Contributed by: Jennifer Strange, Pedagogista, Adjunct Professor at Webster University, NAREA Board Member, and Early Childhood Consultant, St. Louis, MO; Julie Albertson, Director and Pedagogical Coordinator for Community Day School and Christian School for the Young Years, Cape Girardeau, MO.
Documentation as a Tool to Increase the Visibility of Children with Special Rights
Mother of children in our story with the classroom teacher
How can visible documentation support each child as capable, powerful and full of potential – especially children who may be dealing with social, emotional, cognitive and/or physical issues? This was one of the questions Jennifer Strange, an early childhood pedagogista and professor, encouraged Julie Albertson, an intern in the Graduate Certificate for Pedagogical Coordination in the Reggio Emilia Approach Program, to consider with her and other teachers during Julie’s year-long internship at the Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center in St. Louis, MO. Jennifer Strange is an early childhood consultant and professor experienced in constructivist practice and in the Reggio Approach to education. Jennifer serves as a pedagogical coordinator or, pedagogista, at the MRH ECC, a diverse urban school for children ages three through eight years old. Along with Brenda Fyfe, Webster University Dean of Education, Jennifer has been involved in developing a graduate certificate regarding the role of the pedagogista in a partnership that includes Webster University (St. Louis, MO), Reggio Children and the Municipal Infant-Toddler and Preschools (Reggio Emilia, Italy), and Maplewood Richmond Heights School District (St. Louis, MO). Julie Albertson was the first person to receive this graduate certificate. Julie is a pedagogical coordinator for two early childhood centers in Cape Girardeau, MO, which her family has owned and operated for 40 years. The schools provide year round, full day programs for children birth through 5 years of age. They currently serve over 200 families in their community. The teachers at the schools have been studying the Reggio Approach for the past 20 years and have been in dialogue with Jennifer for the past six years.
The courses and internship for completing this certificate concerning the role of the pedagogista focuses on social constructivism, negotiated learning, creation of aesthetic and inspiring educational environments, expressive languages of communication, applied research and visible documentation.
“At school, I can fly high to the sky.” Piper, age 3, diagnosed hard-of-hearing/deaf from birth, flourishes in a constructivist language rich environment.
While these were all significant topics of learning for Julie, during her studies and particularly during her year as Jennifer’s intern, the issue of visibility in regards to children with special rights became of particular importance to both intern and pedagogista. Jennifer had already been working with teachers in creating visible documentation of children with special rights and strongly believes this can support greater understanding in and respect for the potential and capability of each child. As Julie discussed the experiences of children with special rights from her own early childhood center in Cape Girardeau, Jennifer suggested they collaborate on a visible presentation to share with a larger audience. The objectives for such a presentation were to create a dialogue regarding the value of visible documentation in relation to the learning experiences of children with special rights/needs; to promote inclusion of children with special rights/needs and their families; and to help construct a new image of the child through carful observation and analysis of visible documentation. These stories concerned children experiencing a range of challenges including autism, deafness, behavior issues, and speech development.
Close observation, reflection, and dialogue about each of these children resulted in documentation of children’s struggles, relationships, capabilities and successes. In presenting their work to colleagues, Julie and Jennifer noticed people visibly moved by these children and their stories, creating a powerfully thoughtful and active dialogue between them and the participants. In fact, many participants made connections to their own personal experiences in working with all children. As a result, Jennifer and Julie are now collaborating on further research and resultant writing concerning the importance of visibility for children of special rights.
“Elijah has become a leader in our classroom. He is drawn towards building–whether it is building marble tracks with a small group or building with the natural materials such as sticks, rocks, and tree blocks. His oral language skills have amazed us–on a recent walk through the woods he told an elaborate story about deer, their tracks and where they go. He not only captivated his peers but also us as his educators.”
In the recently published third edition of The Hundred Languages of Children by Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman, the chapter “The Inclusive Community” by Ivana Soncini has proved be particularly valuable to Julie and Jennifer in their collaborative work regarding children with special rights. In this chapter, Soncini—a member of the Pedagogical Coordinating Team of the Intuzione Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centers of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, Italy– explains the value and importance of documenting and sharing observations of the child with special rights:
It is extremely important that we document what happens at school for the children with special needs and share observations with their families. We need to produce photographs of the children in the educational context, images of how the other children relate with their child. Very often, there are certain things the parents are afraid to ask the teachers about their child—for example, how the other children view their child. Yet they are imagining what goes on and how the other children deal with their child. Very often they imagine a negative situation, and this is why they are afraid to ask. Our goal is to give the families the possibility to construct a new image of their child.
Rheta DeVries, a leader in the constructivist education movement, said that the first principle of constructivist teaching is “to think about how children are thinking and feeling.” Jennifer and Julie are continuing to deeply consider how all children are thinking, feeling and learning but, in particular, they are committed to making visible the thoughts, feelings and learning of children who are too often invisible. Soncini supports this idea of observation and documentation that can also result in visible documentation
Work with a child who has special rights is considered to be a shared educational task involving the parents, the child’s classroom teachers and the pedagogista. This means that, like all our work with children, we begin with observation and documentation. Observation and documentation are always fundamental, but they are of particular benefit with regard to children with special rights (The Hundred Languages of Children, Third Edition).
Through this shared work, Julie and Jennifer have experienced the use of visible documentation of children with special rights in developing the support of:
- Belief in the potential and capability of each child
- Valuing careful observation and documentation to honor each child through the practice of teacher as researcher
- Honoring a wide variety of children’s expressions as an important means of communication
- Recognizing the individual within the group experience as well as recognizing the groups understanding concerning each child
- Participation of the child, family and teachers – “Participation gives value to and makes use of the hundred languages of children and of human beings. Participation generates and nurtures the feelings and culture of solidarity, responsibility and inclusion” (from Indications Preschools and Infant Toddler Centres of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia).
Finally, Ivana Soncini says this about constructivism, documentation, and children with special rights:
I believe that children with disabilities have the right to live in a school that allows them to intersubjectively construct a positive representation of self—a representation that is in continuous evolution. When we refer to the philosophy of observation, to the process of documentation, we also refer to constructivism, in which knowledge is built through interaction with others.
The Story of Piper and Elijah
The story of Piper and her brother, Elijah, both of whom were diagnosed hard of hearing/deaf from birth, was one of several stories made visible in their presentation. Elijah and Piper’s mother, Rachel, had been driving the children two hours a day each way for two years to attend a private school for the deaf. After two years of this lifestyle the family was feeling tired and stressed. The children started seeing a local speech therapist, LSLS Cert AVT/SLP, who was adamant that children with hearing loss needed good hearing/speaking peers in order to flourish. She introduced the family to Community Day school and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. After much research and visiting the school, Rachel, enrolled both children in the school. There was a strong collaboration and commitment between the mother, teachers, speech therapist and director to support the children in this new environment.
Classroom teacher Jessica Job said, “At first we didn’t know what to expect, we never had a child with hearing loss in our classroom before. We were unsure of how the children would adjust to one another, not only Elijah and Piper but also our other children. When they first joined our class they seemed shy and unsure of our environment and expectations. They entered the classroom rigid, expecting a very structured routine. At first Elijah was very protective of Piper. He was constantly checking on her and not leaving her sight–Piper was Elijah’s security. After a while they began to branch off from one another. Elijah and Piper have become their own people.”
After six months in the classroom Rachel noticed a drastic improvement in their speech, language, and all around ability to communicate. She said, “Learning to listen in noise is a challenge for Elijah and Piper, but it is also a part of life. They are learning to really key in on their environment, social and emotional cues of others, and develop lasting friendships along the way. Because of the Reggio Emilia approach, they are learning to be self-sufficient, which is what I wanted for them from the start. The school is their tool and the children are the driving force to their enrichment.
Rachel and Jessica collaborated with Julie and Jennifer to include this story in their presentation. In presenting this work to colleagues, people were visibly moved by these children and their stories, creating a powerfully thoughtful and active dialogue between them and the participants.
Jennifer and Julie appreciated the opportunity to share their work on visible documentation at the 2012 ACT Conference.
The drawings are self portraits the children made of themselves.
A quote from Jessica, the classroom teacher, “Piper has become more independent in the classroom, not relying on Elijah’s help. She is intrigued by various expressive languages, such as painting and working with clay. She is also beginning to talk openly and freely with both peers and adults.”