The Head, the Heart, and the Hands: Our New Approach to Classroom Portfolios

When I started using portfolio assessments last year (instead of grades and tests) I relied on the classic four language domains: reading, writing, speaking, listening. Students would select an artifact representing their work in each category. The first semester of this year I decided to eschew categories in favor of analogies. While I (and the students) enjoyed the analogies, I felt the portfolio was missing its core (or, to use Elbowian language, a center of gravity). I wanted our Quarter 3 Portfolio to include some new categories. I decided to focus on the body, specifically the work done by the head, the heart, and the hands. This post provides an overview of our process and how it worked out. And, as with every assignment, there is real value in doing this with the students.

Categories and Artifacts


For the head, students listed words like think, analyze, problem solve, decide, and compare. They said the heart might feel joy, sorrow, exhaustion, excitement, anxiety, and hope. And lastly they explained that their hands wrote, erased, tapped on screens, colored, flipped pages, put up sticky notes, and folded.

Students then had to pick the word that best described the quarter for each part. For instance, a student who did a lot of analysis might go with ‘analyze.’ Once students had their words down, they selected an artifact (something we did in class during the quarter) that best represented that word. That student who chose ‘analyze’ might go with a Flash Fiction draft that required him to analyze the components of the genre to make sure his piece was authentic.

One Organizer to Rule Them All

Artifact Organizer

First quarter I provided too little in the way of guidance. Determined not to make the same mistake second quarter I ended up going too hard in the other direction. Students told me they were overwhelmed by the organizers. For the third quarter I tried to create a simple organizer that contained almost everything a student would need. Each column had the same instructions in it, but I slightly altered the font for each artifact to try and help the eye differentiate. The directions moved left to right. So whenever a student was done with a particular box they could draw a giant X through it. This helped them understand the sequence as well as provide a visual cue for progress.

At this point students wrote in their word and artifact on the left-hand side and completed the first square for each category.

Improving Our Artifact Reflections
Without proper planning, portfolios can become nothing more than a summative task, a way for students to show off what they’ve achieved over a semester. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, there isn’t much in the way of ‘learning’ going on when someone is merely putting on an exhibit. I find there’s value in helping students take the time to thoroughly process each artifact they choose.

I wanted to improve the reflection process this quarter. Using Starr Sackstein’s blog about teaching reflections (and receiving valuable feedback from Jana Maiuri), I settled on a sequence of activities to help students figure out ‘what should a great reflection include?’ Asking students to play a central role in selecting criteria for an assignment is a common and effective strategy. Students completed  gallery walk, taking notes on various reflections posted around the room. What made each one effective? We took our time answering guiding questions on various pieces of chart paper and voting as a team on the most valuable components of a reflection.


I took the most popular results (using my professional judgment to add or remove anything) and typed them up. Students spent a little time trying out different brainstorming strategies before inserting their artifact reflections into their Google Slides portfolio template. Here’s what students ended up using to drive the content and form of their reflections:


Grade Evaluation Essay
This is the final major component of the portfolio. As I’ve mentioned many times, I do not assign grades, quizzes, or tests in my classroom. My district, like most, still requires me to input a letter grade for each student at the end of the quarter. The Grade Evaluation Essay is my compromise. In order to try and help students grapple with synthesizing an entire quarter’s worth of work into one letter and one small essay, I created three scenarios. Although I haven’t used this lesson yet (that happens the next two days), I wanted to share my process. Individually and in groups students must read the following scenarios and decide A) what grade each of the fictional students ‘deserves’ and B) what factors/criteria/categories will be used to arrive at that grade.


Each student is a composite of popular behaviors and typical classroom occurrences. The items along the top are the major assignments of the quarter. My goal was to create scenarios without a clear “first, second, third” ranking. Kiersten, Melinda, and Javier all have strengths and weaknesses. By working as a group, students should be able to better leverage each other and bring multiple perspectives to bear on what is a complex task. Without cooperative learning, this task would be outside the Zone of Proximal Development for many of my students.

After trying to come to a consensus (regardless of outcome), we’ll write out each group’s grading factors. On the reverse side of the page is the same organizer sans writing. Each student will then use a few of the factors to brainstorm their own journey through each of the assignments. Finally they will turn their brainstorming into their final Grade Reflection Essay. The idea here is that the brainstorming page will move them left to right, from evidence to final statement. I haven’t written my own Grade Reflection Essay yet, but I’m excited to open myself up to students in a new way.

Preliminary Conclusion
The reflections look better than previous quarters. They’re more focused on specific learning and discovery. I’m excited to see how the Grade Reflection Essays turn out. If I stick with the corporeal theme next quarter, I’ll probably substitute ‘hands’ for ‘mouth.’ I’ll also do a better job trying in the body parts to the reflections. Ending up with a grade goes against much of what I believe in, but knowing when and where to compromise is key. I’ll look to update this post after the full results come in. Lastly, along with the two aforementioned educators, I’d like to thank Mr. Carter (my team’s excellent math teacher) for providing valuable feedback along the way.



  1. Pingback: A Slice of Life in Under 1,000: Using Flash Fiction in the Classroom | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  2. Pingback: Tech Finds of the Week – EPS Tech PD
    • Peter Anderson

      Great question, Benjamin! The primary obstacle became the fact that once students selected their artifacts, the categories became fairly inconsequential. So, like, the learning reflections for the ‘hands’ artifact ended up being too similar to the reflections for the ‘heart’ artifact. If I were to do this again, I would make sure to pick categories that could sustain a learning reflection from beginning to end. Hope this helps.


  3. Pingback: Pulling an Iceberg up a Mountain: A Portfolio Analogy | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s