#28daysofwriting Day 20: eportfolios & student centred learning

Last week, as I have already blogged about, I was fortunate to work with Dr Helen Barrett, the guru of portfolios.  Her wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm and excitement about the power of portfolios for deep learning and personal growth is infectious.  We had already decided that we would like to introduce portfolios with our Year 9 students as we implement a whole new cross-curricular junior programme.  As we are a GAFE school, it made sense to trial using Google Sites as our platform.

The English department have assumed responsibility for guiding the students as they create their sites.  I started off with my class asking them what they thought a portfolio was.

  • A place to put their best work
  • A folder with writing in
  • Somewhere to store paintings

I asked them where they thought the word “portfolio” came from and gave them 2 minutes to find out.  Google gave them an answer but did they really understand it?

dictionary definition of the word portfolio

No!  But are these definitions of “portfolio” what we mean in education?  Well, as Helen Barrett says, the purpose of a portfolio is many things to many people.  And as technology has developed so has the function, purpose and meaning of a portfolio.

The girls then looked to find out where the word “portfolio” came from.

the origins of the word "Portfolio"

But were we any further forwards?  Most of them had created portfolios of “best work” at Primary School, they had also “led” student parent conferences at Intermediate school where they explained to their parents, under the guidance of their teachers, what they had been learning.  So they had some understanding of what a portfolio might mean for them in terms of their learning.

To make it meaningful to them we really needed to explore what they could use a portfolio for, what it would mean for them, how they could have ownership of it.  So I asked them to brainstorm ideas of what they could put in a portfolio of their learning.

mind map showing what students considered were important components of a portfolio

Interestingly, they came up with the same things that Helen Barrett had suggested could be incorporated into a portfolio.  I started them off with the idea of a “Splash” page but after that it was all them.

We talked about the idea that their portfolio should be all about them, that they could choose what they put there and who they shared it with.  Although we also talked about how it may be helpful for their teachers and their parents if they felt they could share it with them for them to have an insight into what they were learning and how their learning identities were developing.

I think we have made a positive start.  The students in my class were very excited about creating their space.  They loved being able to make their sites their own by creating their own themes and colours and adding photos and quotes.  In the first few weeks of term we had created our “Mihi” and presented them to the class.  They were very keen to embed them into their “Splash” page.

I think, though, that we have only just started in our journey of portfolios and our challenge is going to be working out who has ownership of them and maintaining a sense of excitement about them.  I am convinced, after talking with Helen, that if they are to be meaningful for our students, if they are to really be a way of making their learning visible, and a way of expressing their identity, then we have to let them have total ownership of them.  We must not hijack them and make them a tool of assessment.  One of the questions I was asked was, “Will we get marked on what we put in our portfolios?”.  My answer was unequivocal, but I am not so sure about some of my colleagues.  I said that some of the work they may choose to put in the “showcase” part of their portfolio might have been graded and reported on, but the portfolio itself was theirs.  It is their journey, their learning, their identity.

It is clear that, increasingly, employers and universities will be looking more at a person’s ability to reflect on their learning, how the experiences they have had affect the way that they learn and the decisions they make, and the direction they go in rather than the qualifications they achieve.  I believe we have to encourage good practice and also model it as professionals.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has used portfolios in secondary schools as to how they have worked and whether students have continued with them as they have moved through the school.

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Learning to Explain: English Lessons

800px-Le_voyage_dans_la_lune_drawingSo, we are well into Term 3, “I am Not Esther” is done and dusted but the themes of the novel are not. Some of them come to the fore in this term’s focus which is a film study. We have watched the film “Hugo” based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick.  We are now well underway working on activities that help us to explore the characters, the story and the themes of this wonderful film.

I spent an inspiring day at the #edchatnz conference at the weekend and was reminded of the importance of student-centred learning. I also re-read a couple of chapters of “Understanding the Digital Generation” by Ian Jukes, Ted McCain & Lee Crockett. This section really resonates with me; “It is far better for students to discover the content rather than be told the content because discovery creates the interest that gets students engaged in learning.”

Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to widen my scope in terms of teaching subjects. Since arriving in NZ I have taught French (my main, specialist subject), Health, Phys Ed, Spanish, Food Technology, and this year English. I do not have the expert knowledge in any of these subjects, except French, to stand at the front of the class and be the “sage on the stage”.  Not that that has ever been my natural style of teaching, but not being an expert really makes you have to re-think how you engage students.  And you realise that what you need to teach them is not content but strategies and a curiosity for learning that provides them with the skills to progerss into the real world.

So my holidays were spent watching and re-watching Hugo and developing activities, gleaned and adapted from the amazing resources generously shared on the internet and especially via the TES site and TKI.  It will be interesting to see if the N4L “Pond” develops into a great sharing site like the TES site.  It has the potential to do so and it certainly seems like NZ educators are keen to share their resources.

However, because I do not have a background in teaching English and especially things such as cinematographic techniques (a word that, for some reason, I struggle to pronounce.)  This causes such great amusement for my students that it has become a standing joke and I don’t even try anymore!  Anyway, I have set up activities that allow them, and me, to explore the concepts of film techniques, and to find things out for themselves.  They work in groups or alone – their choice – and we share work via Google docs so that we can comment and discuss.

Nevertheless, I think it is also important that there are opportunities that encourage them to produce, to be put on the spot and to think on their feet.  Ted McCain talks about the 4D approach – Define the problem, Design the solution, Do the work, and Debrief what you have done – this equips students with the tools to solve problems and learn.

Working at their own pace on activities is all fine and good, but some slip under the radar and are not always challenged to produce under pressure. So, this morning they were challenged.  They chose two quotes from the film.  I divided the class into two halves and each half took one of the quotes. They had 15 minutes to brainstorm the quote and consider four questions;

  1. What it meant?
  2. How it related to the themes in the film?
  3. Why it was important?
  4. Give examples to illustrate your ideas.

One person in the group was at the whiteboard making notes of the suggestions from the group, one person was a scribe on a shared Google Doc and organised the notes from the board into a table in the doc. (one of the groups worked quite well with two scribes to help each other keep up with the pace of the discussion).  One person was nominated as the speaker.  They were to argue the point that their quote was more important in terms of illustrating the themes of the film, in a two minute speech.  As the rest were making suggestions, making notes and scribing they pulled the ideas together into a well-constructed speech.  

It was quite clear, as I observed, that one team was much more organised but I reserved judgement.  However, it was equally clear, once we listened to the speeches that the organised group was the most effective.  As soon as their spokeserson finished speaking the other group chorused; “Oh, they win!” 

This was our opportunity to reflect and debrief, which they did very effectively.  It was heartening to see how engaged, they had all been during the process. Yes, there were a couple of girls who lots focus, and in retrospect, I might have three groups to reduce the group size and ensure that more girls were involved.  However, they all agreed that they had learned a lot and they enjoyed the lesson.