they sat in the room and then they just kind of talked that the child was gaining more information that way, versus them actually putting a ball at a certain distance away to have the child grab that ball and then pass it back.
Got it, got it. And in like a learning environment, how was that taught to the educators? Through what type of channels, I guess? Was it like a classroom environment? Was it interactive, workshops…?
The Brain Story?
Yeah, or any of the other professional development that the staff have done?
Yeah, so, some of it has been workshops. Some of it has been just online webinars, and some have been just through the center director and myself. We just have a discussion with all the staff.
Cool, cool. What kind of online webinars did you guys do?
So with the Brain Story, once you’ve completed that you have access to take some courses through Harvard University, because they are part of the Brain Story creation. So then we can take, like, Talk With Me Baby, Talk With Me Toddler and a bunch of other different courses that they offer.
Very cool, very cool. And how do you hold your educators accountable to then take what they’ve learned through all of this training and professional development and ensure that they’re applying it in the classroom?
So that goes through their programming. So each room has their own program plan that they have to create, and then they have to apply all this stuff, all the knowledge that they have taken into those program plans. And then the center director just ensures that they’re touching all areas of development.
And do they have time outside of the classroom for things like professional development and program planning?
Absolutely. Because we’re very strong in the professional development we think that it’s very important that everybody keeps up with their education and the new things that are coming, all new research that is out.
So during the day the staff have about a half an hour that they can reflect and do some programming, and that’s per-day. And then during the weekends there are some courses that they can take if they want to. And then any of the big conferences that come up we try to attend though as a big group.
Cool. And with a lot of the professional development you’ve done, I understand you’re also applying play-based learning and your setting. How do your educators use play to reinforce learning in your classrooms?
So [in] each childcare room we have various specific chosen materials for the children to engage in and develop educationally and creatively. So many of the items have been picked for their natural components and how they inspire the discovery and exploration that the children will be having.
We do have areas within the room that include pretend play, which promotes imagination as also diversity and gender. We do have the manipulative play as well as a reading area. And then we deliver our curriculum in such a way that the children develop a love for learning. So it’s not like a sit down classroom or anything like that. All the materials they think that they’re just playing, but they’re actually learning through them. And then that consistency and active learning, listening to the children and using their interests and questions to explore the environment.
So it sounds like it’s safe to say that the environment is a very key aspect of using play to reinforce learning at Kepler Academy. Is that right?
That’s right, yeah.
And what about families’ perspective? So how do you communicate to families that their children are learning key aspects across different domains of development when they walk into a classroom and see their child playing?
We actually go through the materials with the parents when we’re doing tours. So we will pick out key components of the program and then we’ll just kind of show them how the children learn through them. For example, I like at a sensory table if they just see some animals they just think that they’re just going to get dirty. Then we explain to them how they can learn through the different animals and different habitats and that they are going to learn through that.
Cool. And is there also some ongoing communication or engagement with families to keep them involved in their children’s learning?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Every day. So we have a Kepler app, and there’s constant communication between the parents and their caregivers at the team.
Great. And do you ever worry that your educators might be distracted by using the app to communicate with parents? Or what’s your feelings about that?
No, not really. They fill those in when they have a minute. Or if they’re just really struggling through the day then the director kind of goes in and just gives them five or ten minutes to go through that app and update whatever they need to.
Cool, okay, so having sort of some backup support is a way to alleviate that if and when it’s required?
Absolutely. There’s a ton of support in Kepler for everybody, yeah.
So, connecting the dots here, we talked about professional development, we talked about play-based learning. Let’s put the two together. Do you think there’s elements of play that could be introduced to staff development that you might recommend?
We always think that… just make it possible. It’s something we have ingrained within each component of our curriculum, and it’s a mindset that we have adapted throughout our development. By using play to assist children with anxiety and stress has been researched and proving to be an excellent tool. And then just creating a safe environment for children to have a desire to learn. And by having a solid team that is dedicated and takes pride in the actual growth and development of all children.
Yeah, very important. And what about opportunities you wish you could make available to your educators but maybe they’re not currently possible because of budget or availability or time…?
That one’s a tough one because we are so supportive and so taking childcare to the next level. But if I had to choose something I would probably say being able to travel to other countries and network with other various early-childhood leaders. Like, Germany has some great ones, Italy, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, the UK – they all have some very, very great spot leaders.
Yeah, we’ve interviewed people that have had the opportunity to go to places like New Zealand and Australia and Italy to explore what they’re doing in other countries. And they certainly have provided that feedback that it’s an excellent learning experience to bring that into wherever they might be in Canada or the U.S., typically is where guests are from.
Very cool. So wrapping this all up for our listeners, what is one piece of advice you would give to people starting out their careers in early-childhood education? Let’s say I’m just graduating from college and I’m really excited about the field. What’s your advice?
Take your time to research different programs and see which one really benefits you the most, the one that makes you feel the most comfortable working in.
Right, very good advice. So not just applying to any positions that are out there, but also kind of almost interviewing and researching the organizations you’re applying to as well.
Awesome. If I’m listening to the Podcast today and I want to learn more about Kepler Academy or get in touch with you, what’s the best way for me to do that?
You can either call me or email me. You can email me at LV(at)eplerAcademy.ca, or you can call me at 780-700-9427. Or check out our website and there’s lots of different ways you can communicate with us through there.
Awesome. And Kepler Academy for listeners, [the website is] www.KeplerAcademy.ca. They are in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada a beautiful place, a beautiful country which we all love here at HiMama.
And I want to thank you, Lynn, for coming on the show today because we really love hearing from programs that are pushing the envelope with trying new things, and especially with the application of research-based knowledge and practices that we’re putting to use in the classroom to improve children’s development. Thanks so much for what you’re doing at Kepler Academy and for early-childhood education, and thanks for coming on the Podcast today.
Thank you so much for the opportunity. It was great.