When I began to incorporate more natural play into my kindergarten/ grade one classroom a lot of questions arose around curriculum and assessment. For so many reasons I believed that open ended play with natural materials was beneficial to my students and that they needed long uninterrupted periods of time within which to work with materials, develop and extend projects. But… what about the curriculum? What about report cards? How was I going to dedicate all of this time to project based learning and natural play and still feel comfortable saying that we had covered the curriculum well? And what about reporting? How was I going to communicate to parents, colleagues and administration what exactly my students were learning? At first it seemed to be all a little overwhelming. Where was I going to begin?
I began with my students. Knowing what I thought was most important for them… extended periods of uninterrupted play, access to rich, open ended, natural and real life materials, rich conversations to support and extend their learning as they pursued their interests, and the opportunity to develop lifelong learning skills that go well beyond any prescribed learning outcomes… I kept these at the forefront of my mind and I sat back to watch them and what may unfold.
Almost immediately I was drawn in by a group of students who were building structures with a variety of materials. I talked to them about what they were doing, how they chose their materials, what was working or wasn’t and why, what their next step was, etc. and I thought about some of the things that they were learning as it connected to the curriculum (concepts of shape and space as well as the ability to represent and communicate their ideas, and listen to and work cooperatively with others).
Then I was drawn to a group of children who were racing around, quickly and with great concentration, building shelters using tables, play scarves and play clips. I approached them and enquired about their play. They told me that they were dog catchers and that there were many dogs on the loose so they needed to build cages for the dogs, provide dishes with food and water and some pillows and blankets in the cages to keep them warm and comfortable. They needed to do all of this before they could attempt to catch the pack of dogs that were barking furiously as they circled the classroom. I thought about the fact that they were organized and able to articulate their plan to me. They were focused and able to follow through with the steps in their plan. They knew about the needs of living things and something about what dog catchers do.
I was drawn in a similar way to a number of other students or small groups of children who were engaged in a variety of pursuits.
Later that day we talked as a whole group about what the children had been working on and learning about, and what they thought they might do the next day to take their ideas even further. Because I had talked to the children about their projects, and I had thought about what it was they were learning, I was able to draw on this during our whole group reflective conversations. I was able to make explicit the connections to curriculum, such as the needs of living things, all the while validating the knowledge and interests of my students and building opportunities to develop oral language skills as they presented their ideas and responded to those of others. On that particular day I grabbed a book that I knew I had in my collection about an animal shelter and we read it and talked about what else we noticed was there and what else the animals might need.
In these ways we were able to ‘cover’ an area of the curriculum in a totally natural way, as it came up in the children’s play. This was so different from what I might have done years ago when I would have sat down in August and planned out the coming year and decided that the third week of February we would begin a study of bears (because it fit in during that time of year, I needed to teach the needs of living things, and everyone likes bears, right?). Now I was able to ‘cover’ the curriculum, validate my students needs, interests and passions, and as a further benefit my students were learning to be problem solvers and creative thinkers, and engagement was so high that, in the case of the dog catcher play, it lasted for several months and led to comparisons of dog breeds, stories written about real and imagined pets, and much creative and dramatic role playing.
I realized that if I knew the curriculum well enough and I paid close attention to my students in their play, I would be able to, in an entirely organic way, weave my curricular responsibilities into each day as it came. I could provoke and extend thoughts and inquiries when necessary to teach my students the curriculum, and still allow them this invaluable time to engage with materials and pursue their interests and passions. Wonderful!
And yet, how was I going to translate all of this into a report card? How was I going to remember every wonderful thing that these brilliant children were showing me about what they know and understand about the world? It was around this time that a colleague introduced me to the idea of Learning Stories (originally introduced by Margaret Carr; essentially a story written to or about a child or group of children, about their play and learning, with a section for the story, the teacher’s interpretation of what the child or children are learning, and the teacher’s plan to further extend or support that learning (at least, this my interpretation). I loved it. I loved how it was an authentic form of assessment that was entirely centered around individual children and was positive and validating. I loved that I could use my camera and a clip board to capture a moment and return to it later to reflect and write. It allowed me to be present in the moment and still go deeper in my thinking and reflecting about my students, where they were, where they might be headed and what I could do as a teacher to further support them.
I also loved that as I wrote learning stories, my own thinking about my students began to change. I began to see them and what they were doing in an entirely new way (and that kind of shift I always find exciting). Where once I might have been frustrated with the child who was repeatedly washing the (now clean) tables with a sponge and then running their hands over it (when we were supposed to be cleaning up the classroom and we still needed to hand out notices and get our jackets and mittens and backpacks on and get lined up to go home), I now saw through a new lens. I was able to appreciate that moment in a new way. I no longer felt frustrated with that child for ignoring my reminders to finish cleaning up. I understood that it was an important sensory experience and that perhaps that child was experimenting to try and figure out how or why the table felt so different when there was water on it. Or maybe it just felt good, and if so, that is important too… to take a moment and enjoy it when something just feels good. In any case, my thinking around what my students were doing and why was shifting and I felt like my own understanding was being taken to a deeper level.
I love writing the learning stories and sharing them with my students… seeing the joy and recognition on their faces when they hear a story written about them (not to mention that it increases their awareness of their own learning through play and experimentation). I love sharing them with parents, and the ah-ha moments that I have seen them have about why we do what we do and what their child is learning from it (why does that kindergarten teacher let the kids paint on their faces instead of just on paper??). I think that they are more meaningful to parents because they can be written in family friendly language. They can be centered around photographs which can be understood regardless of the language spoken, and above all, they are written specifically for and about their child. I love that the learning stories reflect the whole child (or more of) rather than a single aspect of a single moment (like a one time reading assessment, or a checklist might).
And yet, it is not a perfect system. I still used other forms of assessment and can only hope that this type of reporting may possibly replace report cards one day. The way I have written them has changed over time. I started writing very long stories about projects and how they evolved and later focused in on small moments so that I might gain more insight into individual students’ learning in a daily basis.
It is an ever evolving process, as with most things. For me though, writing learning stories had a big impact on how I look at my students and think about their learning. It allowed me to zoom in on individuals and at the same time, keep the big picture in mind. It may not work for everyone, but I think that the important thing is taking the time to write our observations down in some way, whatever the format may be, so that these moments, and what we can learn from them, are not lost. There is something about the act of writing it down that forces us to think more deeply. Somehow the process of committing words to paper makes us think and rethink. A worthy pursuit, I believe, as this had the power to move us forward and to support our children’s learning in a deeper way.