Dr. Annie White on Learning Stories in America

Advocating for Learning Stories as an Assessment Alternative, The Making of a Movement.

“Starting with an assessment checklist and then adding anecdotes is time-consuming. Why not do it the other way around? Write the stories, and then connect to objectives.”

Dr. Annie White

Educa recently had the privilege to spend time with Dr. Annie White, an advocate of learning stories as a checkpoint assessment alternative in the US.

First, a bit about Annie White.  She has a distinguished career in childcare, early on in various roles in Head Start, and more recently as an Assistant Professor – Early Childhood Studies – at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI), one of California’s 23 state universities, which has had learning stories in its curriculum and assessment courses for many years.

The second annual Learning Stories conference, with Wendy Lee as keynote speaker, ended up be a virtual conference.

How Annie Discovered the Magic Learning Stories

Annie went on an Inspire study tour to New Zealand in 2012, where she visited childcare facilities and heard learning story thought leader, Wendy Lee.  Learning stories are narratives written to a child or about a child that focus on the learning.  Learn more about learning stories here.

In New Zealand (and Australia), educators write learning stories throughout the year. They go into a child’s online ePortfolio (and often a hard copy portfolio) as evidence of a child’s learning journey.  These portfolios are the primary means of assessment.

What Annie noticed in New Zealand was the joy and emotion educators experience around writing learning stories, and the parent and child responses to the narrative stories.

In the US, many early educators start with assessment system objectives, not their observations about children. In California, the assessment tool is the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP). It requires (for preschool age children) tracking of 56 measures in 8 domain areas. Annie observed that for each  measure, educators need evidence to inform the rating, often written on sticky notes sent home when the child leaves the program.

Reflections on the DRDP Assessment Process

After that trip to New Zealand, Annie reflected on her work with Head Start. She noticed that the sticky note observations were not valued by parents and were often discarded.  Furthermore, the checkpoint system pushes information one way, from the center to the family. The role of the teacher is more about disseminating the assessment results to the parents. The process is not designed to inspire conversation or as they say in New Zealand, authentic collaboration, parents as partners.

Annie recognized in that moment that the checkpoint assessment process in the US is broken. It is a burden, a reporting requirement that does not help the child. As Annie so clearly put it:

“DRDP is assessment of learning, we need assessment for learning.”

Assessment with DRDP is supposed to be an observational tool used over time to document children’s skill levels but, in reality and in practice, teacher use it more as a checklist format end-point. Whereas, it should be formative and deeply connected to curriculum planning, an input as to what’s next.

There is a better way: Learning stories.

Giving Adults First-Hand Experience of Learning Stories

After a second trip to New Zealand in 2013, Annie came back, determined to make a difference.  She devised an ingenious way to demonstrate the power of learning stories.  She invited early childhood education teachers to write a learning story in 10 minutes – a story about themselves, written to someone they care about.

As you can imagine, the stories were easy to write and very touching.

Encouraged by that success, Annie turned her attention to Head Start.  Each classroom has parent reps who participate as members of a Parent Policy Council.  Annie worked with the Head Start agency to present the power of narrative stories. She asked them to bring a photo of themselves, preferably as a baby, and then did the same exercise – write about themselves to their enrolled Head Start child.  Annie asked for volunteers to read their stories out loud, and almost immediately tears were flowing. Annie recounts a particularly touching learning story that one woman wrote about difficulties she had to overcome early in her life – writing to her two young children.

As it turns out there was a Head Start board member at that meeting, who saw the value. [This person ended up being the former Early Education Support Division Director for California State Department of Education, and a supporter of Annie in her mission to advance Learning Stories in California.]

The Formula – Learning Stories as a Time Saver!

The success of this Parent Policy Council meeting led to a pilot with the Head Start agency, Early Head Start program. Annie was a doctoral student with UC Davis at the time, and made this pilot the research study for her dissertation.  She provided staff training, had teachers and parents both writing learning stories.

The results were compelling. Learning stories brought joy back into ECE teaching and transformed the relationships between parents and teachers.

As powerful though is Annie’s time-saving formula. California requires two assessment ratings of a child per year. For programs that have federal Head Start funding, they are required to complete child assessments three times per year. Many early care and education programs in California have both state and federal funding, which results in the requirement to complete three assessment ratings per program year.

Actually these ratings don’t take long – teachers know their children well.  The time-consuming part is documenting all the developmental skill levels as required evidence for the assessment tool.

Annie’s research shows teachers are documenting as many as 1,500 anecdotes every year.  Anecdotes that most of the time are not connected to curriculum planning and nor valued by parents.

Learning stories tips this equation on its head.

Learning Stories First

Instead of starting with an objective, and having to come up with an anecdote, why not write learning stories first. And then link to objectives demonstrated by that story.  Many stories will accommodate 10+ objectives, and can be written in a few minutes, because the teacher is invested in the subject matter, the learning journey of the child.

Furthermore, educators care about the parents reading the story. There is great satisfaction in sharing a child’s adventure in learning.  And finally, stories about a child’s learning provides common ground to spark discussion, reflection, and feedback from the parent that could provide invaluable insights for the teacher.

The Founding of SALSA 

Supporting the Advancement of Learning Stories in America – SALSA

Back in the US, Annie added learning stories to all of her courses – also with her college students who write their own learning story about their learning journey referred to as “my story” — a way for her students to communicate their cultural and social identities. She sees learning stories as a way to build relationships through shared understanding in a variety of venues – for instance, IEP meetings in schools, foster care, incarcerated parents, community service learning.

She also has been doing a lot of work with learning stories in homeless shelters childcare programs.  The very high parent engagement rates she is seeing in these challenging settings is encouraging her even more that she is on the right track.

After a third trip to New Zealand, Wendy Lee went to the US. She presented on Learning Stories with Annie sharing the US context.  For a fourth trip to New Zealand, Annie persuaded Wendy to offer a “Learning Story Intensive.”  This was for a hand-picked group of folks already using learning stories throughout California.

SALSA Conferences

That group then formed SALSA, a newly forming non-profit to promote learning stories.  Together with multiple agencies, SALSA co-hosted two separate conferences in 2018, in southern and northern California.  There was a great response, close to 1,000 attendees across the two events.  Healthy sponsorship enabled them to bring from several educators from New Zealand, Wendy as the keynote speaker, two Educational Leadership Project facilitators, Lorraine Sands and Tania Bullick to present workshops, and a preschool ECE teacher, Catalina Thompson from Greerton Early Childhood Center to provide a keynote presentation.

Is Change In The Air in California?

Annie observed “There is growing dissatisfaction with the DRDP.  It’s time-consuming. without clearly helping learning outcomes.”

Annie got an email for a New Zealander that said it best: “The US focus is on development, not learning.”  And, in development outcomes there’s a deficit perspective.  This is a million miles from “engaging listeners in an adventure of childhood enlivened with our humanity and heart.” (Tom Drummond’s definition of learning stories – see the Educa interview of Tom Drummond on the Power of Story-Telling here.)

There is a grassroots movement happening organically according to Annie.  Many programs are struggling to meet the DRDP requirements. Some regional agencies are questioning the cost – administration and impact on education quality — attached to funding.  Learning stories are being looked at as a better approach that engages child, parents, families and community.

Most of the centers Annie visited in New Zealand were using ePortfolio software, most often Educa. However, it is early days for learning stories in the US.  In Annie’s experience, many teachers write learning stories in programs like Apple’s Pages, saving stories in folders.  Or services are trying to adapt parent engagement apps, designed for photo sharing.

This is likely to change as learning stories take hold – customizable learning story software offers the potential for another leap in productivity for these centers.

Annie’s goal is to work with the QRIS system, especially in California. She is advocating for an alternative observation method with learning stories as an option for centers looking to earn a quality rating.

Annie’s Mission

“Learning stories have turned my life upside down!”

Annie is now part of the worldwide learning story movement. She presented at Education Leadership Project’s 2017 Celebrating Learning Stories conference along with Leslie Voss and Annette Muse.   She presented at the NAEYC conference in November, 2018. She also had an interview on learning stories in the Nov/December issue of the Child Care Information Exchange magazine.

Meanwhile, Annie is doing training all over California and the US, a lot of training!  While learning stories in New Zealand come in many different styles, Annie strongly suggests writing learning stories directly to the child.  She feels writing to a child emphasizes the very different mindset and emotional connection that learning stories provide.

Learn more about Educa learning story software and how we help early educators manage learning stories here.