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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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Free #edchat Resource: The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning

Today is the release of The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning: Strategies for nurturing and stimulating independent learners. What started as a whitepaper for FreshGrade is now an eBook. Click here to download this resource today.

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In The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning, I make the case that we need to start releasing more responsibility of the learning to the student. The challenge is: How do we do this? The false promises of praise and administering measures of compliance in the name of accountability have made this task that much harder. To help, I offer four clear steps that any teacher can use to better develop self-determining learners:

  1. Cultivating the Conditions for Success
  2. Clarity Above All
  3. Feedback, Feedback, Feedback
  4. Real Work for an Authentic Audience

I’ll be honest: there are no secrets described in this resource. Most of the suggestions shared here are based on sound research, as well as practice from my own experiences as a public educator. I know how busy teachers can be. Let this eBook be a practical guide for fostering true independence in the classroom.

To read my eBook immediately on your mobile device, click here. Registration is free.

 

What I'm Writing

What I’m Writing: February 2016

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How Google Apps Help Develop Online Learning Communities (EdTech Magazine K-12)

Three tools – Google Groups, Google+ Communities, and Google Sites – are highlighted in this article. Brief directions are provided for readers on how to use these digital forums for online learning communities. Also included in the article are some suggestions for getting things started and keeping the conversations going. Frank Smith revised and edited my initial offering into an acceptable submission for online reading.

Interview with Kemp Edmonds for the FreshGrade Blog (blog.freshgrade.com)

I spoke with Kemp Edmonds, Director of Marketing at FreshGrade, about the principalship and education in general. We discussed a variety of topics. Here is a sample of our Q and A:

What’s the most impactful technological change you’ve seen in education in the last 5 years?

In my opinion, it is the inexpensive, $100-200 mobile device. They are in the hands of virtually every kid now. Even in financially challenging environments there are smartphones, laptops and other devices that are not prohibitively expensive. Whether this looks like a laptop for every kid or they are bringing their own devices is still being determined. The policy of no devices in schools is not helpful. How do we teach kids to use devices in ways that enable learning? Can we use Instagram to highlight learning or assignments? It’s why we like FreshGrade, as it infiltrates the students’ and parents’ social media-centric world.

Taming the Screen Beast (ASCD Education Update)

This was not written by me, but I did contribute to this article in another interview. Sarah McKibben looks at the pros and cons of allowing mobile devices in the classroom, K-12 and beyond. While smartphones and tablets can become a distraction during instruction, they can also serve a tool for powerful learning experiences when planned with intention.

The Art of Visual Notetaking (www.readingbyexample.com)

This post on my blog has received over 1000 views so far. It was a short post, highly visual, and specific in topic. I described how my serendipitous seating gave me a close view of how another educator uses images as well as words to take notes during a learning experience. I share my own initial offerings and my process for improving my practice.

If technology is at the forefront…

All of these articles revolve around using digital tools to augment and possibly redefine learning in the classroom. I have found that our natural inclination is to declare technology as the main factor in student achievement and success. Here are some of the key terms and phrases that are often referenced when connected educators making the case for implementing technology en masse in schools:

  • The digital divide
  • Education 3.0
  • “If you won’t tell your school’s story with social media, who will?”
  • 21st century learning
  • Technology integration

Cliché city! Many of these phrases have been used by me as much as anyone. I’m not saying they are poorly chosen. But what evidence do we have to support these calls to action? There are schools out there, such as the Waldorf schools, where students are experiencing great success with minimal to no digital tools used. I’ve been in these schools and have observed exceptional learning in action. The kids are doing just fine.

21st century learning is not necessarily synonymous with technology integration. Critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration can all happen in the absence of the digital element. It is when we recognize through our instructional preparations that these technology tools become necessary, instead of merely nice.

 

What I'm Writing

What I’m Writing: December 2015

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Maximize Learning, Not Technology (ASCD EDge, October 2015)

In this promotional post for my new book, I highlight specific examples of how the necessary vs. nice dichotomy applies to classroom technology choices. For example, having one device for every learner in a classroom would be nice, but the lack of academic benefits identified with this type of initiative leads us to keep the ratio down in our own school. By identifying the purpose for the learning, schools are able to take a reasonable approach to the inclusion of digital tools in classrooms.

Online Learning Communities: Real Conversations, or Mere Connections? (Chalkup, December 1, 2015)

The concept of “community” has been redefined in the digital age. Whereas a 20th century understanding would have included some aspect of face-to-face interaction, today’s world does not. Google Hangouts, Voxer, and Facebook groups all seem to provide a sense of community, especially when focused around a specific topic. But do these interactions replace real conversations, which includes being in the physical presence of others?

BYOD in the Classroom: Necessary or Nice? (Middleweb, December 9, 2015)

BYOD, an acronym for “Bring Your Own Device”, garners many opinions. Technology purists might say that by not allowing every student to have access to a world of knowledge, we are depriving them of the necessary connections available. Traditionalists point to the distractibility of students when they bring their smartphones and tablets to class. This post highlights a specific situation where technology helps deepen student understanding in a secondary English classroom around a conceptual study of isolation.

A Principal Shares Tech Benefits for the 1:1 Skeptic (Ed Tech K-12, December 15, 2015)

One of the biggest myths out there in education is that every student needs to have access to mobile technology while at school. This idea pervades despite the evidence that young people’s abilities to read emotions and empathize with others is decreased the more they use social media via their smartphones. These online connections tend to replace in-person relationships. However, having one device per student can be necessary given the context of the learning. For example, students with dyslexia greatly benefit from word prediction software while reading.

A Better Resolution

My wife and I have plans to eat at a new restaurant soon. The owner has two other eateries in the area which we’ve enjoyed, so we are excited for this new experience. Friends of ours will be joining us, as this occasion is also in celebration of my wife’s birthday.

We don’t eat at one of these restaurants often, as this type of dining is more expensive than your standard fare. Even so, when I share with others how much we spend on one of these evenings out, they are sometimes surprised. “You could eat out for a lot cheaper elsewhere!” someone brought up. True. Yet we continue to come back to these establishments.

How we spend our limited time and our finite resources represents what we value. We bring joy to our lives through these experiences. They are about us. For example, I write because I enjoy writing. I find it both personally and professionally rewarding. My work benefits others, as what I share online has been found useful by educators. But I write more for myself.

Is this selfish? Some might think so. An article in the New York Times today discusses how many acts of gratitude are often self-serving and have little impact on those who actually need support and appreciation.

It’s good to express our thanks, of course, to those who deserve recognition. But this holiday gratitude is all about you, and how you can feel better.

Probably true, yet I don’t think the author had educators in mind when she composed this article.

Educating students is the lifework of teacher and administrators. We guide the marginalized and disadvantaged every day.  This profession we’ve chosen is one of the most selfless in the world. Depending on one’s beliefs, you could say we are doing God’s work every day. Do we need to give even more? Many of us do regardless. But I don’t think I am wrong in justifying that those who work in schools could benefit from a little self-indulgence.

So I am suggesting to all educators to make one resolution this year: Take care of yourselves. How might this look? Sleep in on the weekends. Watch a movie without a pile of papers to grade on your lap. Read a book that has nothing to do with school. Attend a rock concert. Eat at a fancy restaurant. Whatever you choose, do what makes you happy. You’ve earned it. That you will be a better educator for the time you take for yourself is gravy. As we prepare for a new year, I hope you make you a priority.