How do we introduce portfolios in our school?

Digital portfolios allow a student to keep track of their best work over time; the idea that a student could have a (curated) collection of their progress through all the years of elementary, middle and high school is very attractive to many schools.

While the long-term goal may be to get everyone connected to a portfolio, schools still need to start somewhere.

Some steps that might help:

  1. Start with a small group. You can begin with a small group of teachers (about 4 to 6) who can conduct a pilot project. This group commits to starting with a portfolio for at least a semester, and having students from their classes add one or two entries into their portfolios. Critically, this group isn’t just there to rubber-stamp the process; they are looking to see how portfolios can be integrated into the life of the school. As this group works through the pilot, their feedback about what works well and what needs adjustment (not just with the software, but with the process) is important.
  2. Share a vision with the whole school.  Two of the essential questions that emerged out of the original digital portfolio research were, “What is the purpose of the portfolio?” and “Who is our primary audience?” The leadership of the school needs to identify a purpose for collecting and reviewing the student work. There are many legitimate purposes, from wanting to show progress over time to a deeper focus on skills that aren’t measured as well by traditional testing methods, to wanting to reach parents on a different level. Pick a purpose, and have the conversations to help everyone reach a shared understanding of what that purpose means to them. Professional development activities (like these workshops) can be helpful here.
  3. Plan a roll-out. Assuming that the pilot goes well, some attention needs to be paid to rolling out the portfolio to the rest of the school. You could start one grade level at a time, or move from department ot department. You may not bring everyone in all at once, but everyone should know that they are going to be involved at some point.

Of course, this all needs to fit with your situation. When assembling a pilot group, one principal deliberately chose one of the less tech-savvy teachers – but who was clearly a teacher that others looked up to, and who could keep the focus on the educational aspects of the pilot. Your may have many reasons for wanting to work with portfolios, and your school community can help you focus on what problem they most want the portfolios to address.


How do we share rubrics?

Rubrics are now a common sight in classrooms; most teachers at this point use rubrics for at least some of their assessments. When they are used well, they can help students focus on the key parts of any assignment, and help them understand what it means to “meet” expectations.

Often, teachers create their rubrics in isolation, or do their own search for rubrics on the Internet. As a result, the language in a rubric can mean something different from one teacher to another within the same school — or even from one assignment to the next within the same class. This means that the feedback from one class might not mean the same thing as feedback in the next room over.

One way to handle this is for teachers to work together. But, it’s worth asking, “How do teachers share rubrics?” We’re not talking about just emailing a rubric from one person to another; we’re talking about sharing rubrics so that multiple teachers can use them.

The answer is to create schoolwide rubrics. There are a couple ways to do this:

  1. You can look for common tasks and create rubrics that can be used any time that task comes up. For example, a school can create a “response to literature” rubric for a certain grade level. In one district, the 4th and 5th grade teachers agreed to a common rubric for these writing assignments; the rubric could be applied whether the student was reading The Phantom Toolbooth or Little House on the Prairie  or A Wrinkle in Time.
  2. You can create common rows that can be used by teachers in different rubrics. For example, you can create a common rubric  row for “conventions,” dealing with spelling and grammar errors; teachers might agree to use this row for their writing assignments, even if the other rows in the rubric vary from teacher to teacher.

Richer Picture can help you with common rubrics; once a rubric (or a row) is entered into the system (and marked as “shared”), it can be used by any other teacher. Ultimately, this can help to provide some consistent feedback from teacher to teacher and from assignment to assignment.

What does “personalization” mean?

“Personalization” is a hot topic; every school, state and district seems to be promoting its efforts to personalize education. Still, it’s not clear that everyone is approaching this in the same way. It’s worth asking: what does ‘personalization’ mean in our school or district?

The State of Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation has looked at how 10 different organizations, from the US Department of Education to the Gates Foundation, has defined personalization, and found that certain “key phrases” appear throughout the definitions, including:

  • competency-based progression
  • meets individual student needs
  • standards-aligned
  • student interests
  • student ownership
  • socially embedded
  • formative assessments
  • flexible learning environments

Each school needs to come to a decision about what aspects of personalization they have in mind.

Just as importantly, schools need to think about whether their initiatives are really meeting their definitions of personalization. Many Learning Management Systems claim that they can help you personalize — but often the only part of the definition they mean is that students can go at their own pace. In these environments, students use the same curriculum in the same order in the same way . Students don’t have much choice in how they interact with the material – the only thing they can control is how fast or how slow they move through the lessons.  The concepts of “student ownership” or “student interests” are low on the priority list.

Teachers are the critical factor in creating a personalized environment in schools – because they are the ones who get to know the students well. The concept of “meeting individual needs” is very different from a human perspective than from a computer’s.  (Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick talk about the importance of other components in personalization, including student voice, co-creation, social construction and self-discovery in their recent book Students at the Center.) The teachers who know their students well are the ones who can help a student see a problem from a different angle, or make a different analogy, or can connect today’s issue with something that student has accomplished before. And that’s just how teachers help students interact with the material — teachers are even more critical in understanding student motivations, things going on outside of the classroom, and in being a part of the school community. (Consider the heroic efforts teachers in the Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico are making right now as their communities are rebuilding from the recent hurricanes.)

Technology has a place to help with personalization – but ultimately, personalization starts with teachers who are committed to understanding their students, and schools committed (as Debbie Meier put it), to ensuring that no child is anonymous.