Pulling an Iceberg up a Mountain: A Portfolio Analogy

On November 3, 2015 I published my first blog post about classroom portfolios. Since then I’ve published three additional posts on the subject. This post is the first in a short series exploring my most recent attempt at portfolios. 

I left school feeling hollowed out. I had just spent the entire teacher work day eyeballs deep in my students’ quarter one portfolios, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about what I’d seen. Some kids took the project and ran with it, penning reflections of surprising depth and complexity. A handful of students only had a slide or two to their name. The rest of the portfolios, as can be expected, landed somewhere between the two.

In theory, portfolios sound easy. Students select their best work and then write about it. By the time the end of the quarter rolls around, students have already done most of the heavy lifting. They’re not writing new pieces; all that’s left is to reflect. Yet portfolios are hands down the most stressful assignment I give. The final two weeks of every quarter, the time I typically reserve for students to gather and reflect upon their work, never fail to leave me gasping for air, covered in checklists and sifting through sticky notes.

This is because I find everything about the portfolio process to be incredibly complex and demanding. No matter how methodically I plan, every class is off script by the end of the second day.

All children, like adults, work at various speeds. Depending on factors like mood, diet, the day’s events, amount of sleep, interest level, home life, etc., a seventh grader can take anywhere from fifteen seconds to four minutes to follow through on a relatively straight forward instruction such as “Please take out your iPads, open up Google Classroom, and click on link at the top of the page titled Q1 Portfolio.” Knowing this, I start out small. Students insert pictures of already completed memoirs and title a few slides. But after a few days the requirements of the portfolio bloom, requiring students to make decisions about content, revise their work, evaluate their progress and, ultimately, argue for a grade. A matryoshka assessment.

No matter how many different ways I try to scaffold the process and dole it out in manageable chunks, some students become overwhelmed. As a result, the final days of portfolio creation are hectic. I’ll set the kids to a task, and then spend the duration of the class caroming from one child to the next, making snap decisions about how each student can finish the cumulative assignment under deadline while still trying to make it useful for them.

I have yet to think of an adequate analogy for the portfolio process. During this last round I felt like I was pushing an iceberg up a steep incline on a hot day. In this analogy my goal is to get as much water up the hill and across the finish line (the last day of the quarter) as possible. Before I start the climb I have everything under control. The iceberg is in one piece and the crisp air at the bottom of the hill keeps it from melting. Plans are made and positions are ready.

And then I begin to pull.

The sun comes out and the iceberg starts to melt. Chunks of frozen liquid begin to break off. Because I don’t want to lose any of the water to evaporation, I stop climbing and collect the fragments of ice into plastic zip-lock baggies that I tie around my belt. I have to do this quickly, because time is running and the iceberg is melting.

This pattern continues for the duration of the portfolio process. Knowing when to stop pushing the dwindling chunk in order to collect the pieces that have fallen off becomes agonizingly difficult. By the end of the ordeal I’m scrambling up and down the path, picking up hunks of ice hurling them in the general direction of the finish line.

The analogy isn’t air-tight, but you get the idea.

Portfolios can also lay bare the realities of teaching and learning. For instance this quarter I spent hours working with children individually and in small groups on memoirs. We took them apart, identified the genre’s components, and figured out how the pieces fit together. I employed a diverse array of instructional techniques and modalities in an attempt to help students understand themselves, their pasts, and their identities through language. To do all of this and then have a student write “I didn’t learn anything. I wrote a memoir in fifth grade” can be a humbling experience. I’m not disparaging my students or my own pedagogy, just trying to make sense of teaching, learning, and assessment.

Because reading portfolios is the equivalent of a masterclass in what it means to be a student in your class forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, nine weeks a quarter. It is an invaluable picture of what goes on inside your room. Don’t misunderstand me; I think that student-driven portfolios are a wonderful tool for self-reflection and growth. Powerful things can happen when students have the opportunity to go take stock of what they’ve achieved over nine weeks of study. I just have a long way to go in implementing them.

The next couple posts will be devoted to ‘thin-slicing’ the major components of our Q1 portfolio process. I’m eager to try and make sense of what my students created, and hopeful that the results will help me refine what has become a central component of my class.

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