"Most adults generally don't see children for what they are -- competent and amazing people," said Deb Curtis, an early-childhood consultant, author, and preschool teacher in Washington state. Curtis and her consulting partner, Margie Carter, say that displaying student work on classroom bulletin boards -- and in other ways -- is important for many reasons. Co-authors of Spreading the News and the soon-to-be released The Art of Awareness: How Observation Can Transform Your Teaching ( Redleaf Press), Carter and Curtis maintain that documenting and displaying the process of a child's intellectual growth benefits children, their parents, and teachers.
People display student work in many ways. Some teachers videotape their students at work, capturing their comments about what they are doing. Others take digital photos and scan the student work, then post it on a school Web site. The most common way of displaying student work, however, is the old-fashioned way -- on a classroom bulletin board.
"Bulletin boards have always been part of what teachers do, but they became commercialized early on," Carter told Education World. Instead of being student-centered, bulletin boards became teacher-centered and included minimal student-created work.
Carter recommends bulletin boards be used to document children's' work, not just display it. Including descriptions of the creative processes children use adds meaning to what they create, Carter explained. Adult art galleries often include descriptions of artists' processes and backgrounds that provides more understanding of the final products.
In the preschool where she teaches, Curtis uses a digital camera to take pictures of her three- to five-year-old students every day. Pictures, however, are just one part of chronicling the process. Curtis asks children to explain their thoughts about what they are doing, and she adds her comments to the pictures.
"I watch and notice what they do and then tell them what I see," Curtis told Education World. "I'll say 'Look how you lined up the blocks.' They don't usually have to think about the process of what they are doing. My observations offer the children a chance to reflect on what they are doing. That's how they really learn. By the end of the year, they start to pay attention to the reflective process of their work and focus on what they do," she said. "It is amazing!"
"Children can see for themselves what teachers are doing: [Teachers] are saying [children's] work is worthy of public attention," Carter said. "They see that their work is being taken seriously." Displaying their work tells them that their work is important and that grown-ups value their work, she said.
Last year, Curtis's students focused on making a series of simple and complex ramps with classroom materials. She took photographs of the objects they made and then placed the photographs in plastic stand-up frames. The children used the pictures as a starting point -- a guide -- for building more sophisticated ramps.
"I put these pictures up in the activity area where [the children] were working," Curtis explained. "They would refer to the pictures as 'their directions.' It gives them a more complex plan to begin with. The children become so competent and creative."
Children enjoy looking at documentation about their previous experiences in the classroom. They also enjoy looking at the individual portfolios Curtis makes for each student. She updates the student portfolios regularly. Curtis said the students enjoy looking at their own portfolios and those of their classmates.
"Making [children's] work visible also engages and informs their parents," Curtis said. "It is about sharing stories about their children." Curtis explains that documenting children's work is a lot more than showing parents how cute their children are. "Documentation tells the story after it unfolds," she said.
"One of my moms from last year recently told me that the most amazing thing she learned from my class was how important all her children's moments are," Curtis continued. "She said it totally changed her view of her children. Now she notices what they do as being profound."
Documenting children's work also clarifies the significance of play in a child's development, Carter added. "It helps [parents] understand the connection between play and the learning process. I think play is the foundation for children to become competent learners cognitively, socially, and emotionally.
"Parents expect learning to happen only when children are sitting at desks," Carter explained. "Documenting [children's] work helps [parents] understand the value of play. Children's play is an incredible window into a child's world."
"In Reggio, we found documentation to be a very powerful tool and an excellent professional development tool as well as a way to chart and understand the next move a teacher should make," Mardell told Education World. He explained that documentation helps teachers look at children's questions and their growth and helps direct what paths teachers should follow with children. "There is recognition that kids learn in a social way, not only from parents and teachers but also from classmates," Mardell noted.
Among the major findings of Harvard Project Zero's collaboration with Reggio is that teachers learn a lot from documenting their students' work. "There is a false teacher-learner dichotomy in this country," Mardell said. "The best situation is when the teacher is both and the kids have the opportunity to instruct teachers through play.
"Our understanding about assessment shifted somewhat," Mardell pointed out. When Reggio teachers were asked how they assess student achievement, they said that their documentation was their assessment.
Diane Weaver Dunne
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