Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hooray for Portfolios!

If you aren't an educator, you may not be interested in this post.  If you ARE an educator, you might be.  If you are a parent, you SHOULD be!

I've just completed reading 29 senior portfolios for semester 2.  As always, it was a time-consuming activity but definitely worth it.  I always come away feeling fulfilled as an educator when I'm done reading portfolios.  Why is that?  Because of the reflection process.  So rarely in education do we ask students to reflect on themselves and their learning.  An educationally sound portfolio stresses reflection, however, and that is one of its greatest contributions to our students' learning.

Let me do my OWN reflecting here. . . .

For twelve years now I've fully engaged in the portfolio process.  For most of those years it was with seniors who were okay students or who struggled in English/Language Arts.  All that time I maintained that using portfolio assessment in the classroom would be beneficial to ANY student, no matter what the skill level.  This year my gut instincts were validated.

To me portfolio assessment  has meant these four core components: collection, selection, reflection, and projection (goal setting).  It has also meant fully engaging in the writing process and reducing (or eliminating) the emphasis on traditional grades.  At points it has also meant conferencing with parents and students to arrive at a final grade.  This year, specifically, it has included an emphasis on
  • the writing process, including careful planning and brainstorming, writing, and peer and teacher review and revision opportunities
  • heavy discussions of texts prior to writing
  • written reflection on oneself as a reader and as a writer at the end of the term
  • goal setting before the term and evaluation of previous goals after the term.
All (or nearly all) of my students from AP Literature will be attending university next fall.  They are going to places like Northwestern, Wellesley, University of Chicago and Princeton.  They are students who came in with strong abilities to read critically, think critically, write well-organized essays, and express themselves confidently in class.  They had already tackled some pretty difficult literature and certainly knew their way around technology (being at a 1-1 school).  Frankly, I was amazed at their initial abilities to discuss our summer reading After Dark, by Haruki Murakami.  I didn't think they had far to go to be ready for college (or the AP exam).  But even these stellar young people reflected on their learning and growth through their portfolios and the revision process.  You may be interested in the results.

The exciting thing here is that through full engagement in the writing process and the portfolio assessment process, these skilled and talented young people grew as readers and writers.  Surprisingly, many of them felt they hadn't had much opportunity for revision and polish in previous classes.  (Are we still too consumed with pounding them with assignments, slapping on grades and moving on?)   Many students reflected on the value of class discussion (or wiki discussion) in helping them see a text through a variety of perspectives.  This, in turn, let to greater depth of thought.   They valued peer and teacher evaluations and comments, taking them to heart in subsequent revisions.  Without revisions, what good would the comments have done?  I credit the revision process with helping them to grow to the next step.

That is voice.  Many students reflected on how they had gained their VOICE as writers.  To me this is a very advanced stage of writing.  It only truly comes after mastering the basics (organization, support, strong thesis, critical thinking).  It is also the one thing that most of the students LACKED when they entered the class in the fall.  Even more surprising, VOICE is not something we discussed very much in class.  I don't even remember using the term very often.  And yet, it happened.  Once students felt confident in their writing skills, they were able to tackle the nuances of writing like voice and style.  I would confirm their intuition on this point.

Another aspect I found interesting had to do with creative writing.  I'd like to give a shout out to the vast benefits of allowing students to write creatively from time to time, even in an AP Lit class that seems to need to focus on analytic writing.  First, the students appreciated being able to USE their knowledge of how poetry works by trying it out themselves - exploring, playing with words and sounds, learning how to find just the right word at just the right time, seeking the right image or emotion, creating tone - all these things were freeing for them.  It also helped them to explore and find their VOICE!

Aha!  The pieces begin to fit together.  In addition to writing a bit of poetry, we ended the year with short story writing.  We'd just finished watching and discussing the movie Inception.  I modeled for them my own process (I love doing that).  I asked their advice for wording, holes in the plot or characterization, and how my story should end.  They then worked on their own "Inception-like" short story.  A challenge, to be sure.  For several of these students this was their first time writing a short story.  I couldn't believe that!  How could you go all through high school (maybe even middle school and high school) and not write a short story?  Again, they experienced their epiphanies.  They liked the freedom of the topic and the structure;  they liked the challenge to take risks and be creative!  They enjoyed tapping into that side of themselves at the conclusion of their senior year.  And, guess what?  So many of them credited this experience in helping to further develop their VOICEs.

For me, I see more clearly how allowing students to explore a variety of writing (and reading) genres helps to move them from mechanical drones who all sound alike, to interesting writers who enjoy what they are doing, understand their strengths and weaknesses and who ultimately find their VOICEs.

Additionally, I was surprised at how many of the students were worried that college writing or literature classes might stifle their newly found voices.  Their perception is that college classes will want to stuff them back into that cookie cutter mold where they sound like everyone else.  I assured them this wasn't so - that they would only be encouraged to continue growing and discovering their individual voice and style.  (So if you are a college professor, please don't squelch them!)  Several of the students would like to start blogs just to continue refining their VOICE.

Finally, let me comment on another mature insight on the part of many of these graduating AP Literature seniors.  They must write in a way that connects to their readers.  Perhaps because they HAD readers who commented on their work, they became aware how important writing TO an audience truly is.   On some level it seems obvious - "of course you are writing for an audience!  everyone knows that!" - but in practice, this is often not the case.  Novice (even intermediate) writers only think of themselves; they have difficulty stepping away from the piece and wondering if it will maintain the interest of their audience or speak to them in some provocative way.  But many of these students got there.  They not only understand it, they KNOW it.  Amazing!

So. . . Hooray for portfolios!  Even in a class that seemingly has its goal as passing a standardized test, portfolios still won the day!

1 comment:

  1. Great post! As an elementary school teacher who speaks of Voice, I am saddened that it took so long for them to find it, but happy for you that when you allowed them the opportunity to find themselves in their writing, they did. I had a quote posted in my classroom back home, "Making progress is like miners' work: it doesn't advance as quickly as one should like, and also as others expect; but faced with such a task, patience and faithfulness are essential." - Vincent Van Gough speaking of his discontent with the progress and quality of his work.


Please leave me a comment!