Category: Portfolio

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.

What Grade Do I Deserve? Electronic Portfolios in the Middle School English Class – pt. 3/3

This week’s post offer one way to handle end-of-quarter grades in a classroom that functions without grades. Tuesday’s post discussed the portfolio template and how to set everything up. Wednesday’s post handled reflective analogies. Today’s post deals with the final component of the portfolio: the grade evaluation essay. As I said earlier, I removed grades, quizzes, and tests from my classroom three quarters ago. The end-of-quarter grade my district requires is the only time I have to input something into the electronic gradebook.

Here’s the Google Slide presentation.

After getting settled in with the warm-up, students discuss what an A, B, and C look like and sound like in our English class. At first the students stick to superficial ideas: sitting up, paying attention, completing every assignment, etc. They’ve internalized the language of what’s expected of them (essentially obedience) over years of repetition. I have to push them to move beyond the surface, to focus on our English class specifically. I list all of the different types of assignments and discussions we’ve had over the nine weeks. This is hard.

Grades Look and Sound

After each group has cobbled together a decent enough list, they write their findings on big pieces of chart paper around the room. There are six total: “An A looks like,” “An A sounds like,” etc.

Then I tell them it’s time they compose their two paragraph grade evaluation. The paragraphs go into their Q1 Portfolio Google Slide presentations. The first slide is essentially “what grade do you deserve and why?” The second slide asks students to come up with a wishlist for quarter two and write me a personal note about how everything went. You’ll see I reiterate the need for specificity by including two simple “Do this/not that!” examples on the slide.

Grade Essay

After spending the next day polishing up their drafts, students are done. I meet with each of them over a four days to hear them summarize their portfolio work and pontificate on next steps. If I agree with their grade (which I do 99% of the time), I immediately put it into the grade book.

Students aren’t used to this. Or, at least, the students I teach aren’t. It requires of them (and you) a pretty big leap of faith. You’re asking them to flip on circuits long rendered dormant by external systems of punishment and reward. Some of them discuss feeling guilty. They don’t know how to balance their desire for honesty with the contingencies of parents, family members, honor rolls, etc. This post, however, isn’t the place for a deeper discussion into assessment ethics and professional judgement.

Hopefully you found something to add to your own practice or at least to think about. Thanks for reading!

English is a Human Body: Electronic Portfolios in the Middle School English Class – pt 2/3

Yesterday’s post dealt with how I used Google Classroom and a Google Slide template to help students get started on their quarter one portfolio. It also discussed how students selected a piece of work and analyzed it for the first part of their portfolio. Today’s post explains the next stage in our portfolio process: analogies.

First up: here’s the day’s presentation. As before it contains the entire lesson, not just the portion discussed in this post.

I first became aware of the power of analogies after reading a book on differentiation to earn recertification points for my teaching license. The book recommended asking students to compare two dissimilar objects in order to come up with new observations and thought patterns. For instance: how is chapter three of your independent reading novel like a website? It seemed hokey at first. But after giving it a shot I was seriously impressed by students’ creative and unique responses. I also wanted to get away from the standard reflective prompts such as ‘What did you like/dislike?’

So I started the lesson out by introducing students to an analogy of my own. I briefly discussed how I wanted them to find common ground between two different objects. I wrote a different analogy for each period. Here’s first period’s.


Next up it was time for students to take a crack at it. I walked them through the process step by step. Vigilant readers might have noticed yesterday’s Q1 Portfolio Template contained two slides mysteriously titled: Q1 English is a Human Body and Q1 English is the Weather. For the first round of analogies I decided to limit students to using one of those two options. I’ll open it up next quarter.

Here’s a quick summary of the process.

  1. Choose the human body or weather analogy.
  2. List four appropriate parts of either the weather or the body.
  3. List at least five things that each of those parts does. For instance human hands open, wave, shake, pinch, and catch.
  4. In what ways did Q1 English open, wave, shake, pinch, and/or catch?
  5. Write a paragraph beginning with “Q1 English is like ____ because ____.”


It’s a lot on one slide, but I tried to include only the most necessary words and examples. That way I could leave it up while I went around and worked with individual students. Once students got over the “this is weird” hurdle, they started cranking out some interesting connections.

After students wrote their paragraphs it was time to take the abstraction up a notch: how did you interact with Q1 English? I wanted them to stick with their analogies, so I modeled my own. I imagined Q1 English as a human body that I danced with. Since it was the first quarter the dance was awkward. New routines, new students, and new expectations meant a lot of miscues and stepped-on toes.

Analogy Interactions

I knew students would need help with this process, so I created a slide to give them a way begin. Regardless of how students felt about Q1 English, I provided options for getting started with both the human and the weather analogy. Chose the weather analogy and hated the class? Then you might say you sought shelter from the storm. You stayed inside and watched TV while Q1 English pelted the windows trying to get in. Or maybe you chose the human analogy and loved Q1 English. In that case maybe you two became fast friends, learning about each other’s quirks and getting outside your comfort zone.

Analogies Interactions2

Students typed up their paragraphs onto the corresponding slides in their Q1 English portfolio template. Students enjoyed the lesson, even though some of them remained somewhat confused by the slightly unorthodox approach.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the culmination of the portfolio: the grade reflection component. Although I don’t use grades, my district requires at least one grade for each marking period. I use the summative grade reflective essay to help students make sense of what they’ve done in my class during the last nine weeks.

Thanks for reading!

Electronic Portfolios in the Middle School English Class – pt 1/3

The end of the quarter is always chaotic. Since I don’t use grades, I need some way to help students sort through nine weeks’ worth of activities. My district requires a single letter grade for report cards, however. So after a few reflection and curation activities students compose a grade reflection essay assigning themselves a single letter grade. Students compile all of this into a portfolio.

I’ve been tinkering with portfolios for the last three quarters. This year I decided to embrace my district’s iPad adoption program and take student portfolios online. What follows is a brief description of how I approached electronic portfolios this quarter. I’ve attached the Google Slide presentations I used just in case you want to modify and use them yourself.

I started out by creating a Google Slides portfolio template. I shared this template through Google Classroom, making a copy for each student in the process.

The portfolio template is a pretty bare bones affair. It begins with a table of contents slide. Each item in the T.o.C. links to its corresponding place in the presentation. I was originally going to have students create the links themselves, but the iPad version of the Google Slides app doesn’t allow for link additions. It also helped students focus on the actual content of each slide.


Once the template was done, it was time for our first portfolio lesson. Here’s a link to the slides. I make a Google Slides presentation for every day. It helps me keep my ideas sequenced correctly and provides useful visual reminders for students. That’s why you’ll see my TA/homeroom instructions, warm-ups, etc.

Students first had to rummage through their binders and brains to find one piece of work that exemplified their effort, growth, and experiences during first quarter English. I call these ‘learning artifacts.’ It’s tough to reduce an entire quarter down to only a single learning artifact, but I wanted to keep their first time relatively simple. I’ll up the amount for each quarter; quarter two will require two learning artifacts and so on. After discussing what makes an effective vs. ineffective artifact (pushed you! you’re proud of it! you took a risk!), students took a picture of the artifact and inserted the image onto the ‘Learning Artifact’ slide.

Then it came time to write the learning artifact explanation. I broke this down into two parts: summary and analysis. The summary consisted of more factual/reporting type questions. What is the artifact? What did you do on it? The heavy lifting comes in the analysis questions. What growth or learning occurred as a result of the artifact?


After answering the questions directly onto the slide, students deleted the questions themselves and arranged their answers into a rough paragraph. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the next step: students create analogies to reflect on and make sense of their quarter one English experience.

Thanks for reading!