Crossing the Border

Crossing the Border

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Crossing the border has been written for early childhood education and primary school teachers who are interested in the transition from ECE to school.

How to provide continuity and build connections between the two sectors has always been a focus for teachers, but up until now there has been little advice as to exactly what this means in practice. This book offers valuable insights into the ways in which one community negotiated this transition. It provides practical suggestions for schools and early childhood centres and analysis of of the issues involved in their implementation.

From: Crossing the Border, by Hartley, Rogers, Smith, Peters, Carr

Chapter Three

Portfolios as tools for enhancing learning
across the borders

Views of early childhood assessment and documentation in New Zealand have been dramatically influenced by the national early childhood curriculum. The theoretical frameworks of Te Whāriki emphasise that curriculum is about “reciprocal relationships with people, places and things” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. ix), Carr (2001), with early childhood teachers from a number of different types of provision, explored alternative assessment models and in doing so, introduced Learning Stories as an assessment practice. As a form of formative assessment, Learning Stories focus on the relationship between learner and context, documenting the interactions of the learner and reflecting the sociocultural view of learning implicit in Te Whāriki. Fleer (2002) has commented that Learning Stories, as vignettes of children ‘in action’ are:

rich, forward thinking (i.e. assessment for tomorrow) and demonstrate a complexity of moving from and individual to a sociocultural perspective of assessment in early childhood education. This work is at the cutting edge of knowledge construction on assessment in early childhood education. (p.112)

This paradigm shift to assessment as a sociocultural activity supports the use of the portfolio not only as an individual record of learning in one setting, but as an assessment and documentation tool that can cross the borders between settings.

Carr (2001, citing Gipps, 1999), has described the role of Learning Stories and their portfolios as being to:

•    document learning over time

•    assess students’ learning, reflecting their relationships and interactions

•    develop self-assessment capacity within the learning process.

We see portfolios within this paradigm shift as “part of a move to design assessment that supports learning and provides more detailed information about students” (Gipps, 1999, p. 368).

Over the course of several years the portfolios at Mangere Bridge Kindergarten have come to mean much more than a formative assessment tool for the children, the teachers and the families. They have developed and changed as the teaching team have learned about assessment and Learning Stories and have developed inclusive practices, recognising that learning and assessment in practice is always a journey in progress. Portfolios are now viewed at Mangere Bridge Kindergarten from a multitude of perspectives, that define them as literacy artifacts and as tools of engagement supporting empowerment, interaction and communication. By connecting the child and family in the border crossings between home and kindergarten, and later between home, kindergarten and school, these portfolios promote “conditions for the possibility of learning” (Gipps, 1999, p. 374). Learning Story assessment practices of noticing, recognising, and responding to key learning events are integral to the teaching and learning in the kindergarten. These practices are used to write narratives included in the children’s portfolios and are linked to planning for further teaching and learning. The portfolios present a multidimensional perspective of the child as learner.

Portfolios at Mangere Bridge Kindergarten

As the learning journey begins

At the commencement of their kindergarten journey each child has a portfolio created for them, which contains some information filled in by the parent/ caregiver, some information contributed by the child in the form of drawings, and information about the kindergarten, the teachers and their interests. A narrative of the first day for each child goes into the child’s portfolio, and this story is often the first means of engaging with a child (and their family) and building a relationship to create a sense of belonging in the new environment. This first day at kindergarten is recorded as a settling experience. The portfolio invites the parents to tell the teachers what their child said about their first day at kindergarten. Responding to this question, a parent whose older two children had kindergarten portfolios, wrote “Piper loves having her own book [portfolio] which is hers because, she said, ‘I been waiting’”. During the child’s time at kindergarten Learning Stories are added to the portfolio (individual, group and personalised group stories) along with art work, children’s work, kindergarten events and child and family contributions.

The portfolios are stored in a book box at the children’s height. The box includes dividers, which are colour coded, named and have a photograph across the top so that children can access their own portfolios.

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If the portfolio has gone home, the divider is useful as a place holder and also as a space to store further stories until they can be added to the book. Children constantly access their portfolios, often carrying them around during the session. They can be seen using them to engage other children, parents, whānau and even visitors in conversation. A protocol around ownership of the portfolios was developed at the kindergarten: children must ask the owner of the portfolio for permission if they want to read it. This protocol was later transferred by the children into the school environment and was important for the success of the portfolios as a transition tool.

A taonga for parents and children

Planning and assessment with children within the kindergarten is dependent on establishing a relationship in order to build on previous learning, family practices, and established and emerging interests. As the portfolios move between kindergarten and home, contributions are added at home as well. The family’s comments, stories and photos in the portfolios record family experiences and events, celebrations, holidays, special friends and visitors. Parents consider the kindergarten portfolios to be valued family taonga recording their child’s learning and important experiences in their lives and the lives of the family. The ongoing nature of this attachment became clear when a kindergarten teacher met a previous kindergarten child (by this time in primary school Year 6) and her mother at the shops on a Sunday afternoon, and the first comment was about how they still love her “kindy book” and the child volunteered immediately, “I had it out last week actually”.

During an interview another parent commented:

you know I love her kindy book … [hugging it to her chest] … she always loved coming here … and seeing that book you can see why … you know some of the interesting stuff you guys have done for her and helped her grow … I’d rather keep it up on the shelf because you can’t replace these things. (Parent interview, project year 3)

This parent recognised the valuable learning for her child that had occurred during her kindergarten days and she often responded in the portfolio, as did many others.

The portfolio was highly valued in Kaitlin’s family also. It was regularly read at home and returned to kindergarten with insights for the reader about her home life. Kaitlin frequently revisited her portfolio at the kindergarten as well. Kaitlin showed expertise at reading the visual language that her family had contributed. The illustrations were the prompts for her, enabling her to recite whole chunks of the written language and to revisit her learning.

TEACHER REFLECTION

I sat down with Kaitlin, who was reading her portfolio on her own. She started telling me about what was in her book, recalling a visit to the Skytower, stories about her friend Brooke and various other events. I was struck at how well she knew the book. There are several pages in her book that have contributions from home. Kaitlin’s mum and dad have done the writing and Kaitlin has drawn the pictures. Given that some of the contributions are from a year or so ago, I was absolutely amazed when Kaitlin was able to tell me what each story was about. She had all the details correct. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as they are HER stories! These particular stories were without the visual aid of photographs, just writing and her own illustrations (which in some cases were quite small). Her level of knowledge is very enlightening, and illustrates the Significance portfolios have for recording events in the lives of children. (Teacher reflection, project year 2)

This experience with the portfolio was later repeated for her brother, Christian, when he began attending this kindergarten. His book contained photos and stories of attendance at family weddings, among lots of other events, highlighting his experience as a competent ring bearer and Samoan dancer. These events contributed to the interests that Christian had in the kindergarten, revealing him to be both a learner and a teacher. The photos provided from home in his portfolio provided visual models for Christian, to share and to show other children how to perform the dance steps.

Teacher portfolios

The teachers also constructed their own portfolios that contain stories and photos of both their professional and home life. They are stored in amongst the children’s portfolios in alphabetical order in the upright box. These teacher portfolios originated from an idea about bio-boards from Curtis and Carter (2003). These boards were made to display at the entrance to the kindergarten, where parents sign in, and they are then each converted to a half page of text and photographs to go in every child’s portfolio. We felt that if parents were able to access information about the teacher as a person with interests and passions outside of the kindergarten, it would create a space to build a relationship and sometimes find common ground in interactions. Following on from this, we decided to develop these bios into an individual portfolio for each adult in the kindergarten, similar to those we had seen at Botany Downs Kindergarten, another Auckland kindergarten. The children constantly access the teacher portfolios, discussing where teachers live, their families, pets and interests outside of the kindergarten. They discuss our photos, investigating the relationships portrayed, and build a picture of the teacher as a learner as well as a participant in the life of the children and families in the kindergarten community.

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More recently, William, a toy guinea pig, joined one of the teachers on a holiday in London and began sending emails and photos back from London with Carol. He now has his own portfolio and the children are able to take William for adventures on family holidays, and send photos back to kindergarten, to be displayed and added to William’s portfolio. The children are very enamoured of William and his portfolio and it is a wonderful additional way of learning about our families’ lives outside of the kindergarten. All of this documentation contributes to the funds of knowledge about the children, families and teachers (Gonzales, Moll & Amanti, 2005). These visual records are highly accessible, able to be read, revisited and shared.

Transitioning with portfolios

A positive sense of self

Discussing what makes a “good” transition, Brooker (2008, pp. 114-115) calls for “an environment of opportunities”, and the portfolios took on this role of promoting an environment in which children could engage with others and convey a sense of their own self worth. Ecclestone (2009) reinforces the interwoven nature of assessment and transitions, and suggests that successful transitions require systems of support to empower those involved. One kindergarten parent commented on the value of the portfolios as transition tools: “Their books are wonderful … as a record to take to school, in terms of who they are and what they do” (Parent focus group, project year 2). In addition, a new entrant teacher made the following comment:

I’ve noticed that even the most shy of children when they’ve got their portfolio with them just seem to have this sense of confidence, it’s that ownership over something and the fact that the other children in the class are acknowledging their prior learning and lots of rich experiences … it’s a really, really useful tool for transition. (Teacher C, interview, project year 3)

Families for whom English is an additional language

In the evolution of the portfolio from assessment tool to transition artifact, the portfolios also fulfilled a multitude of roles for those children and families for whom English is an additional language. Margetts (2007) reported from an Australian research study that children from families where English is an additional language were less likely to have had access to school and school language before their first day of attendance, were less familiar with school, and consequently found transition more difficult. The portfolios, by using visual images, provide ongoing documentation of learning to communicate and connect with all children and families. The use of new technologies that are less reliant on written language has made possible a transformation in the way we interact with children and families. Photos, movies and images convey information in a way that is accessible to families who are not able to spend time in the kindergarten setting and those for whom English is an additional language. Makin, Jones, Diaz and McLachlan (2007) refer to the challenge of connecting with families and validating their experiences in a pluralistic society such as New Zealand. However, the learning story format and the composition of the portfolios negotiate this challenge by communicating using visual images as well as English language-based text. The story about Gaurav in the next paragraph illustrates that families for whom English is an additional language can connect, through photos, with the learning that has happened for their child in the kindergarten setting and to respond in a way that they find comfortable (including in their home language), linking learning between the two settings.

Portfolios go to school

Gaurav uses his portfolio

Gaurav was the first of our case studies, and his transition provided our initial defining moment, our ‘Wow moment!’ as his school teacher so succinctly put it. The impact on her class and the resulting implications for Gaurav are reported more fully elsewhere (Peters, Hartley, Rogers, Smith, & Carr, 2009). The power of the portfolio for a child for whom English is an additional language was magnified by Gaurav’s adaptation of the kindergarten culture of engagement with children into the school new entrant classroom.

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The kindergarten culture of engagement—of negotiating relationships through documentation and portfolios with children and adults—was carried over into the school, and in Gaurav’s case was evident on a day when one of the kindergarten teachers was present in the new entrant classroom, working with a group of children. Gaurav tried to join the group; however when he could not get the kindergarten teacher’s attention he went off to get his kindergarten portfolio, placed it on the lap of the class relieving teacher and opened it to the page where a kindergarten visit to school was reported. His actions indicated that he knew this visiting kindergarten teacher. He was communicating with the school teacher in the way he felt most comfortable, visually, using his portfolio. He had used his portfolio to engage children and unfamiliar adults on numerous occasions during his school transition experience, and, indeed, for many months afterwards.

Portfolios as literacy artifacts

When asked in a focus group of new entrants at school (recently arrived 5-year-olds) what the portfolios were used for at school, they answered as follows:

L:     You use them for reading.

M:    Yeah and for looking at and for reading with a partner or someone has to ask us if they want to read them.

A:     If they want to read someone else’s kindy book.

(Children’s focus group, project year 2)

These children were part of a culture in the classroom that developed the rule that if you wanted to read a “kindy” book you had to ask the owner. One explanation for this was proposed by the teacher in the room, who thought it had been suggested as a way to keep the books in good condition. However, this rule in the kindergarten, originally a way of maintaining privacy, came to mean that children had ownership of their own portfolio and the interactions that accompanied its use.

It is important to note that the individual portfolios of the children in the kindergarten are highly valued and frequently accessed, but this has to be done with the permission of the owner. They are carried, read and pored over by children as they discuss their learning and experiences with each other, with teachers and with any available adult. Over the period of the research this culture extended to the school setting in many different ways.

Portfolios go to school

Several of the teachers at the schools reported the value of the kindergarten portfolios in the transition process, and used them in interactive and inclusive ways. They began to write Learning Stories to include in the portfolio outlining the school visit experience.

And when they come for their visit [I was] adding to the portfolio by trying to do a Learning Story, even though I’m not sure what your learning intentions are for Te Whāriki. But even if I just recorded what the children are doing at the school so it could be included in their portfolio and take back to share, so we’re keeping that communication going with the kindergarten. (Teacher C, interview, project year 3)

One of these teachers’ Learning Stories highlighted the competency of a child at the carpentry table on his first visit to school. This story connected to many other stories in this child’s portfolio that illustrated his interest and competence in carpentry and construction. It linked his interests at kindergarten to school and formed the basis for creating a sense of belonging and a context for learning in the new setting.

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The teachers encouraged the children and families to transport the portfolios between the kindergarten and the school and to share stories in each setting. In moving between the settings in this way there was a sense in which these portfolios helped to open what Tomson (2002) termed children’s “virtual school bags”, which are full of various cultural and linguistic resources. The school bag metaphor is similar to Canevaro’s (1988, cited in Brostrom, 2002) more tangible “suitcase” of stories, photographs and objects, which help teachers connect to the child’s earlier learning. Our aim was to explore practices that allow the contents of all children’s suitcases or virtual school bags to be recognised and welcomed in both early childhood and school settings. This involved challenging practices whereby only some children, “those whose resources match those required in the game of education” (Tomson & Hall, 2008, p. 89), get to open their ‘virtual school bag’ and use what is inside, while for other children their “knowledges, experiences and practices remain invisible and unused at school” (Tomson, 2002, cited in Kamler & Comber, 2005, p. 6). In addition, we sought ways to add learning to the virtual school bags, or backpacks, in the hope that this would carry not only across tasks but also across contexts (or borders). Children were empowered by being allowed to open the suitcase/virtual school bag by accessing their portfolios at a time of their choosing and in a way they were comfortable with.

Gaurav’s new entrant teacher welcomed the books into the classroom and reported:

I would turn around at all times of the day and hear little murmurings and laughing and there would be pockets of children sitting around this little boy with his kindy book. (School teacher interview, project proposal stage)

However, this entitled and interactive use of the portfolio was not universal. As an example of the difficulty of handing a precious ‘treasure’ into someone else’s care, one parent perceived a lack of appreciation for her daughter’s portfolio in a new entrant room. She reported that the teacher said, “Oh that’s lovely, put it in the box, we’ll bring it out at news”. The parent commented:

The importance of it wasn’t really, I was going to say, appreciated. So … I left it there but I wanted to go back and get it because to me it’s precious … if it wasn’t going to be recognised by the teacher as a precious thing … so [at the] end of the day I whipped it out of there. (Parent interview, project year 3)

On another occasion, however, a new entrant teacher created a similar portfolio, making a school version for a child, Jayden:

He really valued it, and every day he would go and read it and chose a friend to read it with. So I made him, um, a similar sort of portfolio which started from his first day at school, and you know we talked about and took photos of activities that he was doing at school and then [I] got him to dictate a little story about then, which I typed out. (Teacher G, interview, project year 2)

This teacher identified Jayden’s attachment to his portfolio as a learning opportunity, particularly for literacy. In creating a book in a similar format and size, she supported him in his literacy learning, while the book and its use identified him as a learner in the school situation. Creating a similar portfolio at school builds on the use of portfolios and keeps them connected to the new environments. This potentially addresses the concerns expressed by some (children and adults) that children need to leave their kindergarten days behind them and move on. When five-year-old Myrrin was asked if the portfolio book was still at school, some time after having started school, she very confidently replied, “No, because I came to school last year. I’ve been here longer. I took my book home because I know everything now” (Child conversation, project year 2). For Myrrin, the portfolio had been a valuable transition tool, providing a means of interaction and, a positive image of herself as a learner that was no longer needed as she had established herself fully in the new setting. She had “moved on” and now saw herself as a school pupil.

For some children, for whatever reason, the portfolio did not come to school. The primary school teachers acknowledged the reluctance parents might feel in parting with such a unique and precious document in case it was damaged. One teacher reported, “I can think of two cases at the moment, where the portfolio is such a family treasure that they want to keep it at home” (Teacher B, interview, project year 2). However, teachers in both sectors frequently looked at ways of addressing any reluctance families felt in letting the portfolios come to and stay at school by indicating in very real ways that these artifacts were treasured by teachers too. The kindergarten teachers handed on the portfolios to graduating children in a named kete to protect them, and one of the schools built a specially designed wooden “tree” for the kete to hang on. There was a range of views about how to store the portfolios in the school classrooms, however, and the mode of storage appeared to influence their effective use as a belonging, learning and literacy artifact. Reflecting that she was unsure how to foster greater sharing of portfolios, one teacher commented:

I don’t know how we do that … part of it is the parents wanting to look after these portfolios and they are precious and somehow we need to say, “Yes we value them because we’ve had these trees made”, but they really aren’t being used. (Teacher B interview, project year 3)

In contrast, another teacher thought the portfolios were being used more since they were brought in the kete: “I think now that we’ve got them in the kete, they’re more special, they’re better used now” (Teacher G interview, project year 3). There may be other factors beyond the storage issues that were affecting their use, but ensuring the portfolios were easily accessible did seem to be important. Teacher interest and attitude was crucial.

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In discussion with teachers during some of our presentations we have heard that some early childhood centres make two portfolios and some are investigating (as we are) the possibility of making an additional, digital portfolio, so that parents and families have copies on a DVD. Currently, as a simple form of backup we give each family a DVD containing all the photos taken of the child taken during their time at kindergarten. We are working on a way to include all the stories written as well, as an additional and more comprehensive backup to the portfolio. These ideas would seem to meet the concerns of parents who consider their child’s portfolio to be an irreplaceable treasure and one they wish to keep with their family mementos. Parents may be reassured that the portfolio can not only go to school but can also spend some time at school as a transition tool—and as a contribution to learning at school

Concluding comments

Sociocultural assessment practices are by nature extremely complex and shape a child’s formation of identity within that early learner’s context (Fleer, 2002). Gipps (1999) writes about assessment and identity:

Because of the public nature of much questioning and feedback, and the power dynamic in the teacher–student relationship, assessment plays a key role in identity formation. The language of assessment and evaluation is one of the defining elements through which young persons form their identity, for school purposes at least … If identity is concerned with persuading others and oneself about who one is, the judgement of others is crucial. (pp. 282-283)

This contextual notion of identity is reinforced by Brooker (2008), who notes that a child may be secure and comfortable in one setting, but a change of setting may result in the child feeling less able or competent. In our view, and in our experience, the portfolios currently in use within the early childhood sector contribute to the child’s identity of themselves as a competent and confident learner, and can positively influence the way children transition into a new setting.

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