Heart-Led Learning Stories Build Partnerships at UC Santa Barbara


Voices From The Village – Richard Edward Gonzales, Jr.

Richard Gonzales is a lead teacher at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) Early Childhood Care and Education Services Center. He has been teaching in ECE for five years and recently led a session at the 2nd Annual SALSA Learning Stories Conference entitled “Voices from the Village – Building Partnerships Through Learning Stories.”  This article reviews his vision of heart-led Learning Stories in that presentation.

Imagine two child care centers attached to one of the most beautiful college campuses in the United States. UCSB has two campuses, each housing child care centers operated through the Early Childhood Care and Education Services Department. These centers care for children of UCSB students, faculty and staff.

The centers are near the beach, slough, woods, and a public park, overlooking the dramatic Pacific coastline. Naturally, children at these centers spend a great deal of time outdoors exploring the campus and surrounding areas. As we listened to Richard read learning stories, it was easy to imagine his students exploring this beautiful environment.

Why Learning Stories?

Richard believes that Learning Stories “literally make sense” in education. While checklists can serve purposes in early childhood assessment, Richard believes Learning Stories are accessible and convey meaning more authentically. While checklists can be confusing-  stories are universally approachable, meaningful, personal and memorable.

When families new to Richard’s center receive a Learning Story, it jumpstarts a connection with the teacher. Stories encourage dialogue and draw families into their child’s learning at the center.

Signed, With Much Love

“I consider myself a storyteller. We all have stories to tell.”

Richard writes his stories in letter form, addressing the child directly and signing the story “with much love, Teacher Richard.”

He sees his heart-led Learning Stories as an intimate dialogue between teacher, child, and family. He suggests noting your reactions to the story as much as theirs. Teachers can engage the families by keeping their Learning Story timeless, energizing, and appealing. Describing the setting knowing that space and time will remove the family from the event is also important.

Richard says “Storytelling helped ignite my passion for ECE.” Stories are truly a universal way to convey meaning. Learning Stories are form of documentation that allows us to describe learning and engage families in their child’s learning and development.

Be Creative!

“Tell the story for who you think needs to hear it.”

When asked if Learning Stories should be written only to children, Richard responded “Tell the story for who you think needs to hear it.”

When two infants moved out of Richard’s class into the toddler class, he was inspired to write a learning story about how much he had learned from the infants. The two children inspired him to learn more Spanish and helped him remember the few Spanish phrases he spoke as a child.

Richard is currently thinking of ways he can include community members in the Learning Story process. For example, he is thinking of ways he can write Learning Stories for adults, community members who visit his class. In this way, the Learning Story would be a “thank you letter” to the community member, explaining how much the children learned from the visit.

The Learning in Learning Stories

The interpretation and “opportunities and possibilities” is what sets Learning Stories apart from storytelling. In the interpretation, the teacher has an opportunity to show their expertise and explain why this learning event was important to the child’s development. And it helps the teacher focus on developing outcomes – learning skills, habits and dispositions – what new experiences can be presented to build on this story for the child’s future.

This is in contrast to checklists where the focus tends to be on pinpointing where a child sits today on a developmental profile – because that is the task at hand, the output required. By contrast, Learning Stories are about where the opportunities lie to build on strengths or interests to foster better learning outcomes.

Opportunities and possibilities is also a way for teachers to show families all the learning that happens at a young age. Some of these moments may have been overlooked. Luckily, learning stories bring these learning moments alive and in the process, include families in the learning event.

Richard believes the “opportunities and possibilities” section of a Learning Story is designed to “keep us accountable” as teachers. In this section, the educator suggests ways that the learning event will impact future learning and ways to extend learning from this moment. He uses this section to list ways he can support the child and plan for future learning experiences.

When a teacher receives family feedback, multiple narratives and voices are heard. That is a standout feature of Learning Stories. “It’s not just the teacher’s voice – it’s the child’s voice and the family’s voice.”

How Many? How Often?

“Being authentic is so important AND so undervalued as an educator. You do so much more by being authentic.”

It is not uncommon for teachers new to Learning Stories to ask how often stories should be written per child. Richard feels teachers should write Learning Stories when inspiration hits them. In his practice, the frequency of story writing varies from week to week. He focuses on inspiration vs. quantifying a certain number of stories.

“It won’t carry the same emotional connection without inspiration” He tends to “get all his ideas down” about a story on one page, then return later to edit and format a story. These story ideas come to him whenever he is inspired by having observed a child, or by having meaningful interactions with the children.

For Richard, authenticity is key. He feels “being authentic is so important and so undervalued as an educator. You can do so much more by being authentic.”

Connecting to a Framework

Richard previously used a checklist in completing his observations for the DRDP (Desired Results Developmental Profile), a framework used in California and now other states in the United States. He now prefers to write learning stories, then connect the learning to DRDP indicators at the end of the story. Connecting learning stories to a framework provides context to the families. In addition to appearing more professional, the framework connection legitimizes learning story assessment.

Engaging Families in Meaningful Dialogue

Learning Stories invite families to engage. Richard doesn’t want to add another chore to a busy parent’s plate, but he will often encourage families to comment on stories. Occasionally, families will dictate their feedback, which Richard can add to the text of the story.

In some cases, Learning Stories allowed Richard to meaningfully connect with a family’s culture.

For example, he had a family who did not like the concept of childcare. Richard was able to show the family that their child was cared for and known. Learning stories were able to bridge that cultural gap that could have hindered a meaningful connection with this family.

“Learning stories are all about relationships, and relationships should be what education is all about entirely.”

Quarantine Stories

Like many centers in the United States, UCSB was forced to close in the Spring of 2020 due to Covid-19.  In an effort to maintain the strong connection he had with families, Richard held weekly zoom meetings with infants and families. It was important that he remain relevant to the child and family, despite the physical distance between them.

It then occurred to him that if he was doing weekly video calls, he could still write Learning Stories for the children. Richard knew that infants develop rapidly, so to make sure he observed their development, he watched them and interacted with them on video calls so he could write Learning Stories while in quarantine.

“Writing Learning Stories while virtual cemented our relationship with the children, even in our physical absence.” The Learning Stories also let families know how deeply he cared for the children, even with the boundaries imposed by a pandemic.

What’s Your Story?

Richard jokingly says he feels deprived for not having Learning Stories as a child. From a young age, Richard developed two passions: music and working with young children. As a child, Richard loved giving bottles to his younger brother and putting his brother down for a nap. “Now, twenty years later, it’s what I do for a job. That could have been an amazing learning story!”

Richard feels many elementary school students navigate their learning journey alone and unsupported. He wonders how his experience could have been different had his teachers written learning stories for him. He hopes elementary schools will adopt using learning stories.

“If we do this together, the possibilities for learning at any age are limitless.”

In elementary school he felt encouraged to navigate school alone, and his experience is not unusual. Richard wonders “What if the family, the child, and the school could engage in an authentic dialogue about the child’s learning?”

Eudca is a Learning Story platform that supports early childhood documentation in all phases from planning through to reporting.  Educa supports DRDP reporting using Learning Stories as evidence  Educa also supports linking to other frameworks.

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