By Joanne Esser
This autumn, the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota created our newest initiative, the Documentation Lab, as a way for educators to share our documentation practices with each other and to practice critically analyzing the documentation we study.
Documentation is one of the most essential practices that the educators in Reggio Emilia, Italy developed and modeled, a way of looking at children’s thinking that has inspired authentic child-centered practices in schools around the world. One definition of documentation in the Reggio sense is: “a process for making pedagogical (or other) work visible and subject to dialogue, interpretation, contestation and transformation,” (Gunilla Dahlberg, in The Hundred Languages of Children). It is only through sharing with other thoughtful educators the visible traces of our work with children that we can more deeply understand and support the children’s work. The Documentation Lab creates a forum for comparing interpretations, providing multiple perspectives to inform our practice, whether we are presenting documentation or we are participants studying another’s work.
The Documentation Lab met three times so far, once a month. Each time we gather, one participant offers visible (or auditory) observations from their own work with children. These could be photographs, video clips, transcripts of conversations, anecdotal notes, work samples done by the children or any other tangible recordings of their thinking and play. Then the group follows a specific step-by-step discussion protocol that we are adapting from a process used by Steve Seidel and colleagues at Project Zero. We spend time in turn to observe, describe, raise questions and speculate about the work we see children doing in the traces offered. Then the group hears more from the presenting teacher, who has been listening all along to what was said about the children’s work. Finally, together we discuss implications for learning that have arisen from the conversation.
Perhaps the place in the structured conversation where the deepest learning happens is discussing the implications for teaching, learning and understanding children’s strategies. Everyone is invited to share thoughts stimulated by examining the work. One of the big questions we consider is, What could we do next or differently to move this learning forward? For example, in October, Bridget Keefe, a teacher from St. David’s Center, brought a series of photographs she had taken of toddlers interacting with one another. After studying the photos of the toddlers, the group considered ways that the teachers at St. David’s might share their insights with the children’s parents and gather the parents’ perspectives. We wondered whether revisiting the photos with the children themselves would result in language that could further illuminate what they were doing, and whether adding some of the teachers’ own questions to the display of photos might highlight for families what they were noticing.
At the end of each evening of studying documentation, we reflect on the process itself. After looking at the toddler photos, these were some of the participants’ comments: “Using the protocol treats the documentation like primary sources. We look at the primary sources first, not simply the secondary retelling of what happened.” “I found that our questions and observations got better as we went along, richer and not as predictable, and we got better at our critical thinking. This takes practice.” “It gave me a broader understanding of the deliberate, purposeful choices we make as teachers.”
Because we are studying real traces from real children in our own Minnesota teaching practices, rather than hypothetical examples or experiences retold from Italy, the Documentation Lab process allows us to directly examine our work in practical ways. We hone our skills at observing, critical thinking and planning in collaboration with supportive colleagues. Then we can return to our own settings and apply to our work with children what we have discovered. This is the essence of Reggio-inspired practice.
For example, in October, Bridget Keefe, a teacher from St. David’s Center, brought to the Documentation Lab a series of photographs she had taken of toddlers interacting with one another. She laid out the photos on the big table and the group of fourteen educators silently observed the photos. Then we took some intentional time to describe what we noticed in the photos – withholding any assumptions or judgments, not evaluating the photos or mentioning any personal preferences– simply answering the question “What do you notice?” Bridget took notes on what she was hearing. Sometimes people noticed details she had not previously recognized, even though she had taken the photos herself.
We went on to raise questions about what was happening in the photos. Bridget did not answer the questions at that point, but a note-taker recorded them, since the questions the documentation raises are important in themselves. A few of our questions about the toddler photos included: How much are the children verbally communicating? Are they playing together with each other, or is the play more about the objects they are using (like a ball, a paintbrush, a toy)? How well do these children know each other? What instigated the action? What was the provocation? How have these photos been shared with parents? What were the parents’ perspectives? Does this represent toddlers in general, or is this a unique group? We went on developing questions until we had approached the photos from every possible direction.
Next we speculated about the photos, guessing what the children were working on, their skills, their theories and motivations. For example, perhaps their game of playing “catch” with a ball was a way to practice give-and-take, to make social connections with another child. We saw examples of toddlers seeming to solve problems and communicate nonverbally through the use of materials. We speculated as well about the point of view and values of the educator who had taken the photos, how she seemed to want to highlight the children’s interactions with each other and their confidence.
When it was the presenting teacher’s turn to speak about the process, Bridget answered some of the group’s questions, such as how long the children in the photos had known each other and what her intentions were in taking and displaying these particular photographs. She shared how her toddlers are seeking each other and how she observes them moving from parallel play to cooperative play. Our hypothesis was that toddlers working together in this way over time grow more in language, communication and social skills.
Bridget, who was applauded for her willingness to take the risk of being the first educator to share her documentation, said at the end, “I learned so much. Your perspectives were great. I looked at it (the children and their work) differently after hearing from all of you.”
Each month, we have new material to study. In November, Joey Schoen, a teacher from Dodge Nature Preschool, offered a transcript and audio recording of an active dramatic play scenario her children enacted, involving “dangers” like a tornado, “bad guys” and a fire. It led to a rich conversation about how the role of adults can foster – or interrupt – children’s imaginary play. In December, Stephanie Ponticas brought many photo scrapbooks she has put together over a number of years to show the wide variety of activities the children at her home childcare engaged in. The discussion centered on the format of the documentation itself, the difference between “memories” and “learning stories,” and ways we can most effectively communicate children’s experiences and thinking.