Documenting Projects
The Project Approach Catalog 1

ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childood Education, Prepared for The Project Approach: An Evening of Sharing
National Association for the Education of Young Children Annual Meeting
November 22, 1996

by Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke, and Kathy Steinheimer
Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center, Peoria, Illinois

How do you know what children are learning in projects? How can you tell how best to facilitate students' learning through the project process? How can you help others to see the value of project work in your curriculum? These are all questions that a teacher beginning project work may ask. Because each project is unique and each group of students approaches the project topic in its own way, there can be no prepackaged plan for a teacher to follow, no teacher's guide. The teacher must assess accurately the knowledge and skills students have and need, and the effectiveness of the learning experience. The teacher gathers resources, asks questions, provides access to experts, and arranges site visits based on the results of analyzing and interpreting the evidence gathered of students' learning rather than on a detailed pre-set plan.

The processes of carefully collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and displaying evidence of learning is called documentation. Documentation enables the teacher to effectively manage the project process and optimize learning opportunities. When shared with others, documentation also provides evidence that students are mastering curriculum goals.

The displays in this exhibit present evidence of children's learning. There are photos, videotapes, samples of children's work, anecdotal notes, student products, and child and teacher reflections. The displays and the project notes in this text provide insight into how the work in these projects flowed and progressed in these classrooms. Care should be taken not to use them as "how to manuals" but rather, just as the teachers did, to use them as evidence of a unique, dynamic process which took place over time in each of these unique classrooms.

How to Get Started

Teachers can prepare for the documentation process by gathering together materials that are helpful for documenting. These include post-it notes for writing down observations and folders for collecting children's work and anecdotal notes. Some teachers find it helpful to place pens and notepads around the classroom so that students can jot down observations and thoughts quickly. It may be helpful to have a checklist for your classroom with children's names and any particular knowledge or skills that you are wanting to observe or document during the project process. A camera, film, and tape recorder can be very helpful. At certain times during a project, a video camera is also helpful.

Care should be taken to capture evidence of children's knowledge and skills at the beginning of the project. Making a web provides a written record. Some teachers encourage students to add to or alter the web as the project progresses as a way of visually representing their learning. Recording or writing down exact words in statements and questions also enables assessment of change in vocabulary and understanding.

Documentation during the Project

The teacher might also want to consider keeping a journal. Many teachers take time each day to outline what was done on the project that day and to write about anything significant which took place. These entries can focus on the class, an individual child, a group of children, the project work itself, or the teacher and the teaching strategies.

It is helpful to look at a required curriculum outline or developmental checklist and to think about how evidence of learning in these areas during the project can be collected. For example, a student may find a need to collect data. This event may provide an opportunity to document a child's ability to count.

A time can be set aside daily to summarize and reflect on the observation data and items collected. Documentation can guide the teacher in planning what resources to access, experts to bring in, or field experiences to initiate. Any skills identified as needing to be taught can be introduced during non-project times of the school day.

Children should be encouraged to express what they are learning in many ways. These expressions, in a variety of media, become documents of children's ideas and understandings. Some means of expression displayed in this exhibit include narratives such as conversations, written stories, and books; writing such as captions and signs; constructions such as block structures, play environments, dioramas, and models; artistic expressions such as drama, drawing, painting, sculpture, musical expressions, and photography; and webs and lists.

Teachers can display selected items in the hallway and room that communicate what children are learning. Written descriptions will enhance the displays when they include the significance of what is displayed such as what the children have learned, why the item was chosen for display, the processes used by the class, or what an individual child learned. The description provides the viewer with an understanding of the educational value of the children's experiences. Adding to displays as children's work advances and projects progress increases the value of displays and maintains the interest of observers. Students can be involved in documenting their own project work. Even the youngest children can assist in making a book that tells the story of their project. Older students can evaluate and select what they judge to be their best work for display and can write their own descriptions and captions.

At the End of the Project

Sharing of documentation can educate others about the learning which occurred over the course of the project. The teacher can plan when and how to share documentation with parents such as parent-teacher conferences. Displays can be moved to more central areas of the school to be more visible. Project books and videos can be sent home with children to share with parents. Children can reflect on the learning experience as they review the documentation. Their words can be recorded and added to the narratives accompanying the display.

Results of Documentation

Time spent documenting children's learning can be a good investment. Careful documentation of a project can provide evidence of the wide ranging and in-depth learning that takes place when using the Project Approach. This type of learning, along with students' dispositions, are often not assessed or measured through standardized group-administered achievement tests. Documentation during a project can enable the teacher to see strengths of students not always measured in traditional assessment. Perhaps the most important benefit, however, is that documentation informs and directs the teaching process. Doing a project without documentation denies the teacher the gift of seeing into the minds of the children, matching strategies and materials with needs, and challenging children's thinking. Documenting enables the teacher to maximize the project approach experience and to become a partner in learning with the child.

(The ideas in this chapter are based on Documenting Young Children's Learning, Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke, and Kathy Steinheimer, Teacher's College Press, in press.)

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