Documentation is somehow both the easiest part of teaching, and the most difficult part. We want to tell stories of learning, play, and exploration that illustrate the small moments in which learning takes place. Stories often have ups and downs, revelations, excitement, and intriguing characters. When we choose stories to share with children, we choose engaging stories that they'll want to hear over and over again. We choose stories that we hope to see them retelling as they run their fingers over the illustration of Corduroy's missing button or the band-aid over the d's skinned knee in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. We can pick out the right story to add to the classroom library, but what about choosing what story to tell using documentation? We might be gathering words, photos, drawings, and/or video of children at play, but how do we know we're capturing stories?
There is no plot as we watch a child painting. We’re not writing that story. We’re trying to pay attention to the most salient aspects, but we’re not always able to put our finger on what exactly that is while it is happening. A story that we are not writing is unfolding and we are trying to figure out where it is going next. It feels like writing a mystery novel without deciding on who did it first, and letting the story unfold chronologically.
I took over 200 photos in the classroom the other day, many of them of a block tower that C worked on. He didn’t say much about it, and as I looked at the photos that evening, I was having a difficult time justifying the time and energy that I put into documenting that event. Why did I even begin to take those photos? And when C decided that he was finished, he didn’t have anything to tell me about his blocks. His construction did not look much different at the end than it did at the beginning. So what is the story? Why take the photos?
Earlier in the week, I took photos and dictation of K at the clay table. He made a variety of small objects from clay and talked both to me and to himself as he worked. I sat across from him for about five minutes as he made a bed, a blanket, a pillow, a mountain, and some little balls. The objects are as representational as one would expect from a child who just turned three, and I knew it was not about those products as I took photos and wrote down his words.
In the case of C, I began taking photos because it was a rare occasion of seeing C engaged with a material, with a new look of determination. I felt compelled to document it. With K, it was the beginning of the day, and it was just he and I in the classroom, starting the day.
If I think about who that documentation is for, it is for our whole classroom community. I could say that C’s is information that I can show back to him so that he can feel excitement and pride about the work that he did, but it is much more than that. It is a story that can be valued by other children, by parents, by teachers. I could make it a story about fine motor development or spatial awareness, but I was not telling that specific of a story as I observed C at play. Perhaps in the future, I’ll need to gather information about spatial relations, gross motor skills, or self-regulation. These photos may help tell that story as well.
With K, I began to document because it was the beginning of the day and it was just he and I. I sat with him at the clay table and he was being unusually chatty, so I suppose I was gathering his words primarily. He was able to represent his words with the clay, and the photos compliment the quotes I was able to gather. But like C’s blocks , there isn’t exactly a “finished product”. So how do you tell a story that seemingly has no ending? How can you call that a story?
After feeling overwhelmed with photos, reflection on the process of documentation brought me to the conclusion that I was thinking about things in a way that is quite contrary to how I think about most other goals in the classroom. Everything that is shared with children, from materials to stories to songs, is about exploring and experiencing. We don’t sing songs to hear them sung perfectly, and we don’t experiment with art materials for the product. The choices made in the classroom are about process, and that is what we can capture with documentation. That is the fundamental difference between documentation and an old-fashioned bulletin board. We can share the product, or we can share a story. That story might be five minutes of paintbrush experimentation or three months of planning an amusement park for birds. Either way, chances are that children will revisit that documentation if it represents their work. If it is made available to them, they can gain the same pleasure from those photographs of their clay bed and blanket as they do from being able to share how Lisa reattaches Corduroy’s button.
For my own work, This reflection is reminding me to always celebrate process over product. And as long as the pictures are digital, there is no harm in taking 200. I do feel more confident about sharing stories but short and long with children and families. Documentation is one of the many reasons that I long for a co-teacher! If you have colleagues to share photographs and stories with, I urge you to – it is an invaluable resource.
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