The Process of Digital Portfolios

Portfolios have been a tradition at my school since its inception in 1994. When I started teaching here in 1998, the end of the year was a time for students to rummage through their papers from the entire year (at least, the assignments they could find) to put together a thick 3-ring binder full of work that demonstrated certain objectives. Grading portfolios took a very long time, but it was interesting to see which assignments students had chosen to include, and to read their reflections about how they had grown and changed. I still have one of these portfolios, and I bring it out every year to show my students what they DON’T have to do any more.

As a campus, we slowly migrated to digital portfolios. At first, students built websites to showcase their work. This process didn’t translate well past the freshman year because it was very complex. We tried specialized educational portfolio options, but they were limiting. Today, every student has a WordPress blog to showcase work, hosted by Edublogs, through a domain with our school district. Rather than wait until the end of the year, students pause after each major learning experience to document their work and reflect on their learning. Schoolwide, every teacher is expected to assign and assess at least one blog post per 9-week grading period, in which a student shows evidence of meeting certain standards. At the end of the year, each grade level schedules student-led conferences involving a particular audience:  9th and 10th graders present their portfolios to their families, 11th graders present in groups to their own family plus two other families, and 12th graders present to a room full of family, peers, and staff.

My class is freshman technology. It is my responsibility to introduce students to the world of blogging. Each year, this task is easier. Today’s students are digital natives, and most–but not all–are comfortable clicking different buttons and exploring different menu options. Each year I learn more, too, so my directions become more clear and my troubleshooting becomes more efficient. Grading blog posts (officially called “portfolio entries”) is still time-consuming, but because we do it all year long, it is not overwhelming.


Desks in triads, for peer assessment activity

It took me years to learn one lesson:  having students self-assess and peer-assess their posts leads to higher quality work and more efficient grading on my end. For example, last week I put students in groups of three and they worked in 12-minute rounds to fill out a checklist on each person’s blog post (the first of their school career, based on their summer assignments). Following this, the groups read and discussed a post from a professional blogger about how to find their own unique blogging voice. At the end of class, each student created a To Do List of ways they needed to edit their post. Revision is an important part of the writing process. The following day, while the class was working independently on the next lesson, I sat with each student individually, read their blog post, and assessed it against the rubric. I was able to grade 75-100% of all the assignments and give instant feedback to students by the end of the school day.

Seventy-five percent of my students scored an A or B on their first blog post, on the first try.  Examining the other twenty-five percent, I recognize that several were absent, others are still working on it for a late penalty, and some did not reach the standards, but they know what they need to do to improve their work and resubmit it. Each post was 300 to 1000 words. Originally, I had set an upper limit of 600 words, but students told me that was not going to be enough words for them to tell their stories (for reference, this post has 731 words). Each post showcased at least three pieces of work through photographs, hyperlinks, or embed codes. Each post was tagged according to school protocols, and tagged by individual student decisions.

To see examples of a typical student post, click this link, and this one. The complexity of this task is rather impressive, especially for 14-year-olds during their first month of high school. When they finished their work, I invited them to comment on this post, and you will see several of those comments posted below. Feel free to leave a comment yourself.


Portfolio Plans

At the beginning of each school year, ISA teachers are asked to plan the portfolio entries they hope to include in their course throughout the year.  My document this year looked like this:

It’s now November.  At our professional development meeting on an early dismissal day, we looked at portfolio entries (formerly called blog posts) together and gave warm and cool feedback on the assignments.  I looked at a senior English piece, as well as a sophomore math task.  One thing that impressed me was how the math teacher provided a fill-in-the-blank statement; when students filled in the blanks, using their own work as evidence, they were very strongly demonstrating the performance outcome. That is an excellent example of scaffolding, and I should adopt a similar strategy in my own portfolio entry assignments to tie the student work to the standard.

When I look at my August plan, nothing surprises me. I have done what I expected to do:  have students set up their blog accounts, practice documenting service hours, write a blog about summer assignments, and another about Storytelling.  One thing I have not done is implement a type of badge system for demonstrating proficiency in different areas. I got this idea from the South by Southwest Education conference.  Edmodo uses a badge system, and we are using Edmodo right now, but I’d rather put the badges on the About page of their blog. All I would need to do is create an image and share it with the students that earn it.  For example, there could be a Service Documentation badge, a Video Editing Badge, a Collaboration Badge, etc.

At the moment, students have turned in their Storytelling Blog Posts, but I have not yet graded them. It’s not too late to tweak them, if I need them to be more explicit about how their work connected to specific Performance Outcomes.