blog post

Think you’re doing digital portfolios? Think again.

At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, I have wanted to point out a misconception that some educators have regarding digital portfolios and what is facilitated in classrooms.

This post comes from the idea that by merely publishing student work online for families and a wider audience to view, that students now have a digital portfolio. This isn’t accurate. Digital portfolios are defined as “a multimedia collection of student work that provides evidence of a student’s skills and knowledge” (Niguidula, 2010). This collection is not as simple as baseball cards or dead bugs. Student work within a digital portfolio has been carefully selected by a student and teacher and is accompanied with some sort of reflection, self-assessment, and goal setting. The online space in which a digital portfolio exists matters less than the learning acquired made evident by the content.

Here are three situations in which educators may think they are doing digital portfolios but actually are not.

  • Social Media

If a teacher can get families to join a classroom Facebook page or follow a teacher-directed Twitter account, that is great. Teachers can model for students how to create a positive digital footprint and what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century. Pictures, video, and text that are shared in this way provide parents a window into the classroom. Most families also seem to like this way of staying connected with the classroom, especially if they already use that social media.

Why it’s not a digital portfolio: Social media is a popular way people communicate in today’s world. But it is not a useful tool for collecting and curating important artifacts of student work. Students need more permanent digital spaces to call their own when sharing their learning. In addition, social media might have unreliable security settings and can be susceptible to hackers.

  • Home-to-School Digital Communication Tools

A number of applications that used to do one thing are now proclaiming that they also have a digital portfolio component. For example, Class Dojo, a behavior management app, allows teachers and students to share images and video with parents in addition to the points they accumulated for positive behaviors. Families can comment on what is posted and engage in a conversation about the work.

Why it’s not a digital portfolio: We are getting closer here, as each student has their own account for the teacher or student to post their work. The missing component is in how it’s used. Typically, the teacher is the one posting pictures and video for parents to see. Technology providers that advertise a digital portfolio function often do not see it as an assessment tool. There is little guidance provided for students or the teacher to reflect or self-assess on their work. The work and effort are usually owned by the teacher.

  • Single Year Digital Lockers

In these situations, a teacher might actually be having students lead the digital portfolio process, including uploading their multimedia work and reflecting on it. The free version of digital portfolio tools such as FreshGrade or Seesaw is integrated into instruction. Over the course of the school year, families and the student can see how they have grown from fall to spring. This type of work can have a positive impact on learning.

Why it’s not a digital portfolio: Simply put, the student’s work disappears at the end of the school year, like cleaning out the lockers on the last day. There is no plan for maintaining past artifacts of learning from year to year. Students cannot look back on prior years to better understand their learning journey. Teachers cannot look at student work from the previous year to assess their needs for the current school year. There is no learning legacy for a student in these situations.

So what is a digital portfolio, for practical purposes? An online space that students maintain throughout their school career. It is directed by the student with guidance and support from their teachers. Students identify their best work to publish in a variety of areas that better represent who they are as a person, not just a pupil. True digital portfolios serve as a mosaic of their educational experience. It can even follow them beyond the K-12 years and serve as a professional portfolio for college applications or a job search.

Here are some ideas of what they could look like, year after year:

Of course, all of the posted artifacts of student learning are accompanied with reflection, self-assessment, and goal setting for the future. Otherwise, it’s only sharing content. Nice, but not necessary for students’ education.


My new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work, is now available for pre-order through ASCD! Click on the link below for more information and read the first chapter:


Exploring Classroom Innovations at the AWSA/WASDA Summit for Data-Informed Leadership in Green Bay

Data is a four letter word, literally and sometimes metaphorically in education. Educators need data to drive instruction and making informed decisions about student learning. When students have information about their own learning progress, they know themselves better as learners. Yet when data does not serve an important purpose, it can also monopolize our time that is better spent teaching and learning.

I was grateful for the opportunity to speak about the challenges and promises of this topic at the Wisconsin Summit for Data-Informed Leadership this week in Green Bay. This event, co-facilitate by WASDA and AWSA, gave administrators and teachers the opportunity to develop a better understanding of data in the context of schools today.

Beyond the Gold Star: Strategies for Nurturing Self-Directed Learners

This first session guided participants to explore innovative classroom approaches that gave students more autonomy in their learning. Data in this context wasn’t necessarily a number or letter; video, audio, and images can also serve to inform teaching and learning.

Educators tried to create a story using an unknown digital tool with little direction. This activity gave participants, especially school leaders, an opportunity to experience the anxiety that teachers and students might feel working with technology. Some of our tensions are healthy, as we sometimes don’t challenge ourselves enough.

Attendees were directed to a simple Google Site with several pages devoted to innovative approaches for classroom instruction: Right now it is pretty bare bones; I hope to add more ideas and resources to it as time goes by.

Digital Student Portfolios in Action

This session was much more technology-focused, around one approach to facilitating qualitative assessment. Our goal was to “rethink our plates” instead of trying to add one more thing to our busy days.

Participants had a lot of time to explore different digital portfolio tools, as well as new ways for students to represent their learning. This group already had a strong understanding that data was not limited to quantitative information. They offered smart questions and creative ideas for making their classrooms more student-centered.

Having studied and experimented with digital portfolios for students for almost five years, it was probably the most comfortable I have felt presenting on informational technology. It was a good way to prepare for my presentation on the same topic at the ASCD Convention in Anaheim on March 26.

I will be facilitating a number of workshops this summer on these two topics at CESA 3 and CESA 4. If interested in learning more about classroom innovations that work, as well as having time to effectively integrate technology into the curriculum. please reach out!

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What I'm Writing

What I’m Writing: February 2016


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 (

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 (

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.


Theory and Practice, Uncategorized

New Book Project – ASCD Arias

Image used with permission
Image used with permission

Yesterday, I signed a contract with ASCD to write a book for the Arias series. The topic will be about debunking some of the technology myths that seem to linger in education. It is a short-form publication, around 10,000 words, so we are looking at a publication date of August 2015.

4328639481_4e0c36cefeSince that’s only four months away, I am taking a break from writing my weekly summaries and reflections for the month of April. I’ll hopefully be back at it in early May. Until then, check out my blog, Reading by Example. I still plan on posting short topics of interest there when time allows.

Related, my first book, Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment, is now on Amazon for only $9.99. You can also purchase it as an ePub (Nook, iBooks) and a PDF from me by clicking here.

photo credit: Closed via photopin (license)

Theory and Practice

Learning by Design

We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. – Jim Collins

Coffee Shops are Better Than Classrooms by Andrew Campbell (Looking Up: A “Professional” Blog, November 14, 2014)

This post starts by profiling author J.K. Rowling and her penchant for writing in coffee houses. Rowling finds that these locations allow her to see where her writing takes her, without constraints. Campbell identifies the many benefits of this type of environment (connected, comfortable, choice, space, music) that could be applied to schools. He describes classrooms of the past as “a cross between a hospital operating theatre and a Viking longboat”. Campbell, a 5th grade teacher and writer, helps the reader recognize that the modern classroom has changed drastically, and encourages educators to follow suit by developing learning environments where students can “learn how to think creatively and solve problems innovatively”.

Less Teaching and More Feedback? by Grant Wiggins (ASCD Inservice Blog, August 27, 2012)

Highly respected educator Grant Wiggins had an epiphany while playing Tetris on his iPad while waiting for his plane to arrive at an airport. “You don’t need any teaching. You only need a good feedback system.” Wiggins expands on this provocative statement by acknowledging that a key to student learning is “good design”, where “direct instruction is mimimized”. He concludes this brief post by stating that “formal teaching plays a minor role” in a classroom that prepares with both the student and the essential learning in mind. (Note: The title for this post is a take on Grant Wiggin’s and Jay McTighe’s seminal resource Understanding by Design.)

Gulf Shores Elementary: Empowering Teachers and Students Through Project Learning by John Norton (Alabama Best Practices Center Blog, June 4, 2014)

An elementary principal, Julie Pierce, is profiled in this post about her school’s learning journey as they implement project-based learning (PBL) at the upper elementary grades. This rethinking of the school’s current literacy and content curriculum was initiatied by the teachers themselves. The staff were the “experts who happened to be teachers”, attending PBL trainings and advocating for more authentic learning experiences in their classrooms. Pierce readily admits that she had reservations about this change, especially when test scores reflected an implementation dip. But she showed trust in her teachers, and soon enough observed classrooms that developed “exploratory learning experiences” which “helped children become deep thinkers and problem-solvers”. (Disclosure: John Norton is the editor of my first book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment)

Blogging in a Primary Classroom – With Only One iPad! by Kathy Cassidy (Primary Preoccupation, November 11, 2014)

This 1st grade teacher highlights a new app that allows students to more easily post on their blogs. Her purpose in sharing is to show how simple it is for students to share their learning with a broader and authentic audience. Easy Blog Jr. and Easy Blogger Jr. give learners a more streamlined way of sharing their writing online. Cassidy offers several screenshots of how this app works. The multiple benefits featured about this technology appear to make it a worthy purchase.

Tapping Technology’s Potential to Motivate Readers by Kristin Conradi (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014)

The author starts this article by noting that technology is not the answer to what may ail education, while still acknowledging how the digital world can augment and even redefine student learning. Conradi outlines a number of steps in integrating these new tools into classrooms. She starts by suggesting teachers “figure out precisely what motivates different invididuals”, followed by determining the type of motivation that students need, differentiating between “self-concept and attitude”. Conradi documents the decline in student motivation for reading as they progress through the middle grades. To remedy this, she recognizes how the social aspect of technology can provide for “opportunities for discussion and collaboration” among older readers. In addition, allowing students “the possibility of shared written, multimedia products with a global audience” can provide learners with “purposeful opportunities to engage with literacy”.

Finding the nexus…

Last year, one of our teachers and I facilitated an after school computer club for students. Our question: If we gave students access to technology, would learning naturally occur? The inquiry was not resolved with a simple yes or no answer. Yes, students enjoyed using apps such as Minecraft to create complex worlds, as well as to work with others in developing their creations. Just as frequently, kids would struggle to follow the ground rules for these online interactions. One way the teacher and I resolved these conflicts was by removing the technology and replacing it with Lego Mindstorms, as you see in the above photo.

While our action research might seem haphazard at first glance, we did have a plan in mind. We were looking for various levels of engagement, what work students produced, and the type of collaboration that would occur in digital environments such as Minecraft. That it did not go as well as anticipated, and how well students transitioned away from the technology-reduced learning environments, should be celebrated. This example may be what all the above examples have in common: Educators who put more time into preparing for powerful learning and students’ needs, and how this compares with simply putting in the requisite amount of effort and energy to plan for just-good-enough instruction.

Whether it is recreating a classroom to make it more like a coffee shop, or implementing project-based learning, it is the design that determines learning environments and allows teachers to teach. When these factors are considered prior to instruction, teachers have access to more teachable moments because students are more likely to be engaged in deeper learning. It allows the teacher to provide more feedback to students, instead of being sequestered to the front of the room. Having access to technology, whether as readers or writers, demands similar amounts of preparation for learning outcomes. My biggest takeaway from these articles is that the amount of time teachers put into preparing for instruction is directly related to how students at all levels are engaged in the learning. In conclusion, learning is more dependent on what happens before the lesson actually starts as when it actually begins. Planning for specific outcomes and preparing for what is possible may be the difference between good and great teaching.


Theory and Practice

Rethinking Engagement

“Children are always on task; the important question is, what is the task?” – Peter Johnston

For Millennials, the End of the TV Viewing Party by Alex Williams (New York Times, November 7, 2014)

With the advent of the smartphone, landlines are starting to become a thing of the past. But what about television? Williams provides a close perspective of how millenials are moving away from the community screen. In its place: Laptops and tablets. Media is consumed via subscriptions and one-time purchases within this format. While some lament the lack of physically being with fellow viewers, others note how socialization still occurs in the privacy of our own screens. For example, many fans of popular shows such as “Scandal” connect with each other via Twitter, commenting on each episode while it is live.

Creating and Composing in a Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks and Kristin Ziemke (Digital Writing, Digital Teaching, November 5, 2014)

This collaborative post was written in response to a piece by highly respected literacy expert Nancy Atwell. She referred to iPads in the primary classroom as “trendy” and “a mistake”. Troy’s and Kristin’s response is thoughtful, balanced, and convincing. They do recognize the importance of moderation with technology in the classroom. However, the number of examples they list that incorporate digital tools effectively is impressive. For example, Kristin’s students use the app Book Creator on iPads to create original eBooks with audio narration. They can be stored in the device’s iBooks library, which stand side by side with other titles from major publishers.

Effects of Classroom Practices on Reading Comprehension, Engagement, and Motivations for Adolescents by John T. Guthrie and Susan Lutz Klauda (Reading Research Quarterly, Fall 2014)

This research study conducted through the University of Maryland wanted to determine the correlation between classroom supports, student motivation, and informational text comprehension. Guthrie and Klauda specifically looked for outcomes related to the presence of student choice, conveying the importance of reading, collaboration, and perceived competence in the classroom. They facilitated these elements of instruction within the Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction framework. History at the secondary level was the context in which this study was conducted. The researchers found that when students were provided with these specific supports, they better “persevered in unraveling complex texts”. Students also increased in the amount of value they attributed to “the importance, benefit, and usefulness of reading”. Comprehension was subsequently stronger when compared to more traditional instructional methods.

The Social Side of Engaged Reading for Young Adolescents by Gay Ivey (The Reading Teacher, November 2014)

Dr. Ivey, a literacy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is an acolyte of John Guthrie. In this summary of her own research on student engagement, she set out to determine how to normalize an authentic reading culture within a high-poverty school environment. The teachers in this study put few requirements on their students regarding their reading – just read high-interest texts, talk about their reading with peers, and then read some more. What they found was students not only became better readers, they also became better people. Through the world of fiction, students learned about “working on relationships, both with others and themselves”. They also discovered the skill of “taking up perspectives” and residing within the characters in their books. This led to students increasing their capacity for empathy. Where as some educators might worry about the accountability of students not being required to complete a reading assignment, Ivey found evidence to support the notion that students looked “to further complicate” their thinking by asking questions of peers and demonstrating reading comprehension. Students “turned toward each other” in their learning.

The Mindful Educator by Sarah McKibben (ASCD Education Update, November 2014)

Mindfulness, or the purposeful act of being present, has been a hot topic in education lately. McKibben highlights the research that suggests using mindfulness strategies, such as breathing techniques, can “improve cognitive performance” and increase “resilience to stress”. Educators profiled for this article acknowledge the resistance that parents might have with these practices. They suggest family education prior to implementing mindfulness activities schoolwide. Also important is that educators teaching students how to be more present in the present should model these strategies themselves in their daily lives.

Connecting the dots…

The image at the top of this post is of my son and some of his classmates celebrating a reading activity. Where are the books? you might ask. They just finished a project for the Global Read Aloud, an online literacy event created by Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp). They recently read the book I’m Here by Peter Reynolds. Motivated by the theme of friendship in the text, they made “friendship planes”, which contained original suggestions by the students on how to be a good friend. Attaching their learning to a meaningful concept helped the students connect their reading to a bigger idea. What made the kids’ day was the author himself commented on the classroom blog that contained this image.

In my humble opinion, this is a wonderful example of engagement. The teacher captured their hearts and minds by appealing to something important to her students (friendship). She then connected this concept to reading and writing in authentic and meaningful ways. There was a tangible impact on their lives, both socially and emotionally as well as cognitively. Later on, my son and his classmates may not recall the exact text they read during this event. However, it is more likely they will remember how it made them feel and how this experience helped each of them become a better person.

Without tapping into the emotions and excitement for the subjects we are teaching, our instruction will fail to meet its learning potential. We can require work as much we want, but if our students are not engaged in the learning, what they produce is more likely a result of compliance. It’s one thing to point to the board and read aloud the learning target at the beginning of the lesson. It’s another thing to present a thought-provoking video or image, or to ask a provocative question that forces learners to think deeply. This type of engaging instruction creates its own sense of mindfulness. Technology can help make these types of activities possible, but only as a way to support the learning and not lead it.

Digital experiences are not a panacea for all that is lacking in education. Nothing can replicate the face-to-face social experience. Technology is only a tool, albeit a powerful one, for learning in the classroom. At the same time, we should not deny the impact that it has on learners. To dismiss this influence would reflect our ignorance of these possibilities, instead of a broader understanding of its impact on our students’ learning lives. In our upgraded roles as teachers in the 21st century, we would be wise to regularly rethink how we are most effective in engaging our students in new learning possibilities.