Excerpt, What I'm Writing

Going Schoolwide with Digital Portfolios: Cudahy High School (Cudahy, WI)

img_0256-1This following post is an excerpt from my new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work (ASCD, 2017). Each chapter ends with a learner profile. These profiles are transcripts of my interviews with educators leading the way with using digital portfolios in their schools. In this profile, two high school educators share their experience in having their students use Google Sites to curate their best work and present it to a community panel. Another learner profile was recently posted on FreshGrade’s blog. Purchase my book today to read all of the profiles, and to learn how you can start using digital portfolios in your classroom!

Josh Beck is a high school English teacher at Cudahy High School in Cudahy, Wisconsin, not far from Milwaukee. Chris Haeger is the building principal. Josh and Chris share their journey in adopting are more authentic and continuous approach to student assessment with digital tools.

  • Why did you introduce digital portfolio assessment in your classroom?

Chris: Our focus was on developing a growth-minded assessment with kids, following the research available that supports this work. We wanted to move beyond just a grade – to give kids an opportunity to see their growth over time. The advent of the Common Core State Standards helped in providing us with direction.

Josh: As teachers, we knew the standards were coming. We wanted to authentically assess students’ understanding of those standards and to measure our impact as educators. We decided that portfolios were a way to do this. It’s great how students can go back and see how they grew from semester to semester. As teachers, we could see how we have influenced our students’ work in literacy.

  • In what ways, if any, were those who were affected by this program unique or unusual?

Chris: Twice a year, sophomores and seniors present their portfolios to a panel of adults. Business people, community leaders, college professors, military, and members of our state’s department of public instruction have all served on this board. This experience has tremendously positive. A student has to come in front of all these people and present what they have learned and done and tell us how their work has displayed their understanding. Putting themselves out there, wearing suits and dresses, is a great experience for them. Kids will come back and tell us how this experience is tangibly dependent on the academic expectations.

We wanted to move beyond just a grade – to give kids an opportunity to see their growth over time.

Josh: One student whose family was living in poverty did not come prepared to the panel. She had to explain to everyone why she did not do any work that semester. The next time, she was dressed up and had work to present that addressed all ten ELA standards. The portfolio process was what motivated her to move out of a fixed mindset due to her situation. Now, I just ask the kids, “What are you going to present at the panel?” These experiences also lead to real opportunities. At one presentation, a student was asked after presenting by a local employer if they wanted to apply.

  • What were the characteristics of the products and of the other educators who were working with you regarding digital portfolio assessment?

Josh: Other content areas and departments have joined us in this process. We put together a list of the standards in plain English, shared them with the other teachers, and asked, “What assignments that you assign are aligned with these expectations?” We have sat down with social studies teachers, government teachers, and talked about the work they do with kids and how they might connect with each other. For example, when students study the U.S. Constitution, and we read The Kite Runner, we compare the different constitutions between Afghanistan and the U.S., especially after 9/11 and how our country was involved. Conversations about how to include minorities and females in our own country’s constitution are more frequent and deep.

  • What resources were used to support the use of digital student portfolios?

Chris: We use Chromebooks to access many of these resources. High school students all have one of these devices. Also, it was critical that there was teacher willingness to move from binders on a shelf to something electronically-based. Mickey, our technology integration specialist, was able to help teachers to support this initiative and solve any glitches. He has been instrumental. Kids all now have a Google Site that maintains their portfolios.

Josh: After they graduate, students will come back and connect their personal email to keep those portfolios. One student who went to college used her high school template to develop another one for her English coursework. The panelists have also liked this digital component. The ability to quickly click on a link and show four years worth of work is very convenient.

  • What specific outcomes do you attribute to the use of digital student portfolios?

Chris: It has expanded kids’ understand of technology. We have shown them how to scan on their phones and use these devices beyond social media and texting. Even teaching kids how to create a website is important. We aren’t making any assumptions about kids’ “tech-savyness”. Kids who transfer into our district are amazed at how technology is used and how applicable basic tools are, such as the smartphones and the copy machines. We are using all tools to allow students to learn. Other apps such as voice recorders and video makers are incorporated into their Site.

Kids who transfer into our district are amazed at how technology is used and how applicable basic tools are, such as the smartphones and the copy machines. We are using all tools to allow students to learn.

  • In your opinion, what other factors contributed to the achievement of these outcomes?

Josh: Again, the willingness of the staff is impressive. We are trying to connect with kids on a personal level, be reflective and develop relationships. We talk about what they did well and what they want to work on next. We are constantly asking the kids for feedback and asking how our instruction helped them meet expectations. An added benefit has been how we have taught students to network and reach to others to include them in the panel and process.

Chris: Also, the willingness of community members to come in and listen to the kids’ describe their learner is nice. The kids see the mayor here, other important leaders, and they take what is really their final exam and it creates a different context. At least half of our kids show up in suits and ties. People are now calling us to serve on this panel and take an interest in the students’ learning. Another factor is panelist have told us it is easier to answer educational questions and have conversations with people about this topic in the community. The indirect influence of this process has brought in other leaders to school.

  • What problems did you encounter when developing or introducing digital student portfolios?

Chris: Students tell us that the first time through is a learning process regarding organization. Kids talk and discuss how different teachers have different expectations regarding the portfolios. Also, staff members needed some time to adjust. “How is the portfolio connected to standards? Learning targets?” Portfolios point out many more areas of school that need to be addressed.

Josh: It has been a slow process in the beginning because the seniors didn’t have a digital portfolio. So we had to transition. It was also a challenge to get everyone on the same page regarding academic expectations and how the standards are interpreted. What is acceptable and what is not, and defining what these standards are asking for, we as a faculty have to have a common understanding. Parents are involved in this process up to the presentation itself, preparing them for the event.

  • What else do you think a teacher or school should know before implementing digital student portfolios?

Josh: The presentation is a celebration of their work. They come to the end of the school year with excitement and pride, smiles on their faces. “When do you present? How did you go?” is a common question we hear in the hallways. Even students with significant needs are expected to present. The panelists can never tell which kids are in a special education program and which are not. One student who is autistic came up and delivered an amazing presentation, without any echoing or other issues that he normally displays. We were so glad to have given him the opportunity to do this on his own and be independent. Everyone talked about it afterward from the panel. Successes like this, kids coming in like any other kid, it is amazing.

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