Lift Them High!
Text of remarks by Judy Harris Helm at the Opening of The Power of Documentation: Children's Learning Revealed Exhibit at Chicago Children's Museum on Navy Pier, November 4, 2003

Thank you for coming to this celebration of professional learning communities and The Power of Documentation: Children's Learning Revealed Exhibit. Documentation is the language of professional learning communities. It is how they communicate.

To understand the value of this exhibit I want to share a story with you. When my daughter was 16 years old, she spent some time in an early childhood classroom as a volunteer. This was the year she fell in love with teaching. As she spent time in the classroom interacting with the children and observing the teacher, she shared a 16-year-old's reflections on teaching:

"You know some people say that early childhood teachers aren't very smart. That is not true; you have to be very smart to teach early childhood. I watch Beth teach, and I think she is actually doing two jobs and she does it in two places at one time.

On one job it is like she is down on the floor. She is keeping track of children, organizing activities, knowing who is in the bathroom and who needs to go there, filling up the easel paints; doing all the things she needs to do to keep the classroom moving. But then she is doing another job. This job is like she is on the ceiling and looking down. In this job she is observing and analyzing, figuring out who knows what and who is struggling to figure something out, what she needs to do to help a child learn.”

I said, "Rebecca, how do you know that Beth is doing that."

Rebecca said, "Because she tells me, 'When you are in the block area today, see what Manuel knows about the different shapes and sizes of the blocks. If he doesn't seem to know any of these things, teach him. Watch Sara and see if she is getting any idea at all of the reading process, how the letters work."

We began to call this second job, "ceiling work," * and it includes all of the reflective work that teachers do: setting goals, observing, assessing, and adjusting their support and guidance to the needs of each child. It is through ceiling work that teachers think about the goals they have for children, what children know, what they don't know and how to reach those goals. … what it is that individual children need to be successful.

We have come to think about ceiling work as a characteristic of good effective teaching. Documentation is all about doing ceiling work and this exhibit is all about ceiling work!! -teachers who are learning to do ceiling work and teachers who have been doing it for a long time.

It is about collecting, reflecting about, and sharing children’s work.

This is both a display of accomplishments and an inspiration for all of us of what is to come when teachers become communities of learners.

This night is also a celebration of active, engaged learning experiences and what happens to children when they have an opportunity to experience meaningful learning.

  • It is about high expectations and standards.

  • It is about learning ABCs… but also learning to love books, stories and writing.

  • It is about learning numbers…but also about wanting desperately to count and figure

  • It is about not just learning vocabulary words like “iguana”… but also about truly understanding what “iguana” means.

  • It is also about wondering, hypothesizing, predicting and creative problem solving by children.

  • It is also about the development of determination, a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence… the development of authentic self-esteem.

All of these “also”s don't show up on standardized achievement tests!

In the year 2020, the future of our children today, 70% of the jobs that will exist then have not even been identified yet….. but that is the world our children will inhabit. It is not enough to teach them facts, we must also teach them to think, to develop the intellectual skills they will need in a technological society.

And we must teach these skills to all of our children… no matter how much money a family makes, where they live, what their family structure is or what the educational level of their parents might be. All children including those who are poor, those who are learning a second language, and those who are in homes where there is stress… they all need the “also”s.

I challenge each and every one of you to join us to provide for our children what they need.

I challenge you to spread the news, grab people off the street and tell them to see this wonderful work of children and teachers. Make them come! Support the learning of professional learning communities with time and resources!

Help us lift up our children….. and our teachers! Lift them high…. Lift them to the ceiling!! All children deserve a teacher who does ceiling work!

*The story about ceiling work and the role of documentation in doing ceiling work is described in detail in The Power of Projects: Meeting Contemporary Challenges in Early Childhood Classrooms – Strategies and Solutions. Helm & Beneke, editors, Teachers College Press, 2003.

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