This 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.
At the end of every year, I take a tech sabbatical to recharge and reflect upon the year, as well as to be more present during our break. Part of my recharge process is to read! Here is what I have been reading during the second half of 2017.
See you in 2018. -Matt
Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter
I didn’t realize I was reading YA until this installment (and my wife telling me so). I guess that is a strong sign that good writing transcends age level or intended audience. In the 3rd book, we find out the backstory of Jenny’s murder, along with the reason why New Fiddleham experiences so many supernatural occurrences. It leaves the reader wanting to read #4 without feeling cheated out of a good story to be told now.
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
I listened to the audiobook version. Maybe that is why I slogged through it, listening only during long car trips and trying to stay on top of the many character threads. Still, the magic of Fillory and beyond plus the characters’ development, especially Quintin and Julia, made this an enjoyable read.
Mile 81 by Stephen King
A nice short story that encompasses many elements that are often present in Stephen King’s writing: memorable characters, excellent pacing, supernatural anthropomorphism (in this case, a man-eating car), and a barely credible ending. If you’ve never read anything by King and didn’t want to commit to a lengthy novel on your first read, check out Mile 81.
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro
In a similar vein to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, but wholly unique to Shapiro’s experiences and style. It’s part memoir, part writing guide, and fully enjoyable to read and reflect upon her ideas.
Simplifying Response to Intervention: Four Essential Guiding Principles by Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos, and Chris Weber
A helpful guide for schools and districts looking for guidance and templates on RtI. It’s pretty technical, but I did appreciate their consistent position to meet the needs of all students, regardless of an educator’s role.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
A very important book to better understand what is happening right now with *45 and the federal government. I read it in a couple of hours – a short text full of lessons from the past shared by a history professor from Yale. The first line encapsulates the text: “History does not repeat itself, but it does instruct.”
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
An excellent first entry into a series for middle-level readers. It reminded me of some other excellent mystery/thrillers such as The Westing Game and the Percy Jackson series, yet stands out as an original. This would be an excellent read aloud in a 5th/6th-grade classroom.
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan
A nice summary of Michael Pollan’s work on our diets in the U.S. It’s a quick read, so it could also serve as a primer for delving into some of Pollan’s longer works (and I recommend all of them).
Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change by Jennifer Allen
This is for the 2nd edition…a very practical, honest resource about leading literacy efforts in an elementary school. You will find yourself going back into the text repeatedly, asking, “Where did I see that before?” An essential book for instructional coaches and any elementary school leader.
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
A very unique reading experience, not like any book I’ve read before. It is an interactive memoir, in which you are prompted write, send text messages….it’s really hard to explain in words (surprisingly). Just read it and enjoy!
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
I read this book on my very old yet functioning Kindle. It is the version with push buttons and no touchscreen. This choice seems appropriate for reading a novel about bibliophiles struggling to find a balance between the print and digital world.
It is actually my second read of this book, as I felt I missed important points from the first go round. I did. For example, there were multiple references to and subtle jokes regarding technology and media that I missed (or forget) from my first reading.
More importantly, I felt like I better appreciated this story having read it again in 2017 (vs. 2013). The story might be more relevant today than in the past. It’s a fun experience that has a lot to teach us about living and connecting in an informational age.
The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey
A helpful resource for managing your family budget and saving for the future.
An Improbable School: Transforming How Teachers Teach and Students Learn by Paul Tweed and Liz Seubert
For schools looking to transform the way teachers teach and students learn, this is worth a read. The value system Wildlands School has developed guides their daily work.
Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education by David Sobel
A very important book in the environmental education canon. Using children’s developmental levels to prescribe the appropriate curriculum for learning about nature is the focus of this short text. It’s foundational and essential.
Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan
This was a challenging book to read, yet to rate or to review. It serves as part memoir, part dissertation, part manifesto around the focus for Heffernan’s work: The Internet. My favorite sections are when she pulls together all of her knowledge for new realizations. The book lags when describing life in the Ivy League. Otherwise, a careful and complete study of our online lives.
What I’m Thinking: Reading Engagement
Our school is slowly transitioning to more meaningful ways of assessing reading and writing in the classroom. For example, instead of only short quizzes and comprehension checks, we are exploring more qualitative and authentic measures of students’ reading lives.
A great way to do this is through reading journals/notebooks. These are different than reading logs, which ask students to read 20 minutes a night and have parents sign off that they completed this task.
A reading journal is a written history of what we read and what we thought about the reading experience. They reveal lots of information about a student’s reading life: reading habits, diversity of genre, comprehension in the context of a review, influence on peers’ reading habits, and willingness to explore more complex texts. If you look through my journal I share here via Goodreads, you’ll see that I am reading widely, although I could probably stand to include more fiction in my literary diet.
Just as important, I own my reading journal. No one is telling me what to read or how often. Conversely, a reading log is an act of compliance. Can you think of a better way to turn students off from reading? Study after study after study shows that unless students are engaged in the act of reading, comprehension and lifelong reading habits will likely be fleeting. I think a first step in changing how to teach reading is to be engaged readers ourselves. It’s hard to teach what we don’t practice.
When I signed the contract with ASCD over two years ago to write this book on digital portfolios, I realized that I had a lot more learning to do. Unlike my last book on the topic, this resource would be directed toward teachers. I had not been in the classroom for almost a decade, although I have observed many classrooms in that time as a school principal. Still, it is not the same as having the main responsibility for student learning.
It was educators such as Karen who provided essential knowledge and experience for me to write any type of #edtech guide worth a teacher’s time to read. I am thankful!
P.S. FreshGrade has been giving away free copies of my book. Check them out on Twitter for more information.
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
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.