Interview with Bridget

Looking back and looking forwards – a conversation about learning stories

In February 2009, Keryn Davis from the project team developing the exemplars for students with special education needs talked with Bridget, mother of Nathan, one of the students whose learning is profiled in the exemplars. Bridget also contributed to the exemplars as a parent writer. The following extracts from the discussion reflect Bridget’s feelings about what learning stories have meant for Nathan’s learning, his family, and his educators in both early childhood and primary school settings.

Keryn: Bridget, we first met back in 2006 through early childhood professional development around Kei Tua o te Pae, the early childhood assessment exemplars. You and Nathan were involved in Playcentre, and we were working on strengthening learning stories at the centre through this professional development. You could see a lot of potential in learning stories for supporting Nathan at that time.

Bridget: Yes. Well, I thought learning stories were great. At one stage, it was just our family who could see what strengths Nathan had … I thought maybe if others in his early childhood centre could see him the way that I did, it would be clearly evident to them that he is a capable, competent learner. We – both Playcentre and his family – had only ever had support that focused on what he couldn’t do and that put forward ideas about what he was expected to achieve. That’s where learning stories have made a huge impact … we were able to recognise Nathan’s strengths. When you, Keryn, came to do professional development, it all sort of fitted in with what we as a family thought of Nathan.

In our family, Nathan’s strengths and passions were always recognised – that he is a capable and competent learner, that he belongs in the community, and that he is able to grow up to be independent. So, learning stories represented all of that to us, and more. I had always seen that Nathan had many strengths. Now others could see it, and more people started to get involved. People were always quite scared to approach Nathan because there were these pieces of paper that had lots written about what he couldn’t do or what we were trying to get him to do – how can you get a child to do something when you don’t know anything about him other than what he can’t do? So it was hard for people to learn alongside him.

Keryn: So, through the learning stories, other people were now able to see the Nathan you knew?

Bridget: Absolutely. They began to see the Nathan that I know – to see him as capable and competent – and to be excited about what he can do. And the children –the children noticed Nathan. As a family, we’ve always tried to bring information to the Playcentre because we knew it would be easier for the other parents to get to know Nathan if they knew what he was capable of doing. Nathan was completely non-verbal then, so it was very, very hard for other parents and children to try and interact with him. They were more than comfortable about doing it when they knew his strengths and what he could do. So it was great – it was like letting out a secret – yes, my son is capable just like every other child, he does belong here, he is included, and now everyone else can see it too! That was kind of magic.

Keryn: I remember those early days of using learning stories – you were so sure this was the right way to go for Nathan. You asked me how you might be able to support other professionals working with Nathan to get on board with learning stories.

Bridget: Yes, I remember those early days of learning stories and how embarrassed I was. I had started some stories, and I took them in to show someone, but I never heard a word back. That didn’t stop me. I wasn’t going to give up. I had seen more progress in Nathan in the short space of time since learning stories were introduced than the whole two-to-three years beforehand, when we were focusing on all the little goals. I felt like we were heading in the right direction because now we were following his strengths and interests and [focusing on] what he can do. Those early stories always reflected that and just moved him on all the time.

Keryn: Yes, I remember those early stories about his interest in number – he was so good with numbers. I remember him initiating a game with another parent at the Playcentre. You were writing the stories about his interest in and skill with numbers, playing board games and doing puzzles. The other parents were beginning to really get involved with Nathan, and then, all of a sudden, quite quickly, he initiated a game with a parent – he used eye contact and sent a clear message, “Come play with me”.

Bridget: We captured a wonderful learning story about Nathan using the number puzzle. Not only was he using eye contact, but he was allowing his peers to be involved, and that was quite huge for Nathan. Most of the time Nathan was tolerating adult involvement and [tolerating] other children was a next step. Because Nathan was involved in one of his strengths [when] the other children came and joined in, he was quite happy for them to be in his environment and even helped them. One of the other children was too slow for him – [Nathan] already knew what the next piece was, so Nathan was actually helping his peers.

Keryn: And you noticed those big changes happening quite quickly.

Bridget: Absolutely, and they’ve continued on since he has gone to school. I thoroughly believe it’s because we have carried on the learning-story journey. If we go back to the learning story about the number puzzle, Nathan was completely non-verbal, but … he was initiating eye contact to obviously let an adult join in, [then] allowing his peers join in and helping them and also … taking turns, which was just incredible. Things have moved on because we have focused on those kinds of stories that focus on what he takes a strong interest in. It was nice having that learning from early childhood on paper to share with the educators involved with Nathan in school. They could straight away see the excitement we had about his learning, and they wanted to continue to build on from that, and they have.

Keryn: So learning stories are a transition tool too?

Bridget: Yes. I had written a couple of stories about when he started school and, from there, his educators started getting on board. Those stories built on Nathan’s interest in Greedy Cat books. The educators working with Nathan used that interest to move him forward – from taking an interest in books, to learning to read, to verbalising, to sharing. It’s been fantastic.

Keryn: That’s a good example of the ways he’s getting more involved – he’s participating in increasingly complex ways.

Bridget: Yes, the learning stories have also had an effect on how his peers see Nathan in class. They see him as capable and competent. The learning stories have been shared in class, and the photos. Other children have made comments: “Wow, look at what Nathan can do!” “Wow, Nathan’s really good at that!” So, in that way learning stories have been invaluable, really.

Keryn: So his classmates are seeing Nathan as capable, and they’re recognising what he’s good at – what about Nathan? What do you think Nathan thinks of the stories written about him?

Bridget: Yes, well, first and foremost it’s the photos for him – the photos have captured his interest. We read all the stories to him and, in his way of communicating, he’s given his voice too. It could be a long glance at a certain part of the story, or pointing to certain parts of the story, or actually writing something beside the story that’s reflective of what we’ve been talking about. And again, it’s about building on what Nathan is telling us.

Keryn: So he’s connecting with the stories in all sorts of ways – trough the photos, through the words, through what you are saying – his reaction to that, him wanting to contribute to the story in some way.

Bridget: He’s always very interested in the stories because another of his strengths is literacy, which is extremely strong, and he’s really keen to pick up anything, especially if there is a picture of him there. So it’s about trying to get his voice more and more into the stories as well

Keryn: And there are so many ways that Nathan’s voice can be included – different ways of thinking about how Nathan’s voice can be represented.

Bridget: Absolutely. When Nathan started school, it was late in the year, so it wasn’t until the next year that we had the privilege of Nathan’s teacher joining the exemplar project. That has really strengthened his learning stories … as well as getting the other educators working with Nathan much more involved too. That’s been exciting, to share the learning. It’s so much easier to share the learning when someone else is involved in writing stories, because they can share the excitement, they can see what we are excited about, and the chances of increasing complex learning are greater for all!! All through the year, Nathan’s teacher was excited about where he is at. This year, as I had requested, there was a learning story as his school report telling about his learning over the year, rather than a report with all the little wee boxes, ticked progressing, progressing, progressing. With the learning story, we could see the progress he was making, and it was absolutely fantastic. The progress he has made is absolutely huge. I saw it all the time, as I reflected with Nathan’s teacher, his teacher aide, and his teacher from the special school in Christchurch (who is another passionate educator) – she’s saying to me all the time, “Your son is so capable, your son is intelligent, your son is so good at all these things, and we need to keep moving him forward”. The way we do that is by reflecting on what he can do rather than focusing on what he is not achieving.

Keryn: You’ve shared what you value about learning stories as a parent, so what would your message be to teachers, if they are interested in giving learning stories a go?

Bridget: I would first and foremost say to the teachers – get to know the child, and the family too! Noticing, recognising, responding are great reflection words to remember. Think about: What have I noticed? What does this story tell me? What is important to the student? How can I involve the student? Where to from here? Consulting and sharing with families strengthens stories! My advice would be to try to capture something you have observed that you know is magic! Share the story to get the student’s voice and see what comes from there. Remember: get excited about what your student finds interesting and about how you can make it more interesting for them! Involving the community strengthens learning too.

As part of this project, it was great having the opportunity to learn alongside passionate teachers, seeing them get excited about children’s learning. As a parent, it is wonderful to know this project is going to support many educators to assess children with special education needs in a way that can best see their strengths and how they learn (individually) and what [the educators] can do to support ongoing educational success for such students. Also, as a parent, I can say how valuable and rewarding it is to see a learning story written about your child because, for me, when I read a great learning story, I am captured and excited about what the story tells me my son can do.

Keryn: This might be a tricky question, but what do you think has been the single most important outcome for Nathan as a result of those around him using learning stories?

Bridget:He’s in a mainstream school. He is fully included in his school. He is seen as a capable, competent learner by his peers and his teachers. That to me is absolutely wonderful, to see that he is identified for his strengths in the school. First of all, that he’s a boy, a boy with all these wonderful things that come with him – that he’s valued, that he belongs in the school community – and that’s a great outcome. It shows in the progress in the last six months of his school year through support from his educators and peers. He’s learnt to talk from a zero vocab. He’s in a reading group with his peers. He’s doing lots of curriculum activities, just like his peers are. He’s actually above and beyond his peers in lots of things. Which is great again, because his peers are saying, “Wow! Wow, Nathan’s really good at that!” He’s learnt to ride a bike. He’s learnt to use the toilet. He’s done so many things in such a short space of time. And I think that is a reflection of this wonderful journey with learning stories.

Keryn: And what about for you, Bridget, what about you as a parent? What are the outcomes for you as a parent from all of this?

Bridget: I feel great because I don’t feel like I’m alone. I feel like there are so many passionate educators out there who are getting involved with learning stories. I feel really excited that learning stories are being used in schools, regardless of their community, and think this is going to make such a difference for so many children in so many ways. I’ve shared a couple of learning stories about Nathan with friends who have children with special education needs, and they just can’t get over the magic of the story. You kind of forget that your child has challenges because you’re so focused on their strengths and building on these to overcome challenges – and to meet some pretty hard challenges – at times.

So, that’s kind of nice, it’s like living the dream – people can finally see my Nathan.