A couple of years ago, we began the exciting journey of implementing the ideas from Leaders of Their Own Learning — a book by Ron Berger which I cannot recommend highly enough — into our school. The book focuses on putting students themselves in the driver’s seat and helping them take control of their education. We first started with the idea of using learning targets to help students zero in on what they were learning, and once we began to use them, magic happened. (You know an idea is a good one when students embrace it and give nothing but positive feedback.) Slowly, we worked our way through the ideas in the book — some entirely new to us, others more familiar. Our final goal was have kids create portfolios, a place to compile their work and reflect on their learning at the end of each trimester and at the end of the school year.
A few of our teachers jumped into the idea of portfolios last year. In the spirit of giving students both voice and choice, they allowed them to create their portfolios any way they liked — by hand or digitally, using any platform they preferred. That way, not only were students able to collect work that demonstrated their mastery of learning targets, they were also able to showcase their creativity.
Sharing their work:
At the end of the year, our 10th grade language arts teacher, Omaura, had students present their portfolios to their parents. They chose one piece of work that they felt proud of because it showed either a strength or growth over time and put together a presentation which included:
- the process
- the final product
- a reflection on strengths and challenges.
As I walked into the classroom to see the portfolios, the first thing that struck me was the hum of positive energy in the room. The students glowed with pride and couldn’t wait to show off their work. Some of the students focused on reading, some on writing. I heard comments like this:
- “Look, I read ten books this year! Last year, I didn’t read any. I have to be honest, I only pretended last year. Setting a goal helped me change… and now I love reading.”
- “Keeping a portfolio is really hard. I hated it sometimes. But I’m so happy I did it. I never realized that I actually learn so much in a year. Especially in Language Arts, where you don’t really see the changes.”
- “Look at all the work I did! I didn’t know that I could be this responsible.”
- “Carla, look at my first piece this year. My English was so bad! When I came to this school this year, I was really scared because I couldn’t write in English very well, but setting goals, reaching them, and setting more goals really helped. Look at my last piece — I edited it completely myself!”
- “I always consider myself a bad student. But when I see the changes I made this year, I realize that if I work hard, I can get there.”
- “This piece was really bad when I first wrote it, but Omaura let me go back and work on it all year, and now I’m so proud of the final result.”
Steps to take:
- Ask students to keep track of their learning targets and document the process they take to mastery. Let students know that it’s not necessary to master every target immediately — some targets are a long process and will take more time and effort than others. As the year goes on, students can return to their goals to finesse their learning.
- Give students time in class to work on their portfolios.
- Have checkpoints in place. Remind students when portfolios are due, and give feedback on the process.
- Every quarter or trimester, have students look back at their work and reflect on it. What are their strengths? What areas do they still need to work on?
- Have students set goals for themselves. It’s important that students take the lead in setting their own goals, but if some students struggle in this area, teachers can model by setting their own goals or by giving examples of student goals.
The power of portfolios:
- Students take charge of their learning and become engaged in the process.
- The creation of portfolios helps students develop a growth mindset. In looking at student comments, I see that for many of them, it’s an eye opener to see how far they’ve come and it drives home the understanding that it’s through effort that they improve.
- Students reflect on their work and learn to objectively decide if it’s ready to present or if they need to keep working. Rather than depending on the teacher’s feedback, they begin to feel confident in their own judgement.
- Portfolios are perfect for going gradeless: students learn to self-assess, rather than waiting for assessment from the teacher.