Building Educational Excellence: Hall of Fame Teacher & Teacher of the Year Talk About Age of Learning

June 27, 2014

For our first post on the Age of Learning blog, we decided to start at the beginning, interviewing two members of our Curriculum Board who have been central to shaping since before the site launched and who continue to guide our growing early learning curriculum: Kim Oliver Burnim (2006 National Teacher of the Year) and Dr. Rebecca Palacios (2014 National Teachers Hall of Fame inductee and founding member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards).

We spoke to them recently about their collective five decades of classroom experience and their passion for excellence in early childhood education.

To start, can you share some background on yourselves and your careers in education?

Dr. Palacios: My whole adult life has been devoted to education and improving the quality of early childhood education. I was a dual-language, pre-kindergarten teacher in the Corpus Christi Independent School District in Texas for 34 years. Corpus Christi is in South Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico, and my family has lived there for five generations. I have a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of Texas at Austin. I co-founded and served as the vice-chairperson of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which most educators just call the NBPTS. The mission of the NBPTS is to establish definitive standards and systems for certifying accomplished educators and to support excellence in teaching. I’m very proud to say that the NBPTS has certified more than 100,000 teachers who have gone on to improve the quality of education throughout the country.

Later in my career, I became a national professional development presenter and served on committees for the National Science Foundation, the Education Development Center, and Scholastic. I’ve also written quite a number of articles on professional development, early childhood education, and dual language programs, which is a passion of mine. Earlier this month I was honored by being one of five educators inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. At Age of Learning I’ve been a member of the Curriculum Board and a Senior Curriculum Advisor for five years, focused on strategic curriculum planning for generally, in addition to helping to develop curriculum content that supports English Language Learning for children from households where English is not the primary language.

Ms. Burnim: I adore working with children, and I love being a teacher. It’s a passion I started to develop as a very young child. I have been a kindergarten, first grade, and reading intervention teacher for nearly 15 years at Broad Acres Elementary School in my hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland. I’ve also been a teacher trainer and mentor teacher at the school. I am certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and I currently serve on the NBPTS Board of Directors. As a classroom teacher, my professional highlight was being honored as National Teacher of the Year in 2006 – there have only been three kindergarten teachers to receive this award in over 60 years. As a member of the Age of Learning Curriculum Board for more than six years, I’m involved in strategic curriculum planning, guiding the design of learning activities to ensure that they are developmentally appropriate, incorporate effective teaching strategies, and help build a strong foundation of essential concepts and skills that are important for early learners.

How did you come to join Age of Learning’s Curriculum Board?

Ms. Burnim: It started in early 2008 with a conversation with Doug Dohring, Age of Learning’s founder and CEO. What really drew me in was speaking to Doug and his senior management team. It was the passion, the vision, and the company goals that they shared with me. I was especially impressed that they wanted to bring in highly experienced early childhood educators from the beginning to guide the curriculum and academic standards. Doug began by sharing with me that the experience and expertise he had was in building a team, creating online user engagement, and managing a business—not in education. He said it was essential to rely on education experts to guide the development of an early learning resource that met the highest educational standards.

Dr. Palacios: I first heard of Age of Learning through Kim, whom I had met on the Board of NBPTS. I knew she was a stellar teacher, and the fact that she had chosen to work with Age of Learning caught my attention immediately. She recommended me to Age of Learning for a position on the Curriculum Board, so I flew from my home in Corpus Christi out to the Glendale offices for meetings. Based on what I saw and heard, I knew this was something I wanted be part of.

What specifically made you want to be a part of Age of Learning?

Dr. Palacios:  I’m an idealist. And in Age of Learning I saw an ideal. I saw the promise of what America’s best early childhood education program could be. A program that could help prepare the youngest learners for success early on, and also throughout their lives.
It really seemed like a great fit for me because everything was aligned with what I believed was important in early childhood education: the best practices, the early learning standards, developmentally appropriate instruction, in addition to the educational outreach they were planning.
Now, five years later, I know it was the right decision . . . and you couldn’t pry me out of here with a crowbar!

Ms. Burnim: I was really excited that the company was actually planning to create what I had always wanted as a teacher: a truly comprehensive online resource that could supplement the instruction I was giving my students. Before, I could never find what I needed. Everything was either inappropriate for my classroom, not high enough quality, or it covered only a very small part of my curriculum. Age of Learning planned to do all of that, and more.

Why is early childhood education important?

Ms. Burnim: We know that kids learn more from birth to five years old than at any other time in their lives. So, it makes sense that focusing on that critical period of learning can bring the most benefits. As a society, I think we need to focus more on early childhood education. We need to value early learning.

Dr. Palacios: As a classroom teacher for 34 years, I’ve seen first-hand just how important early childhood education is. We know through research that early childhood is the time when children are laying down the foundation for future learning and other positive outcomes beyond learning. We know that oral language experiences during this developmental time are crucially important. A quality early childhood education gives children a rich and stimulating environment that supports growth in all of those areas and sets the child up for success in the future.

What are your thoughts on technology and early childhood education?

Ms. Burnim: I know first hand that it can have a positive impact for teachers. With a technology resource like, teachers don’t have to worry about whether students are learning. They are, no matter what they’re doing on the site. But teachers also know that it’s something that students will enjoy doing. Teachers can use it to provide enrichment for students who may not be meeting a certain objective. It gives them an opportunity to practice that objective in a fun way on the computer or tablet. And it can also help with acceleration for more advanced students, allowing them to explore what might be happening in the next grade up and work independently on it. The technology gives them that flexibility to easily differentiate instruction.

Dr. Palacios: You shouldn’t introduce technology for its own sake. And of course it’s absolutely essential that children move, run, jump, catch, play, and interact with the people around them. But as children are developing language, literacy, and math skills, and learning about the world around them, technology can help teachers and parents provide the very best in developmentally appropriate education at each crucial early learning stage. On, children can actually follow a path to do just that.
Another benefit is engagement. I’ve seen that with—it provides children with levels of engagement that you rarely see in a classroom. Kids really want to use it. They just want to keep going and going. They get so excited and really want to learn. And that love of learning leads to other positive outcomes.

What has surprised you most during your years working with Age of Learning?

Ms. Burnim: Having been involved so early on, I’d say it’s the tremendous amount of progress and achievement that’s been most impressive. Of course, I hoped the company would be successful, but I had no idea all this was going to happen. It went from just an idea in 2007 to a strong product by 2011 to a multi-award-winning product that’s now helping millions of kids learn, including on tablets and smartphones. Thinking back to my start here, we’ve come a long way!

Dr. Palacios: I think it’s the unique combination of quantity and quality. I’ve been so impressed over the years by just how much time and attention each learning activity gets. There’s the early work of the curriculum advisors to make sure that what we plan to do is age-appropriate and anchored in early learning best practices. Then there are discussions with the internal curriculum team about the lesson’s learning objectives and how we can best translate them into activities. Then there are the designers who flesh things out. And professional artists who make things so very beautiful and engaging for kids. Even the voice-over artists who bring the characters to life. And then there’s programming and testing to make it all work. And all along the way advisors are asked to review the activities as they are developed. I’m in the offices a lot, so I’ve seen this labor-intensive process first hand, for many thousands of learning activities—and it’s truly impressive.

What do you find most rewarding about working with Age of Learning?

Ms. Burnim: Being able to work on from the beginning, seeing it grow and become more successful, so that now it’s a household name that parents know and teachers know and that kids are asking for. Kids really want to get on to learn—and I’m proud to have been a part of that.

Dr. Palacios: What is most rewarding to me is the company’s commitment to its Education Access Initiatives, which provide these powerful learning resources free to children in many different settings—schools, libraries, Head Start centers, and so on. The company really works hard to open doors for parents and teachers and open the minds of children everywhere. I love being part of that.