Show me the Learning! Using Digital Portfolios to Communicate Student Learning.

Comfort zoneLast January I took a giant leap out of my comfort zone. I left an amazing classroom and school community to work as a District Helping Teacher. My primary responsibility is to provide support and guidance to educators in our district looking for innovative ways to communicate student learning.

This year, teachers in Surrey have the option to use digital portfolios with FreshGrade to document and communicate learning in lieu of traditional paper report cards. And, it is very exciting and scary, all at the same time.

Innovation with the intention of lasting and meaningful change is simply not easy because there are no instructions and one size does not fit all. As we navigate our way as a district down this very new road, we are creating and adjusting the map along the way. And to make it more exciting and scary all at once, there are many different maps. Surrey is one of the most diverse cities in the province and as such we have the opportunity to work with a plethora of families and communities. The opportunity to provide students and their families with a personalized learning portfolio is brilliant yet teachers who are choosing to do so are constantly wondering what does a quality digital portfolio look like? What is a valuable addition to a portfolio, how often is it updated? Where is the learning?

As a helpingparadigm teacher I love hearing these questions. It tells me that the educator I am working with is intentional and reflective. I believe this is the first step to creating a quality digital portfolio. As it truly is a paradigm shift from the current system we must constantly reflect and refine our practice to better meet the needs of our students. Keep the end in mind, make decisions towards that end and adjust as necessary. A quality digital portfolio mirrors quality assessment where the learning process in central and evidence is gathered to inform teaching and learning in meaningful ways.
As a classroom teacher my end was for each of my students to walk in to summer empowered to continue learning, alongside parents who felt confident to support their individual needs. To this end my documentation on FreshGrade needed to clearly show where a student was (strengths), where they were going (performance standard or goals) and specific markers for success, across the transparentcurriculum. This is where transparency, which I believe is the second step to creating quality portfolios is essential. Although as educators we know the power of formative assessment and appreciate the process of learning there are times when we need to summarize that learning and make sense of all the documentation for parents and students. In my practice the way to find the balance was to be open and honest with parents and students about my intentions with digital portfolios and invite their feedback, both positive and constructive.

I have the pleasure to work with hundreds of educators who are indeed reflective, intentional and transparent in their efforts to improve student learning through assessment. Although I know they are grounded in effective pedagogy and have stepped up to be leaders they are still looking for guidelines in their documentation to make learning visible and support students.  We seem to love acronyms in education so I have created one to keep in mind as we document student learning in FreshGrade: FRAME. I like this acronym because it reminds me that digital portfolios provide parents with a window into the classroom. Also, a framework for quality assessment focuses on learning as a process and as such is not a single event. The digital portfolio is only one part of the bigger picture where educators facilitate and communicate student learning.

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A quality digital portfolio highlights a students learning across the curriculum without overwhelming parents with too much information. Consider the following guidelines as you compile artifacts in FreshGrade as evidence of learning, and guide students as they choose what to add to their own portfolio

Is it formative and part of documenting progression towards a clear goal or learning intention? In this case you might consider creating an activity with custom objectives (I can statement) and including success markers or rubrics as part of the description so parents and students know where they are, where they are going and how they will know when they arrive. Choosing the anecdotal assessment and excusing students allows teachers to collect evidence over time. The combine feature and custom labels can help to keep artifacts organized.

Here is an example from Grade 2 Literacy

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Is it relevant? As our purpose is to go beyond what students are doing and document learning it is important to include artifacts that will provide new information. For example, although students may write in their journals several times a week it is not necessary to take a picture of every entry. Picture and video evidence should be accompanied by the teachers descriptive feedback and be connected to a particular goal or learning intention. Also consider the relevance for a particular student. In the example above the teacher may have taken a picture of one or two students writing during a particular activity. One of the benefits of digital documentation is how personalized assessment can be.

Is it accessible such that parents and students can make a connection to the learning? Learning can be captured through pictures, notes, videos and uploaded documents. Consider what form will give your parents and students the best access to the learning.  What type of documentation will make the learning visible for a particular family? Parents who speak a language other than English may benefit from more pictures, mastery scale with symbols and concise feedback. Where technology access is limited outside of school, teachers might consider organizing portfolios where reports can be easily generated and printed. I recommend listening to the FreshGrade assessment and reporting webinar for more information about generating reports. With the proper organization, reports can be generated at any time to summarize the learning objectives and assessment of a personalized portfolio within minutes.

Is it meaningful and/or engaging? A quality digital portfolio is personalized and reflects student ownership. When students know what they need to do to be successful they will be more engaged in learning. Consider adding performance standards, criteria and rubrics to the activity description or as a resource. Giving students the opportunity to contribute to their portfolio can be very powerful. For example, teachers can create a quick add to post an essential question to all portfolios. Students can then add their feedback in various ways over time and the teacher can add comments and suggestions to guide the learning. The student app is a simple platform and has proven to be user friendly for even our youngest students to capture their learning. Consider asking students to take a picture of the writing work they are most proud of for example. This allows students to reflect on their learning and include a picture across learning areas and formats.

A tool like FreshGrade allows teachers to replace static and generic report cards with a collaborative and personalized learning map for each student. The platform also provides teachers an opportunity to align assessment and practice within the context of their classroom. It is difficult, therefore, to provide instructions for all teachers about what learning to capture and how often. As the curriculum in British Columbia’s shifts  to a competency based and more personalized framework, teachers have the opportunity to transform their teaching through assessment and meet the individual needs of the students in their classroom.

The FRAME I described may be helpful for some while others will have another way to guide their process for documentation. Professional learning parallels student learning and as such one size does not fit all. We do, however, share a common vision within the Surrey school district for Learning by Design – where we prepare students for a world in which they think creatively and critically, communicate skillfully, and demonstrate care for self and others. Quality assessment is one of four priority practices to support this vision and ongoing professional learning is pivotal. I encourage all educators to share their organizational tips and guiding principles for digital documentation with others.

In my experience working with teachers, parents, administrators and students effective portfolios:

  • are organized with intention and a clear plan to support student learning
  • intentions are shared with administrators, parents and students and feedback welcome
  • include clear examples of learning progressions across the curriculum in relation to individual student goals
  • are continuous and reflective
  • demonstrate how students can build upon and show their understanding in multiple ways
  • descriptive feedback speaks to learning intentions and core competencies
  • quality over quantity: pictures and videos are limited and represent clear evidence of learning with quality feedback (too much information becomes overwhelming)
  • incude formative and summative assessment
  • reflect student ownership and voice
  • include links or reference to ministry performance standards
  • reflect the learning over the doing and recognize that this will look different for each student

Slide2I look forward to adjusting this list as educators share their successes and work through the struggles in the documentation of student learning. We are facing big changes in education and I thank all of the teachers out there who are stepping outside of their comfort zone, taking risks and making this journey a meaningful one.

we cannot solve problems

Digital Images Source:

Comfort zone

Bubbles

Paradigm

Einstein

Tom Cruise

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Consider the Possibilities

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I love feedback. I truly and genuinely appreciate it when someone challenges my thinking and causes me to reflect on what I believe and the actions I choose to take. Last week I spoke to over sixty educators about the innovative changes the Surrey School District is implementing around learning and assessment. This is a topic I am very passionate about and my enthusiasm was quite obvious. After the presentation I was impressed by the positive feedback I received through conversations, emails and tweets. It is wonderful that I was able to inspire and motivate so many teachers looking to shift their practice. The most enlightening conversation I had, however, came yesterday from a teacher attending an inquiry meeting with several colleagues where I was asked to speak about ePortfolios with FreshGrade. This particular teacher approached me and asked me “is it always so positive, are we only assessing the good things kids do, what about the disruptive behaviour?” He went on to share with me that although he enjoyed my previous presentation he and several other male teachers (he said it, not me) felt I was only promoting how we can more effectively showcase a child’s growth and did not speak to tracking a child’s limitations or poor behaviour. Okay, this is a valid point and an issue facing many classroom teachers. I went on to explain that I believed in the initial phase of a powerful shift such as replacing summary reports with ongoing collaborative ePortfolios, focusing on the positive is more engaging. Furthermore, opening communication with parents in a relevant and timely fashion will give teachers the ability to relay whatever they feel is necessary and significant.

This conversation has caused me much reflection, and from it, I am more compelled to make the shift (my term for transforming the learning experience for every student through personalized ePortfolios built on formative assessment). I am more motivated because I see the possibilities so clearly and they are incredible.

Consider a world where students are not following a dated, generic list of prescribed learning outcomes that may or may not have any relevance for them.

Consider a world where we do not take a population of curious, playful and engaged humans and force them through the funnel of school where they are told what to learn and by what time in their life to learn it.

Consider a world where we foster each individual for the gifts they bring and encourage them to take ownership in their own education.

Consider a world where students are given options, choice and their individual interests are respected.

Consider a world where we do not judge a persons worth and ability by how they compare to a peer, a world where children actually want to learn because they are not stifled by stress around grades and tests.

Essentially consider the possibilities if we, as teachers can actually do what we signed up for when we chose this career. It took me many years to realize there was a possibility beyond what I thought I had to do. The report card template was just part of my job and I did not question it for years because I did not realize there were other options. I am so thankful that we now have options with the research and technology to support it.

As a teacher, I will not be proud and feel like I did a good job if all of my students become doctors and lawyers. I will be proud if all of my students help to create a world that is better than the one we live in today. There are many teachers who have established classrooms based on the considerations above. I wonder how many behaviour issues they are dealing with? I believe that if we open the doors and support our students in a way that lets each of them feel successful we will significantly decrease classroom behaviour. Is it possible that an off task child is simply bored and frustrated, could it be the task and not the child? We are living in a dynamic and fast paced world. When the classroom is the exact opposite, what do we actually expect? So I invite all teachers struggling with significant behaviour and lack of interest to consider the possibilities, work towards making a shift and see what happens. I believe the change will be profound, not only for students and parents but for teachers as well.

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Engaging students and parents in authentic assessment with FreshGrade

I enjoyed presenting at ERAC IL4K12 today with Wendy Hall and Laura Warkentin, here on some of the thoughts I shared:

Thinking about how much teaching, learning and the world has changed over the last decade I am honestly shocked that we have not seen a universal and radical shift in the way teachers communicate with parents and engage our learners in their own education.

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I look at these report cards from 1915, 1985 and 2013 and wonder how much has really changed? It is still a summary report written by one individual about another individual and passed on to a third party who presumably reads it. We do not know how they interpret it and questions need to be asked at a later date where the author of the document will attempt to validate their evaluation with notes and assignments that could be months old. 1915-2013… almost 100 years. We do see improvement for sure but is it enough? Given the technological advances, and the amount of research done in the field of education, I argue absolutely not. It is not a significant enough change for my students or my children. Especially when I consider the world they will be living in and the skills and qualities that will define a successful adult at that time.

In my consideration of the changes in report cards I decided to ask my grade one students a question. I asked them, “what are report cards and why do we use them in school?” Hands shot up immediately and many kids were eager to share their answer. Most of the responses included words like “bad” and “good.” Most of them agreed that “report cards tell my parents what I am doing good and bad at.” This really broke my heart. It makes me sad to think that these 5 and 6 year old innocent little beings come to the big world of school full of hope and with complete trust in us as teachers to help them and end up thinking that it is all about what they are good or bad at. I never want my students to think that after months of their hard work, and I believe they are all doing the best they can with the skills they have, all their drawings, creations, thoughts, all the ways they have grown and contributed to our classroom community will be summarized on a piece of paper ranking their level of good. I want to change that perception.

My personal motivation for change came last year when my children in grade one and two brought home their report cards. Although my son has always been a very bright and curious boy, school has never been on the top of his favourite activities. He would much prefer to be fishing or exploring the world around him, as is the case for many boys. Learning to read was a struggle for him and although he made a good effort it would take two years of LST support and getting eye glasses before he was reading at grade level. The first few months of grade two he worked incredibly hard and we saw wonderful progress. My daughter on the other hand has always been incredibly studious and like many girls loves to learn. She started her first term in grade one reading and writing well above grade level expectations. Before opening their term one report cards I asked my kids about what they learned. My son was able to talk about reaching new reading levels and learning to read and spell new words. He was quite proud of his progress and rightly so. This changed after we opened the report cards. After comparing all the ‘approaching expectations’ boxes checked on his report to the many ‘exceeding expectations’ checked on his sisters he was very frustrated. Although I read the comments highlighting his progress he was left with the impression that he did bad and his sister did great. The reality is that my daughter really did not learn anything. This is not a reflection on her teacher but the reality that she entered grade one already meeting the prescribed learning outcomes. My son learned a great deal and made excellent progress yet this was not reflected in the report card. I could almost see the confidence leave his little body. He was absolutely crushed and discouraged. He could not look past those check marks. He just looked at them and said “oh great, I am still only half as good as everyone else.” Again, this is not necessarily a reflection of the school or his teacher, rather it is, in my opinion, the result of an inadequate reporting system.

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My daughters report card highlights all the learning outcomes she had met before school even started.

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My son’s report card is not an accurate reflection of his achievements and growth as he is still not meeting prescribed learning outcomes.

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So what are the possibilities for change. For example what can a reading assessment look and sound like? Using a digital portfolio like FreshGrade I can track an individual students reading progress and provide meaningful feedback to parents and students.

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The pictures above represent video recordings of a grade one child reading to me. Parents can read my comments and suggestions for support but they can also hear the progress themselves.The videos for reading assessment are just phenomenal. I believe it really takes our comments as teachers to another level. When I talk about expression or fluency it makes so much more sense to parents when it is tied to a video where they can actually hear what I am talking about.

An unexpected bonus I just realized is that it is also providing me with an opportunity to model guiding reading to a parent. Although sending home suggestions and decoding strategies may be helpful for some, it is so much more valuable for parents to hear how teachers help emergent readers and then they can use the same strategies. I love the consistency that offers my students.

I appreciate the depth of my comments and suggestions on FreshGrade. An important example for me is in the realm of social responsibility because I believe social and emotional learning are the foundation for academic success. As teachers in BC, we are required to make one social responsibility comment in each report. It usually becomes a frame sentence repeated for everyone. Your child is ‘learning to follow the classroom rules and expectations,’ for example. How well does a statement like this really inform parents and students? In my mission to be a confidence builder and encourage a love of learning, I appreciate that with FreshGrade I can pair what is perceived as negative with some genuine suggestions and a positive picture.

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This is a sample from a portfolio of a boy who is ‘learning to follow classroom rules and expectations.’ He is a boy who has a lot of energy and is learning to use self-regulation during group conversations and work time. The positive side to his energy and imagination is the many amazing things he builds with his peers during creative times. With FreshGrade I can share this with parents and students. I can also provide meaningful suggestions with an image to clarify if necessary. We can not assume that parents understand the many terms that become common place to us as educators. The wiggle seat mentioned in the comments above, for example.

So what do my parents think about this new way of communication and FreshGrade in particular? Someone asked me a few months ago if I had considered the idea that a digital portfolio is too much information for parents and perhaps they do not want to become partners in their child’s education. First of all, I disagree and find that no one is more invested in their child’s success than parents. Unfortunately teachers often put up a wall and fail to utilize the valuable resource parents can be. Furthermore, when you become a parent it is your job to facilitate the growth and development of your child so sometimes teachers may need to rise up to our role as advocates for our students and get those parents on board in whatever capacity they can. This is an email I received after sharing a FreshGrade video of a student reading.

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I truly believe it is time for educators to re-evaluate our goals. We need to consider the world our students will be living in, and are living in, and how we can best support their growth into successful and fulfilled members of society. We can start by replacing term end summaries that encourage comparison over personal growth with a tool like FreshGrade where students are empowered and all of their successes recognized.

There are several excellent educators in Surrey that are happy to share more on FreshGrade.
Find them on twitter:
@mrswendyhall
@_mswarkentin
@KLirenman

Also check out http://learningandsharingwithmsl.blogspot.ca for another great blog post about FreshGrade

Visit http://web.freshgrade.com for more information

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