Learning Stories: Observation, Reflection, and Narrative in Early Childhood Education
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Refer to the links below for examples of two Learning Stories:
When I think of children, the image that comes to mind is that of competent human beings: resourceful, creative, and able to collaborate with peers and adults. Young children are today’s citizens of the world, with their own ideas, theories, inquiries, strong preferences, and stories. As citizens, they have needs, but also rights—one of which is to be seen as contributors to their own education. Their interests, questions, and thoughts should influence what they do and learn at school.
I am an early childhood educator. I am also an immigrant and an American citizen by naturalization. I began teaching and learning from young children in San Francisco, California, when I began volunteering in a multilingual early childhood program. Because I lacked the knowledge of child development and curriculum planning required to do this work most effectively, I enrolled in classes at City College and took as many child development classes as I could. I am currently a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership Program at San Francisco State University, where I have been a lecturer for the past five years. I teach undergraduate courses on children’s language development in multilingual early childhood education settings, classroom observation and children’s evaluation, and more recently, a graduate course on narrative inquiry in ECE and elementary school.
I am also a preschool teacher: I have taught preschool for 18 years—the past 10 at Las Americas Early Education School in San Francisco’s Mission District. As an early childhood educator committed to equity of voice, I believe that educational activities with preschool children should be based on daily observations of children at play both in the classroom and outdoors. These observations should include teachers’ reflections and, as much as possible, families’ opinions and perspectives on their children’s learning, curiosity, talents, agency, hopes, and dreams. As a preschool teacher in a multi-language setting, I am required to conduct classroom observations to assess children’s learning. This has led me to the following questions:
- How can early childhood educators support and make visible children’s emergent cultural and linguistic identities?
- How can teachers embed story and narrative to document children’s growth and strengthen families’ participation in their children’s education?
This article examines the use of an observational approach in the form of Learning Stories, a narrative-based formative assessment created by New Zealand early childhood education leaders. By encouraging teachers to recognize children as competent explorers and learners at any given moment, Learning Stories provide a way to document children’s strengths and improve instruction based on the interests, talents, and expertise of children and their families (Carr & Lee 2012, 2019).
The Role of Documentation
Teachers’ documentation of children is essential to identifying strengths and assessing development (NAEYC 2019, 8). The teachers at our school are required to administer several district- and state-mandated assessments multiple times during the year and to collect work and play samples from all the children on a regular basis. Each month, my colleagues and I attend inquiry meetings as part of the Las Americas Inquiry Group that are cofacilitated by a college professor (Escamilla & Meier 2018). A key aspect of this group is to keep track of the activities my colleagues and I do with our children through visual and written narratives that tell a story in which the children are the main characters. Photographs, written observations, samples of children’s artwork, and emergent writing are organized and displayed in different forms to share with children, families, and other teachers.
My concept of documentation has evolved over the years and will likely continue evolving as I gain new insights about its relevance in the early childhood classroom. My views have been influenced by the Reggio Emilio approach (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman 1998, 2012); the inquiry work carried out at the former Prospect School (Himley & Carini 2000; Carini 2001) in North Bennington, Vermont; and New Zealand’s Learning Stories (Carr & Lee 2012, 2019). Each of these approaches emphasizes teachers observing, writing, reflecting, and documenting classroom life as a way to better understand and teach children.
The Reggio Emilia early childhood schools of Northern Italy (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman 1998, 2012; Turner & Wilson 2010) use the term “documentation” to refer to the process of observing and recording children’s learning experiences through different media (Helm & Katz 2001). Their curricular framework is an approach “based on adults listening rather than speaking, where doubts and amazement are welcome factors along with scientific inquiry and the deductive method of the detective” (Rinaldi 1998, 115). Systematic and meaningful observations of children’s learning are routine classroom practices that guide the curriculum.
Likewise, in the Prospect School’s approach to schooling, general theories of education take second place to teacher reflection. Teachers reflect on their teaching practices through a collaborative analysis known as “descriptive review,” or the deep analysis of one particular child, one piece of work, one classroom, or one issue that stimulates new kinds of thinking about children, curriculum, and larger educational challenges (Himley & Carini 2000; Carini 2001). While in operation, Prospect teachers documented children’s daily activities through richly detailed observations and descriptions that became narrative accounts over time. They focused on children’s interests and strengths to understand the intricacy of their thinking and to see children and their learning contexts in all of their complexities.
In New Zealand, educators use the Learning Stories approach to assess children’s progress. This narrative tool is a record of a child’s life in the classroom and school community based on teachers’ observations of the child at play and work. It tells a story written to the child that is meant to be shared with the family. Learning Stories serve as a meaningful pedagogical tool to assess children’s strengths and help educators reflect on their roles in the complex processes of teaching and learning (Carr & Lee 2012, 2019). As formative assessments, they offer the possibility of reimagining all children as competent, inquisitive learners and all educators as critical thinkers and creative writers, genuinely invested in their children’s work.
Documentation in Marginalized Communities
Learning Stories break away from the more traditional methods of teaching, learning, and assessment that often view children and families from a deficit perspective, highlighting what they cannot do. By contrast, Learning Stories offer an opportunity to reimagine children as curious, knowledgeable, playful learners and teachers as critical thinkers, creative writers, and advocates of play. Learning Stories are based on individual or family narratives, and they recognize the value of Indigenous knowledge. For native, Indigenous, and marginalized communities, the telling of stories or historical memoirs may be conceived as something deeply personal and even part of a “sacred whole” (Benham 2007). When we engage in writing and reading classroom stories—knowing how they are told, to whom, and why—we uncover who we are as communities and, perhaps, develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of other people’s stories.
My preschool is part of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Early Education Department. Our school reflects the ethnic, economic, cultural, and linguistic mosaic of the school’s immediate neighborhood, which consists primarily of first- and second-generation immigrant families from Mexico, Central America, and Asia. When children enter our program, only about 10 percent feel comfortable speaking English. The others prefer to speak their home languages, meaning Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin are the most common languages in our school.
Most of my students receive subsidized services, and their families primarily work in the hospitality, child care, or construction industries, or are in training for new employment. The school has three preschool-age classrooms: one Spanish-English dual language classroom with 24 children; one Cantonese-English dual language classroom with 24 children; and one classroom of children with special needs, which has 12 children. Each of our preschool classrooms is composed of one lead teacher and two assistant teachers, and each classroom has been assigned a district instructional coach.
Our preschool’s academic framework is based on the project approach, which embraces children’s interests and the immediate environment for engaging in in-depth studies of specific topics from multiple perspectives (Helm & Katz 2016). Investigations are undertaken by a whole class, a small group of children within a class, or by an individual child. Each project focuses on finding answers to questions about a topic posed by the children, the teachers, or the teachers and children together. Classroom investigations may last from a few days to several months and are carefully documented by teachers and children. Photographs, recorded conversations, short videos, children’s artwork and dictations, classroom-made booklets, and teachers’ reflections and interpretations are all part of what eventually becomes a child’s Learning Story and our teachers’ rich observation, reflection, and assessment tools.
For instance, during a class investigation on families, my 5-year-old student Juanito shared why his family did not live together in San Francisco. He described in graphic detail how his grandfather had been shot to death several years before while crossing a river in El Salvador. He also shared how his dad and mom had come to San Francisco, leaving behind their two older daughters, his sisters. Juanito’s sense of family was marked by a sense of longing for a foreign country he had never visited and two siblings he had only seen in photographs.
Juanito used drawings to express his feelings. In them, he depicted El Salvador as both beautiful and dangerous: a place that offered warmth (because his two young adult sisters lived there) but also a place with gangs who made people live in fear. “El Salvador is very pretty and has a big soccer field where one can play fútbol [football soccer],” he told us, his teachers. “My sister is a soccer player, like me. And I know there are gangs that go around killing people. My Daddy told me, and I’ve seen it on the TV.”
In my reflective role as Juanito’s preschool teacher, I began to understand his behavior much better as I watched and talked to him and assembled his Learning Story. As a result, I greatly improved my communication with him and my relationship with his parents. Juanito’s mom and dad have been very open about their family history and the story behind their decision to leave El Salvador and come to the United States. Their search for that envisioned future has brought a lot of stress to a family living in two countries—especially for little Juanito, who is developing his own identity as an American citizen with strong emotional ties to El Salvador.
During another class investigation—this one on our children’s cultural heritage—we read A Movie in my Pillow / Una Película en mi Almohada, by Salvadorean writer Jorge Argueta (2007). The children enjoyed this collection of poems in which the main character, young Jorgito, lives in the Mission District but has not forgotten his native El Salvador. Just like Jorgito, we discovered that many of the children in our classroom had “memories” from where their parents had emigrated. Argueta’s poems opened the door to children’s creativity and imagination, which teachers could document, reflect on, write about, and assess.
My student Zahid revealed his story-telling skills by sharing the story of his father’s attempt to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. (See “Waiting for Dad on this Side of the Border" and “Under the Same Sun,” below.) The resulting Learning Story provided a structure for documenting Zahid’s developmental progression over time and for collecting data on his language use, funds of knowledge, evolving creative talents, and curiosity for what takes place in his world—all of this in his attempt to make sense of events impacting his family and his community.
Developing a Learning Story
Educators can use Learning Stories to identify developmental milestones with links to specific assessment measures; however, the purpose is not to test a hypothesis or to evaluate. At the root of any Learning Story is a genuine interest in understanding children’s lived experiences and the meaning teachers, families, and children themselves make of those experiences to augment their learning. As Southcott (2015, 37) reminds us, “Teachers choose a significant classroom moment to enlarge in a Learning Story in order to explore children’s thinking more closely.”
Although no two Learning Stories will be alike, a few core principles underlie them all. The foundational components include the following (Carter 2010, 2017; Carr & Lee 2012, 2019):
- an observation with accompanying photographs or short videos
- an analysis of the observation
- a plan to extend a child’s learning
- the family’s perspective on their child’s learning experience
- links to specific evaluation tools
Suggested Format of a Learning Story
The writing of Learning Stories encourages teachers to recognize children as competent explorers and learners in familiar settings at any given moment during the school day. The following format is a helpful guide for observing, documenting, and understanding children’s learning processes. It also may help teachers organize fleeting ideas into a coherent narrative to make sense of classroom observations or specific children’s experiences.
- Title: Any great story begins with a good title that captures the essence of the tale being told. Margie Carter (2010) suggests that the act of giving a title to a story be saved for the end, after the teacher has written, reflected on, and analyzed the significance of what has been observed, photographed and/or video recorded.
- Observation: The teacher begins the story with their own interest in what the child has taken the initiative to do, describing what the child does and says. When teachers talk and write the story in the first person, they give a “voice” to the storyteller or narrator within. In their multiple roles as observers, documenters, and writers, teachers bring a personal perspective that is essential to the story. They write directly to the child, describing the scene in detail and narrating what they noticed, observed, or heard. Accompanying photographs, screenshots, or still frames of a video clip of the child in action serve as evidence of the child’s resourcefulness, skills, dispositions, and talents.
- What Does It Mean? (or What Learning Do I See Happening?): These are questions teachers can use to reflect, interpret, and write about the significance of what they observed. This meaning-making is best done in dialogue with other teachers. Multiple perspectives can certainly be included here; indeed, objectivity is more likely to be reached when the Learning Story includes a variety of voices or perspectives (Carr & Lee 2012, 2019). Ask your coteachers or colleagues to collaborate to offer their pedagogical, professional, and personal opinions to the interpretation of the events.
- Opportunities and Possibilities (or How Can We Support You in Your Learning?): In this section, teachers describe what they can tentatively do in the immediate or distant future to scaffold and extend the child’s learning. How can they cocreate with children learning activities that stem from individual or collective interests? This section might also reveal teachers’ active processes in planning meaningful classroom activities while respecting children’s sense of agency.
- Questions to the Family: This is an invitation for a child’s family to offer their opinions on how they perceive their child as a competent learner. It is not uncommon for a child’s family to respond with messages addressed to the teacher. However, when teachers kindly request parents to reply directly to their child, they write beautiful messages to their children. Sometimes, the family might suggest ideas and activities to support their child’s learning both at home and school. They might even provide materials to enhance and extend the learning experience for all the children in the class.
- Observed Milestones or Learning Dispositions: Here, teachers can link the content of a child’s Learning Story to specific evaluative measures required by a program, school district, or state. They also can focus on the learning dispositions reflected in the story: a child’s curiosity, persistence, creativity, and empathy. The learning dispositions highlighted in a Learning Story reflect the emerging values of children and the values and beliefs of teachers, families, schools, and even the larger community.
Making Time for Documentation
A Learning Story recognizes a child’s everyday efforts as milestones in their continuous growth. It is a beautiful personal and pedagogical gift to a child and family based on what teachers observe, analyze, and interpret. Yes, documenting and making children’s learning visible through detailed observations, photographs, and reflections require time, intention, and incentives. But as Carini reminds us, children are more than a sum of unchanging traits, and it takes time and patience to paint a fuller picture of how they are evolving (Himley & Carini 2000).
When beginning the Learning Story process, remember that there is a storyteller in everyone. Creating a short Learning Story as a record of a child’s learning, playfulness, resourcefulness, experimentation, and drive can turn documentation into something enjoyable. Write just a few lines of what was observed, identify its possible meaning, then plan for a tentative activity to support the child’s interest. Add a photograph or series of photographs as illustrations, then share the Learning Story with a coteacher or other colleague to get feedback on composition, language, and narrative. Think of the Learning Story as another way of making a child and family feel special, and remember that families are always appreciative when teachers take note of their children’s accomplishments. Invite the family to add a few lines to the story by sharing what they have noticed their child doing at home related to the topic.
What happened? What’s the story?
Zahid, I admire your initiative to tell us the tale of the travels your dad has undertaken to reunite with you and your family in California. On a map you showed us Mexico City where you say your dad started his journey to the North. You spoke about the border (la frontera), and you asked us to help you find Nebraska and Texas on our map, because that’s where you say your dad was detained. We asked you, “What is the border?” and you answered: “It is a place where they arrest you because you are an immigrant. My dad was detained because he wanted to go to California to be with me.”
What is the significance of this story?
Zahid, through this story where you narrate the failed attempt of your dad to get reunited with you and your family, you reveal an understanding that goes well beyond your 5.4 years. In the beginning you referred to the map as a planet, but perhaps that’s how you understand your world: a planet with lines that divide cities, states, and countries. A particular area that called your attention was the line between Mexico and the United States, which you retraced in blue ink to highlight the place where you say your dad crossed the border. It is indeed admirable to see you standing self-assured in front of the class ready to explain to your classmates your feelings and ideas so eloquently.
What activities could we plan to support you in exploring this topic that you are so interested in?
Zahid, we could invite you to share with your classmates the tale of your dad’s travels and invite your friends to share the stories of their families too. We could take dictations of what it means for you to be waiting for Dad on this side of the border. We could support you to put into practice your interest in writing so that you could write a letter or message to your dad. Perhaps you would be interested in making a painting on a canvas representing your ideas and feelings with paint strokes and acrylic colors.
What’s the family’s perspective?
Zahid is not very fond of writing, but he talks a lot and also understands quite a lot. He doesn’t like drawing but maybe with your support here at school he could find enjoyment in drawing or painting. —Mom
What happened? What’s the story?
Zahid, of the several options we proposed to you to continue exploring the topic of the journey of your dad from Mexico to the United States, you chose a canvas, skinny paint brushes, and acrylic colors to represent the word frontera. Until now, you had hardly showed any interest in using painting tools, the process of writing, or making graphic representations of your ideas. Your preferred mode of expression was to communicate orally, and you have been doing it quite well! The fact you chose paintbrushes and acrylic paints reveals that every child should have the right to be an active participant when it comes to making decisions about their individual learning.
What is the significance of this story?
Zahid, I’m very pleased to see your determination to make a graphic representation of the word frontera. After so many sessions singing the initial sounds corresponding to each letter of the alphabet in Spanish, I thought you would be inclined to sound out the word frontera phoneme by phoneme and spell it out to write it on paper, but that was not the case. Instead, you decided to undertake something more complex, and you chose a paint brush and acrylic colors to represent (write) la frontera the way you perceive it based on the experiences you have lived with your family and, especially, with your dad.
What possibilities emerge?
Zahid, you could perhaps share with your classmates and your family your creative process. Throughout the entire process of sketching and painting you demonstrated remarkable patience since you had to wait at least 24 hours for the first layer of paint to dry before applying the next one. You chose the color brown to paint the wall that divides Mexico and the United States because that’s what you saw in the photos that popped out in the computer screen when we looked for images of the word “frontera.” You insisted on painting a yellow sun on this side of the wall because according to you, that’s what your dad would see on his arrival to California, along with colorful, very tall buildings with multiple windows. I hope one day you and your dad can play together under the same sun.
What’s the family’s perspective?
I think it is good for my son to have support from his teachers at school and that he can express what he feels or thinks. Although sometimes I wonder if it’s better to avoid the topic altogether. These months have been very difficult for everyone in the family but especially for him because he is the eldest. He says that he misses his dad even though he hasn’t seen him in a long time. And he says that he wants to go to Mexico when he’s older to be with Dad. —Mom
The Learning Stories framework honors multiple perspectives to create a more complete image of each learner. These include the voice of the teacher as narrator and documenter; the voice, actions, and behaviors of children as active participants in the learning process; and the voices of families who offer—either orally or in writing—their perspectives as the most important teachers in their children’s lives.
Teachers in different types of early childhood education settings can use this framework to observe, document, preserve, and share precious moments of learning and transformation in young children’s school journeys with specific examples of their questions, puzzles, discoveries, and growth (Knauf 2020; Nyland & Alfayez 2021). Through these child-centered stories, teachers engage minds, touch hearts, and enhance their pedagogical and intellectual work. They humanize the early childhood profession, paving the way toward innovative modes of observing, analyzing, and understanding the complexities of children’s learning and behaviors. Children’s active participation in classroom life and curriculum planning supports a sense of inclusiveness, agency, and belonging when they see themselves as the protagonists of their own stories in a school environment that celebrates their voices, experiences, and talents.
This article includes content from Escamilla’s chapter in the Advancing Equity & Embracing Diversity in Early Childhood Education book as well as content from an original manuscript by the author accepted for Young Children.
Photographs: Getty; courtesy of author.
Copyright © 2021 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
This article supports recommendations from NAEYC's advancing equity position statement
Recommendations for Early Childhood Educators
Create a Caring, Equitable Community of Engaged Learners
Item 1: Uphold the unique value and dignity of each child and family.
Observe, Document, and Assess Children’s Learning and Development
Item 2: Use authentic assessments that seek to identify children’s strengths and provide a well-rounded picture of development.
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Isauro M. Escamilla, EdD, is an assistant professor at San Francisco State University.