Friday, October 28, 2011

Learning Stories

As a public school teacher assessment is often on my mind. There is the personal motivation to best know your students and how to best nurture each child's development. There are also school-wide and state mandated standards and assessment expectations to be addressed. In the last four years of teaching pre-k I have tried to find a balance between authentic assessment and being held very accountable to my own administration and state (when quality review time roles around). In my research I read about learning stories and felt strongly that this could be a valuable assessment tool. the narrative format is strengths-based and a connection can be made to state or Common Core standards. 

I was lucky to find wonderful resources from fellow education bloggers, like over at The Living Classroom, which has a downloadable template, which is helpful to understand format. Below is my first try at a learning story. This one is a bit long as it involves three children but others are shorter. This is now a piece of the portfolio assessment system I have in place and I think it brings me further toward the goal of accountable yet very authentic assessment.

A Learning Story

I found E and G referring to the book Block City while building together in the block center. They were replicating the structure from the book with purposeful focus, looking back to the book often to check their progress. Later E said, "Now I’m going to build this,” turning to a page in How to Build a House. Soon their independent replicas began to connect… 
the structures become something much bigger once connected. E,E, and G shared the space and materials to build. The structure grew, sprawling across most of the available floor space. They allowed each other to incorporate blocks as each pleased, a true shared creation and experience.

After some time, I showed the group the chalk board and chalk available in the center and invited them to continue drawing ideas for their structure, “like a plan or blueprint.” They eagerly grabbed chalk and drew on the space together. E said they were building “My New York.”

After nearly half an hour on the second day of building E started, at first, to knock over a few small blocks intentionally. As G and E said nothing he continued. He began slowly and then soon swam with his whole body in the sea of blocks. G participated a little – while E watched. Later when E and E saw photos of the experience, E said he didn’t want everybody to knock it down.

What It Means 

Less than a month into the school year, the block center is still a place of new exploration. The three boys in block center, over the course of the two days, showed their desire to collaborate with their peers. The willingness of each child to let others impose their own, individual ideas, throughout the building process gave great insight into the ability of each child to share, take turns, collaborate and listen to others.  

The instinct of each boy to look to books as a resource for information highlights their familiarity with books and leads me to wonder how their families use books at home – does mom or dad use books to find information? It is also possible that they followed the lead of their peers. As E was the first to sit and read the books in the center, that could have motivated E and G to use books as well as a resource.  

The children also showed their dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and over-all well-developed fine motor skills in building such a complex structure.

Opportunities and Possibilities 

The maturity and complexity of their building process could mean a keen interest in construction. These boys might be interested in observing the construction of the new apartment building across the street. Anny and I should plan to stop in front of this building on the next walking trip and speak with E,E, and G about the building to see if there is interest. 

The interest and authentic use of text in the block center makes it clear that we need to monitor how the books are being used and ensure than we are rotating books to add new inspiration. We could ask the children if they would like to make their own block book as well, to keep in the block center. This would be a purposeful literacy experience and instill a sense of pride and ownership, from creating a “useable” book.
After the experience was complete and E shared that he did not want the blocks knocked down I realized that I should have prompted E to check with his co-collaborators first before razing “My New York.” This reinforces using language to ask questions and express ourselves. This is a reminder for me and Anny as we work to create the culture of our classroom community.


Domain: Approaches to Learning
  • Children actively and confidently engage in play as a means of exploration and learning.
  • Children approach tasks, activities and problems with creativity, imagination and/or willingness to try new experiences or activities.
Domain: Social and Emotional Development
  • Children demonstrate pro-social problem solving skills in social interactions.
  • Children develop positive relationships with their peers.
Domain: Communication, Language, and Literacy
  • Children demonstrate that they understand what they observe.
  • Children demonstrate their ability to express their ideas using a variety of media.
  • Children demonstrate their ability to express their ideas using a variety of media.
  • Children demonstrate motivation to read.
  • Children demonstrate knowledge and awareness of book/print concepts.
Domain: Cognition and Knowledge of the World (Mathematics)
  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving the problem.


  1. Merril, I love reading your blog, it is so great that you always have such amazing stuff and information.

  2. Merril! What a great learning story! Reading what you wrote made me feel like I was standing there and watching what was happening myself!

  3. Thanks for the feedback firends! If you ever want to give learning stories a try, I can email you other examples.

  4. Dear Merril,

    Thank you for your post, I really enjoyed reading your learning story and it was interesting to see the format that you had used for your documentation. Your observations about the block area particularly resonated with me as I am also researching the children in our block area. I have been thinking about the relationships between the language of mathematics and the language of architecture.

    Mathematics and Architecture: A dialogue with blocks

    There has been a renewed interest in the block area. When we observe the constructions of the children, we see the beauty of their architectural design - the lines, the empty spaces, the sophisticated attention to detail. And we begin to realise how different fields of knowledge - mathematics and architecture- interweave together, where the beauty of mathematics begins to exist when it becomes visible to our eyes through the concrete construction of its architectural design.

    Visual harmony is a particularly striking feature of block play. This might be seen as a by- product of striving for structural balance. There is often a rhythmic combining and patterning of movement, shape and space. As they move with the blocks, the children often seem unaware of the visual effects being created. Gradually the dominance of rhythm and action is replaced by a more reflective approach to composition. We see the children trying a block in various positions and orientations without releasing until and unless they are satisfied. Eventually they become sufficiently experienced to be able to visualise the effects they want to create in advance of actually building, to select the appropriate blocks in advance.
    Many children spontaneously express pleasure on the aesthetic aspects of a particular structure. Maybe ‘elegant’ would be an appropriate word to describe these arrangements. It seems that St Thomas Aquinas, writing in the thirteenth century, was quite insightful when he stated, “the senses delight in things duly proportioned.”
    Thank you for your post,
    Clair Wain



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