By Phyllis Lucas
Director of Professional Practice

Sometimes when you look back, it’s hard to remember how an idea started, especially an idea that today is so successful and at the same time continuing to grow and evolve.

So, when did Qualistar’s idea of “symposium” begin and what does it look like now?

It all started with a request. Nancy Rosenow of Nature Explore was scheduled to be our keynote speaker at a celebratory event which Qualistar was hosting for providers across the state. We were thrilled to have Nancy accept our request, and as things often go, we began to think, “Well, while we have her here…”.

So, that started it all in 2009. Nancy presented at our first Symposium. Her topic was the Outdoor Classroom, a topic relevant then and certainly relevant today. We had thirty-five participants in an all-day training, which was hands on, participatory, and very successful. We knew that best practice for training is followed by coaching on the new knowledge, and we knew that we would not be able to do that. Instead, we developed a facilitated model for our Symposia, and utilized it in our first one. We asked coaches to take the training alongside the teachers and directors and facilitate the discussion, reflections and activities. I must admit, that at first, for those first couple of symposia, participants didn’t quite know what to make of this model. But more on that later.

For a couple of years, we continued to provide Symposia with expert presenters. We worked hard to attract experts on topics such as science inquiry, math, and responsive caregiving. Using the participants’ evaluations, we continued to refine and improve our model. We made facilitated learning, reflection and practice integral components of our Symposia.

And then, we started thinking. Again. What about all those untapped sources, those experts that most of the early childhood field doesn’t know are there, or doesn’t think about in the context of early childhood, those rich resources in every community? Enter the Museums!

In 2013, we were honored, thrilled and excited to partner with the Denver Art Museum to bring to Colorado’s early childhood professionals an experience which those of us planning, those of us presenting, and those of us participating, had not had, ever.

It was a full day, facilitated-learning entitled Preparing the Canvas: Art, Critical Thinking and the Preschool Child. It was held on a Saturday, the Saturday right after the floods. We had 92 people register, and all but three showed up. A testament to Coloradans and especially to early childhood professionals! The training was super, the activities were engaging, meaningful, and supported.

But the real star of the day was the Museum. The Denver Art Museum, like all museums, has a persona. It is alive and vibrant. There is so much to take in, to appreciate, to contemplate, to learn from. It was the visual and physical experience of the museum, the art work, the walking into the galleries, which gave the training another dimension. The presenters were expert staff from the museum who had a passion for creativity and for young children. And, being led into the gallery by the docents as one of the scheduled activities was like icing on a very rich and decadent cake. And, all of this in such a rich community resource, The Denver Art Museum.

The museum experience opened the eyes of many teachers on that September day way back in 2013. Not only did the teachers benefit from experts and from the museum experience. They were fully supported by the facilitators, who led discussion and clarified activities. The facilitators were key to group reflection and planning. They were key to transference of learning, the “how and what am I going to do when I get back to my classroom”.

We continue to partner with the Denver Art Museum, to find meaningful and engaging ways to offer to teachers of young children information and activities on the creative process, and what it can look like in the early childhood classroom. The partnership has solidified and grown over the years. Kristina Mahoney, Manager of Teacher & School Outreach Programs, captures our dynamic partnership well:

“Our collaborations with Qualistar have supported encouraging Early Childhood Educators to bring art and creativity into the classroom and to their students through their experiences at the Denver Art Museum. We have enjoyed building reflective and participatory professional development experiences alongside the team at Qualistar and the coaches they work with, and other cultural organizations. This partnership has also led to receiving training approvals for our sessions through CDE, which furthers our efforts with this audience.”

Next up, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. How many of us who have taught or teach young children struggle with the whole idea of science for three and four year olds?

Here, in our backyard, we have experts to help and support us with understanding what science looks like for our very youngest learners. So, in 2015, the Denver Art Museum staff presented to early childhood professionals on: Exploring Science: Destination Wonder. In fact, that year 2014-2015, Qualistar partnered with Lakeshore, the Denver Art Museum, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to provide a coordinated and cohesive training with an overarching theme of the young child as an explorer. The Denver Art Museum presented Unleashing the Creative Explorer in the Preschool Classroom, and Lakeshore sponsored a training on The Preschool Child’s Exploration into Math: Connecting Math Concepts throughout the Day.

Our partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science continues to strengthen and evolve. We have now collaborated to bring training on science inquiry to coaches on two occasions, seeking to support coaches so that they can better support teachers and directors. Again, quoting our partner:

“The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is proud to work in concert with Qualistar to provide quality teacher professional development for early childhood educators. We believe that by sharing our considerable content knowledge and resources, we can support and empower teachers as they work to help each student reach their full developmental potential. Our team is grateful to be working on the front lines to create a bridge between the city’s cultural institutions and the wonderful work teachers are doing in the classroom.”

Our partnerships with other organizations continued to grow. In 2016, we partnered with RAFT and Kodo Kids to bring teachers and directors a series training on engineering for preschool children. This was two six-hour trainings, the second training building on the information presented in the first. We also offered professional learning community experience and had great success supporting the participants who participated in these. The first of the series set the foundation with a focus on opportunities in engineering throughout the day. The second training delved more deeply and looked at design thinking.

Last year was busy for us as we grew our partnerships and symposia model. Qualistar partnered with the Denver Public Library to bring a training to teachers of our infants and toddlers on Developing Language with Infants and Toddlers. We acted as a consultant for the library staff to get this training approved through the Colorado Department of Education. Also, in that same year Qualistar was instrumental in bringing the four organizations together to provide a very exciting series training for preschool teachers. The overarching theme was “literacy”. Partnering with the Denver Public Library, the Denver Art Museum, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, expert presenters from each organization focused on literacy throughout the day. Again, we used our model of expert trainers with facilitated learning experiences, and again the environments of the museums and library added that experiential dimension. And, all of the trainings were approved by CDE.

Lauren Dennis of the Denver Public Library during the Literacy Symposium: How Science Skill Development Can Enhance Literacy Instruction on November 5, 2016.

So, where are we today? Well, we’re in a very exciting place.

Our partnerships continue to grow as we will be collaborating with Swallow Hill Music School of Denver for a training in September on bringing music into the early childhood classroom. The instructors, who are musicians, will delve into such topics as music composition, music and literacy, and music and movement. So, stay tuned!

We continue to work and partner with the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, RAFT, and the Denver Public Library. And, although, our tried and true symposium model remains relevant and impactful, we are all now exploring new models for bringing this rich expertise to early childhood professionals.

One example is our partnership with the Denver Public Library for a training offered this July and August, two three-hour sessions on Play Is Serious Business, Parts 1 and 2, July 15 and August 26. This training is for those who teach and serve infants and toddlers. We are in conversation with the Denver Art Museum on yet another model. And we are partnering with RAFT to bring two three-hour trainings in early 2018. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science continues to be a strong partner. Look for something very soon on science. So, again, stay tuned!

Quoting one of our partners, Stephanie Welsh, Executive Director for RAFT, sums up why we do this:

“Qualistar’s willingness to share their expertise and extensive relationship network in the early childhood community is invaluable, and we thank them for working with us to enrich education in Colorado.”
We are not going to stop here. Qualistar will continue to strengthen our established partnerships, and will look for others. The world is big out there. It’s big and rich, and just waiting for to collaboratively tap into the knowledge and expertise that can elevate our field to provide our youngest learners environments that truly are enriching and impactful.