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Reflecting on the Move to Digital Writing Portfolios

Students as Writers: Past

For many years, our school district handled writing portfolios this way:  the Kindergarten teacher put a student's best writing into a manila folder with the student's name on it; that folder followed the student from building to building throughout the elementary and middle school years, as each subsequent teacher added one or two of the student's best writing samples to it; the student's eighth grade teacher added one more writing sample (though by this time the student had some say in which writing sample was added) and then gave the entire folder to the student at the end of the year.   Students were often curious and nostalgic as they received that folder.  Wide-eyed, they would see a glimpse of their former selves and re-construct the story around each assignment.    

While this worked for some students, there were often problems when students transferred from a different district, when teachers didn't get around to adding to the folder, or when students lost their best work.  Sometimes the boxes of folders were misplaced in storage rooms of buildings or went to the wrong schools.  The concrete folder program came to be seen as clunky and unreliable --- and it was never seen as an assessment tool of a student's growth in writing over time.  It served its purpose --- a place to hold a student's writing over a nine-year period --- however, it also left an incomplete picture of the student as a writer: there was no summary of strengths; no suggested areas in which to work on in the future; and no organization to the collection of work.

One Step in a Different Direction

Since 2008, I have given my seventh grade students a space (a wiki page) on pbworks.com to show their final drafts (here’s Bella’s for example).  They are often excited when they realize they will each have a page on our class wiki; that excitement fades a bit when they understand the wiki isn't a place to play games.  Until this school year (2013), I have introduced the wiki as an opportunity to increase their audience.  A place for grandma in Florida, for their peers, and/or for next year's English teacher to see their best work.  I have not considered it a digital writing portfolio.

Recently, I have begun using the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing to help me frame my goals and expectations around student writing.  Specifically, I have used the Habits of Mind from this document to rethink how I teach:

“Habits of mind refers to ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical and that will support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines. The Framework identifies eight habits of mind essential for success in college writing:

  • Curiosity – the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness – the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
  • Engagement – a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
  • Creativity – the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
  • Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
  • Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
  • Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
  • Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.”

In terms of setting up students for success, my early use of the class wiki was seen as engaging (by many students) and an expected responsibility (of all students).  It was limited, though, in its scope as an instructional tool; I wasn't looking at student growth throughout the year and I wasn't asking students to reflect on their growth either.  My hope is that, in the coming years, I can incorporate ways for students to experience all eight of the Habits of Mind as they add to a more comprehensive online space that could be called a digital writing portfolio.  I have documented my journey here; as you will see, I am not there yet.

Teacher as Learner

Over the years, my colleagues have suggested that if you can take one or two practical applications from a workshop that it was worth the time.  The National Writing Projects of Michigan's Portfolio Institute I attended in the summer of 2012 offered a different vision of what I was already doing.  It was so much more than a couple new things to try in my classroom; I came away from it seeing the distinct possibility of transforming our class wiki into a more useful, rich space for students to document and reflect on their progress in writing throughout the school year:

  • I was introduced to the Framework and the Habits of Mind, which helped me redefine my goals for the wiki
  • We examined one writing portfolio in great depth, helping me see the potential in a digital writing portfolio
  • We looked at various ways of assessing portfolios, including rubrics
  • I learned other teachers' methods for organizing writing portfolios and incorporating reflection as an integral component
  • I was informed how digital portfolios connect with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

The Michigan Portfolios website, which I learned about from the Portfolio Institute, defines a digital portfolio as a "meaningful collection of student work."  The unnamed author (probably website Director, Richard Koch) goes on to say...

"Portfolios compiled from classroom work can show what students are able to do far better than tests.  Portfolios can make it possible for all stakeholders to see how our learners are doing.  Portfolios can make it possible for schools to “showcase” the best their students can do and also to “document growth” over time powerfully and helpfully."

That made sense to me.  I had been looking for a way to both showcase students' work to a larger audience and show their growth in writing over time.  Some combination of rubrics, reflection, and other assessment tools started swirling around in my head. 

I spent the last month of that summer organizing my thoughts and then writing an "assignment" that tried to get at what I wanted the students to do for their digital portfolios.  My hope was that this first draft of the assignment would incorporate more of the Habits of Mind, specifically openness and flexibility (and later on, metacognition).  The assignment had to be simple and clear.  When students are confronted with a novel assignment, they often ask even more questions than usual, and those questions help me create a better assignment:  more focused, more student-centered, and more likely to address even other Habits of Mind like persistence.  

Transfer to the Classroom

In the first month of school, I posted the Writing Portfolio assignment (below) online on our class wiki, and I read it over with the students.  I mentioned it briefly for a few days, hoping students would come to understand the ongoing, blossoming nature of the portfolio.

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This first page was generally well-received, but also lacked the clarity I hoped for; students get a sense for the relative importance of an assignment by the number of points assigned to it and I had left that off.  At first, I purposely did not explain the Reflection piece, thinking it was too much for them to take in at once.  I did, however, have them reflect on assignments early in the year and at that time, I added the Reflection link, and explained its importance as part of the portfolio grade.  My thought was that their recent reflecting experience would provide some context for this additional task.  Students were given class time and instruction to upload their final drafts to their wiki pages.  I also printed out copies of the portfolio and reflection assignments (eventually) since most of my students did not visit the class wiki often enough to reread it and fully understand the assignments.

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Students as Writers:  Present

As I said, I modeled reflection on earlier assignments and students did reflect on earlier work in their (paper) Notebooks.  However, when it came time to write their Semester I Final Reflection, most students seemed confused by the notion.

Too many students wrote something like this...

My favorite piece of writing was the personal essay. One of my reasons for liking the personal essay is that you get to write about what ever you want. Like your favorite memories that you have experienced in your life. Also a favorite time in your life with your family like for example what i did for my personal essay i did the favorite thing that i did with my family by going to florida over spring break and all the fun things we did. Also i liked doing poems because i like to rhymn because it's fun and you could think of anything that has happened to you and you could write all about it and then you have a nice poem.(Anonymous)

This may be a good time to note that, while the portfolio was a collection of final drafts that had gone through the writing process, the reflection was a single draft.  Though I verbally offered to proofread their reflection drafts, few students took me up on it.  My experience using the class wiki in past years made me anticipate students investing more in their ‘public’ work.  I thought students would care enough about all of their work on their wiki page to correct for spelling and grammar errors, as well as want to be sure that they were actually ‘reflecting’ (which was a new word to some).  As the above example indicates, this was not always the case.

Some students got the idea of what a reflection is...

Creating the poem was a meaningful experience. I liked that we could use our own format and style of writing. I think that the poems by authors such as Nikki Giovanni and Billy Collins helped to reinforce our poetry writing techniques. I enjoyed the freedom of choosing my own topic for the poem, and the other examples of poems gave me good ideas. I also thought that the feedback about our poems was strong and helpful. Sharing our poems on the wiki was a rich experience, since I was able to share my ideas and gain others. (Beteel)

Despite these occasional, more focused reflections, I started to question whether the average seventh grade mind was cognitively and emotionally developed enough to comprehend reflecting on their own work.  I need to give this point further reflection before next school year.

Assessing the portfolios and reflections started out manageably, but turned into a two-headed monster on a jet-powered skateboard. Though one of my goals was centered around documenting their progress and areas of needed improvement, I somehow left that off of the rubric.  I resorted to a checklist of completed tasks; this was partially due to the excessive amounts of time it was taking me to grade each portfolio and reflection. I threw out my normal late policy and made the “Friday before grades were due” my absolute last day to grade their Portfolios or Reflections; seventh graders don’t always use their time in class productively or finish assignments at home on their own time, so many portfolios and reflections were just not being completed (thus sinking their grades).  What started as a way to get a better look at the progress of their writing over time, ended up with me chasing and corralling as many rogue skateboarders as I could.  

I came to understand that I need to teach the ‘management’ of the portfolio as a separate piece,  focusing students more on the small steps instead only the goal (fueling persistence, responsibility, and flexibility).  Part of that management piece is to remind them regularly to reflect on each of the final drafts as we are completing them, instead of having to think back a month or two earlier (fueling a more thorough metacognition habit).

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(the word “reflection” doesn’t even appear in the line of the rubric designated for it, for goodness sake; instead I have “a  few paragraphs about the writing assignments.”)
 
I tried to get across what I was looking for by spotlighting their peers’ excellent examples on the front page of the wiki.  We went through several of the examples and pointed out what they did well.  A handful more portfolios and reflections were completed after this attempt.
 
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Teacher as Learner:  Again and always

Oft times, it is difficult making the leap of faith necessary to try something new in class. I find that I need to have plenty experience using the new technology myself in order to jump in.  In this case, I had already compiled a digital writing portfolio of my own and had logged many hours on the wiki.  I had done a decent amount of reading on digital portfolios and attended a very focused, useful workshop.  

Then, I ended up learning some unexpected things from my students:  they need more time to upload their work, they need more help with management and organizing, they need the assignment to be crystal clear, and they could benefit from having the Habits of Mind up in the room and visible.  Revising my plan from year to year is expected, but that awareness does not make it less frustrating.  Participating in the learning process has enriched my teaching (examples include writing a digital portfolio as my final piece for the 2003 Summer Institute at the Red Cedar Writing Project, learning how to create a digital story on Movie Maker and Photo Story 3, and using google docs to collaborate with colleagues); anytime I am involved in the learning process, I feel more connected with the up and down journey my students take daily.

I did feel some level of success in the journey toward digital writing portfolios.  Students do have a more rich, organized collection of their writing than they’ve had in my classes in the past.  They also have taken a step toward understanding what a reflection is and how to be a reflective writer.  This year’s portfolio was not much of an assessment piece, though.  As I see the second semester’s end nearing, I think about other ways to approach feedback and assessment of these portfolios.

One of the options I am considering comes from the Michigan Portfolios website.  I can see that my students need more specific, individualized feedback and the website offers Rating Values for Student Writing forms for every grade level (example, below).  I could see fashioning some version of their forms to fit our portfolio assignment.  The accompanying Writing Assessment Data Sheet would be a clean way of helping students see areas of strength and areas of needed improvement at the beginning, middle, and end of the year.  Both forms are organized into six writing areas (similar to the Six Traits of Writing): fluency, content/development, organization, style/voice, revision, and conventions of language.

 
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Another possible route I am considering is a version of Larissa Pahomov’s goal setting suggestions in her “Bringing ‘Traditional’ Essay Writing into the Digital World” resource on Digital Is.  In the Portfolio in Progress section, she discusses structuring the student’s reflection to include four main focus areas: Content/Development, Organization, Style, and Conventions.  After explaining what skills each of those areas included, Pahomov had the students choose at least three skills to focus on during the semester.  Though her students were quite older (juniors), I think that beginning with student-generated focus areas makes sense for my seventh graders, too.

I am also thinking of ways to teach my students how to reflect on their writing in meaningful ways.  Besides continuing to share the excellent work of their peers, I am intrigued by Jeremy Hyler’s step-by-step approach in a recent blog entry called “Teaching Students to Reflect on Their Writing.”   He has his students answer four questions in response to comments he writes on their papers:

  1. What was your initial response to the comment by Mr. Hyler?
     
  2. In your own words rewrite what it is that Mr. Hyler commented on.
     
  3. Give an example of how you are going to make your writing better based on the comment by Mr. Hyler.
     
  4. How are you going to apply what you learned from reflecting on your writing to future assignments? Be specific.

I can see how this type of structured response could get students in the habit of looking at a teacher’s comments and thinking about what to do with those comments.  Making my comments more purposeful for students could offer students a chance to see things from more of a reflective stance.

Sometimes I find myself thinking about the student of the past versus the student of the future.  Were students more reflective in ‘the old days?’  What will schools or writing classes or portfolios look like a decade from now?  We may need to find ways to keep the humanity of the simple, manilla folder while enhancing its usefulness to the student over time.  In my journey with digital writing portfolios, I hope to continue to bridge that gap.