What I'm Thinking

Digital Student Portfolios and Triangulated Assessment

In my new book, I define digital portfolios as “dynamic, digital collections of information from many sources, in many forms, and with many purposes that better represent a student’s understanding and learning experiences.”

While a definition is great, I also sought to provide examples of digital student portfolios in action. Several teachers shared their work with me on using digital tools for authentic assessment. Next is an excerpt from the text in which a 2nd-grade teacher facilitates a writing conference with a student. It is followed by my explanation with new thinking.

Calleigh, a 2nd grader, sits down with her teacher, Janice Heyroth, to prepare for an assessment. This is a regularly scheduled conference during the middle of the school year; Janice meets with each student six times a year to reflect on a piece of writing in their digital portfolios. At the beginning of the year, students completed a reading and writing survey, which was uploaded and shared with students’ families via FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com). The information gleaned from that survey gave Janice information about each student’s dispositions toward reading and writing. Questions such as “What types of books does your child enjoy reading on this/her own?” and “Does your child enjoy writing? Why or why not?” gave insights into how students approached literacy in their lives. It also informed her future instruction, such as generating writing ideas and topics students could choose to explore if they needed more support.

Elbows on the table, Calleigh props her head on her hands as her teacher spreads out some of her own writing. Because it is the middle of the school year, Calleigh’s folder already contains multiple compositions. Janice encourages Calleigh to locate a recently published piece she is proud of. She selects one, and then Janice starts off their assessment with a question: “So, what are some things you are doing well?”

Calleigh doesn’t hesitate. She states, “Handwriting.” Calleigh pulls an older piece of writing from her folder and compares it with a more recent entry to show the difference. Janice listens and smiles while she writes down Calleigh’s response in her conferring notebook.

Janice prompts, “What else?” and then silently waits and allows Calleigh the time she needs to look back at her writing and find other points to highlight. After a few seconds, she responds, “I don’t know.”

Janice acknowledges Calleigh’s honesty and follows up with more specific language. She says, “Well, I have noticed a lot of areas where I think you’re doing well in your writing. First, you stayed organized with your writing. Did you notice that?”

Calleigh tentatively nods.

Janice then says, “Do you know what I mean by staying organized in your writing?”

Calleigh hesitates and then smiles as she responds, “No.”

“Okay … did you stay on topic?”


“What is your topic about?”

“Going to Florida.”

“Right. It’s all about going to Florida. Did you tell me about what you did first and go all the way through to the end?”


The conversation continues, and while this assessment is taking place, the rest of the students in the classroom are busy independently reading and writing, working on self-guided vocabulary activities, or using computers to listen to narrated digital stories. At one point in the assessment, Janice starts to make a suggestion (“Would it have made sense … “), stops herself, and then restarts her inquiry: “Why did you start your real narrative in this way?” Calleigh shares that she started her story by describing an important scene during her visit to Florida. This is a strategy for developing a lead that she learned during whole-group writing instruction. Janice makes sure to note this connection between teaching and learning in her notebook.

The assessment closes with Janice asking Calleigh what she would like to continue working on with her writing. This time, she waits 15 seconds for a response.

Finally, Calleigh says, “Spaces.”

Janice pauses and then responds, “Actually, your spacing is fine. The same with your spelling and handwriting—everything looks great. Let’s take a look at your ending, though. ‘Our trip to Florida was fun and exciting.’ How could you have spiced things up and made your ending more memorable?”

Calleigh struggles with how to respond. Janice reminds her that endings can often resemble leads. With this information in hand, Janice makes a note to prepare future minilessons that address endings. Janice finishes up her time with Calleigh by showing her how to upload her writing to FreshGrade so her parents can see her work.

To summarize, this process of capturing, reflecting on, and sharing student work is a triangulated assessment. This is different than “triangulating assessments”, in which a teacher uses three assessment points to better evaluate a student’s level of growth or proficiency. The digital portfolio assessment process is triangulated because they have three audiences: the family, the teacher, and, most importantly, the student.


Here is how this assessment was triangulated:

  • The family members heard and saw their daughter selecting her best work and reflecting on it. They now have a talking point with Calleigh when she gets home that evening about what she is learning. In speaking with other teachers, they have found that as parents hear the teacher conferring with their child, they start to take up this language and emulate it at home, such as when reading a book with them.
  • The teacher was video recording the conference with her student. Knowing this was being seen by others, she likely made a more concerted effort to facilitate an effective assessment process. Janice also could go back to the video and watch it to evaluate her own instruction later on. She has time now, as scoring the writing is no longer necessary with the continuous process of portfolio assessment.
  • The student was provided voice and choice in which writing piece to upload into her portfolio. She took her time because she knew her teacher would be asking her to provide a rationale for her selection. All of the questions from Janice were centered on Calleigh. She was the one doing the thinking, and the learning.

I don’t want to get too wordy in this post, so I’ll leave it here for now. I do want to revisit this concept of triangulated assessment (vs. triangulating assessments) in the future. With this initial thinking, it seems like teachers are working smarter and leading a more student-centered approach to assessment. Let me know what you think! – Matt


Living Through a Lens

I was out of town, having lunch at a local cafe when I noticed a young mom taking a picture of her toddler while eating. “Come on, look at the camera!” she pleaded. The toddler said “no”, shook her head. Mom took the picture anyway and probably posted it on Facebook and/or Instagram. The little girl just wanted to have lunch with her mom.

It was yet another example of how so many of us, this writer included, are enjoying important moments through a lens. As the mom was taking her toddler’s picture, she might have been thinking about what filter to use, or whether or not to tag someone else in the photo to get more visibility, likes, comments, whatever. I’ve done that, plenty of times.

What I do know is that I have stopped doing a few things I used to do regarding my own children. For example, and maybe it is the fact that they are older now… I have stopped curating their photos and videos to make digital presentations of their lives. They enjoyed watching themselves when they were toddlers. They never said “no” when I wanted to video record their birthday party using my totally 20th-Century camcorder.

Author Amy K Rosenthal suggested parents take a picture of their child every year on a couch to hallmark their annual growth. My parents have recorded my kids’ heights by the back door in their house. Since I have been uploading all of these images and videos to Facebook and other social media, what have I lost? I think we lose ownership of our documented lives. Not that the social media sites own them (although Instagram makes it hard to download your content). It’s that we aren’t doing anything with our documented memories. We aren’t putting pictures into scrapbooks or making home movies with our video recordings anymore. At least I haven’t.

Maybe that is what is lost when we live through a lens; time to contemplate our shared histories, to pore over our artifacts from life and think about what made them special. These reflections, as well as the process for organizing them into a coherent timeline, brings me joy. I cannot wait to share what we developed, although who we share them with is mostly immediate family. Do people beyond our inner circle really care that much about our life details? Should they? They have their own lives to live.

I’ve used the excuse that I post on Facebook because that is a great way to let family and friends know how our kids are doing. But why not use text message? Or email? Or an online photo print provider? It’s just as easy. I suspect it is because social media such as Facebook and Snapchat are set up to keep us coming back for more sharing and attention. We are trained to rely on the likes and comments for validation of what we shared. (I won’t even get into the whole Russia thing.) If treated with light-heartedness and basic info sharing, social media should be fine. But once our emotions and habits are manipulated, the line between what is personal and what is public starts to get blurry.

I’m deleting my Facebook account for a variety of reasons: my data is used by Facebook to profit from advertisers; Facebook appears to have been a part of the misinformation campaign from the 2016 elections; it is built to keep me and others using it for hours on end. I do hear at times, “Don’t blame the technology; it’s only a tool.” Yes, but it’s a powerful tool, designed to distract us from everything else. If Facebook were only a tool, I would be more cognizant of when and when not to use it, like a hammer or a saw. I’ve caught myself many times flipping through my feed when I had originally planned to write or do something more important, such as having lunch with my kids.

No worries about my photos and videos: I’ve downloaded them all from Facebook and saved them to a cloud storage account and on an external hard drive. I would like to get back into documenting our experiences, maybe even do some photo journaling that highlights our family’s visits to libraries. I feel at least a little redeemed in that I haven’t loss the content of our lives, just as long as I do something about it now.


If you are waiting for me to say, “I’m not here to tell you what to do with Facebook,” I won’t. I think you should also evaluate your use of Facebook. Is it keeping you from enjoying the moment and being mindful of the present? Are you finding that you are no longer engaging in a few hobbies or family experiences like you used to? It’s not the only social media platform with issues, but it might be the worst. I am going to continue using Instagram and Twitter. I find the former to be lighter and less addictive. For the latter, I believe I have tamed the beast a bit by using lists and specific apps that restrict advertising and unwanted posts on my feed.

More than anything, I want to be a little more present in my life and take control of the things I can control. My phone is not the answer, and Facebook isn’t fitting into the equation.

Recommended books to read more about this topic:

  • Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers
  • Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle

Related books I want to read on the topic:

  • Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan
  • The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Top Ten Reasons Why Should Implement Digital Student Portfolios

We should not judge people by their peak of excellence, but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.

― Henry Ward Beecher (via Thoughtful Mind)

As both a father and a building principal, education is a personal endeavor as well as a professional one. My two children have always attended the school in which I have served as a leader. So for me to recommend anything to teachers and leaders, it has to pass muster as a dad as well as an educator.

One of the few technology initiatives I do promote is digital student portfolios. They are defined as online collections of learning artifacts intentionally curated to showcase a student’s accomplishments and growth over time. With the availability and ease of use of digital tools today, there is little reason why students should not be able to experience this authentic process of assessment. Here are ten reasons why every student should have a digital portfolio…

Click here to read the rest of this ASCD Inservice article!




Promising Distractions

It’s Saturday night, which means I start to wind down my connectivity. I try to take a 24-hour sabbatical from almost all things technology. Typically I would let the phone die and not recharge it. However, lately I have been using an app called Streaks. You can track your daily habits in order to develop a better, more healthy lifestyle. You can track your progress over time and customize your goals for how frequently you want to accomplish something. During the day, the app will push out notifications on your phone to remind you to drink enough water and get 30 minutes of exercise.

While the dilemma is now whether or not to have my phone on Sundays, these notifications are the type of distractions that I appreciate. I feel a little more mindful of my actions, even if I don’t always meet my goals. This example relates to an article I wrote for EdTech Digest, titled Promising Distractions. Educators are bombarded with so many options for integrating technology into instruction. Which ones are worth our time? I offer three possibilities: gaming, digital storytelling, and citizen science. Each of these modern concepts holds a lot of promise for teaching and learning.

blog post, What I'm Reading

Raising an iGen

I wrote this post for my school blog yesterday and thought it might work here too.

Have a nice weekend! -Matt

In an article for The Atlantic, professor of psychology Jean Twenge offers some stark information about the effects of smartphones on our youngest generation. Referring to this group as “iGen”, these teens and preteens have lived their lives largely with the inclusion of mobile devices available everywhere. Here are a few statistics Dr. Twenge shares from her generational study:

  • Since the release of the iPhone (2010), rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed.
  • Young people with smartphones hang out less with peers, instead choosing to message each other via social media and texting.
  • Young people are more likely to feel lonely and left out, possibly due to seeing peers posting images and video of themselves having fun online.
  • They are getting less sleep, and less good sleep, especially if their phones are in the bedrooms. This is likely caused by the constant buzzing and pinging from incoming messages from peers.

The writer concludes that, in general, the more time a child spends on a screen, the more likely they are to experience these negative side effects. As a father of two children on the cusp of adolescence, I read this information with worry. I don’t want my kids nor yours spending the majority of their time on a screen. But I also take a critical stance with a single study.

Specifically, I wonder: Is all screen time created equal?

Our house has a cornucopia of devices. My experience is likely similar to yours. For our kids to have this much access to technology could be a cause for concern. That is why we have done our best (and by best, I mean far from perfect) to a) monitor our children’s time on screens, and 2) monitor what our kids are doing on these screens.

For example, we provide a time limit for how much screen time they have at home. They get a little bit more during the weekend. This does not account for school screen time, which we expect to be more educationally-focused, such as watching a movie based on a read-aloud book on a warm Friday afternoon.

IMG_5180 2.jpg
Can you guess which book these 4th graders read?

Also, my wife and I know what our kids are watching. We might even view the show or play the app with them to ensure it’s appropriate. Additionally, we have resisted (so far…) any requests from our kids for a smartphone. When they do get to an age where a mobile connection makes sense, we may be opting for texting as the only function available beyond making phone calls. We’ll see. As well, we have guided our kids to be creative with the technology available instead of always consuming, such as watching endless YouTube videos. Minecraft is one application that our kids enjoy, building new worlds and working together in collaborative online spaces.

I hope this post doesn’t come across as a “do as we do” statement. We don’t always make the best decisions. When errors are made, we see it as an opportunity to have a conversation as a family about the issue of ubiquitous technology. It’s an opportunity for learning instead of a negative event. If you find the information from the linked article helpful and you have adolescents in your home, I encourage to share this information with them. The best we can do as parents are to raise this generation using new knowledge and common sense.


Digital Portfolios in the Classroom – Introductory Video

Below is a short video I recorded to promote my new book through ASCD. Below the video is the transcript for the hearing impaired.

Have a great weekend,


Digital Portfolios in the Classroom – promo video from Matt Renwick on Vimeo.

Assessment is messy.

We try to make school and learning clean by attaching numbers, grades, and levels to evidence of learning. But what do we lose when we take the messiness out of assessment?

I think we lose quite a bit. Maybe it’s the visible enthusiasm of the student presenting the final project, or the curiosity in the students’ voice when they pose an important question to research. This information can be just as important as any quantitative assessment results.

Let’s embrace this messiness and capture students fully as learners with digital portfolios. The ability to use video, audio, images, and text can make evidence of learning come alive. The opportunities for content creation with the possibilities afforded by today’s technology is hard to pass up. Digital portfolios can reframe assessment as a way to see the whole child and not just as a number.

Assessment is messy and complex. Instead of trying to simplify this important process to teaching and learning, what if we accepted and even honored all the ways students are smart? Digital portfolios, these online collections of artifacts that represent student achievement and growth, can be the answer.