At the start of the school year, I set myself the large goal of implementing open, online portfolios in the form of blogs for all of my students from Grade Three to Grade Seven. I started them off with middle school (Grade 5, 6 and 7) right at the start of the year. I planned to implement the project with Grade 4 and Grade 3 a bit later in the year. As I only teach one 40 minute period per class, per week, it took a few weeks to get them off the ground. But this included constant revision and online safety lessons all rolled into the setting up of blogs for all students. Once we had them up and running, the students started to post in their portfolios and add some work to them. This was great to see and their reflections were always interesting to read.
I did spend a lot of time in those first few lessons reinforcing responsible online citizenship and what was and wasn’t appropriate and acceptable. I also constantly reminded the students that their blog was their professional portfolio, which means they could post whatever they liked, as long as it had to do with their ‘profession’. In short, it had to be about learning. All of the students really respected these rules and guidelines. They were very constructive with their comments on other posts. They always asked if it was OK to post something they weren’t sure of. Not once did I have to say that what they were posting was inappropriate. But at least I knew they were thinking before they jumped in and published which was great to see. Once or twice, I had to speak to a student and ask them how the 15 Taylor Swift photos they posted were related to their learning. After some thought, they usually just took it down. These conversation were really important as it helped reinforced to the students as to why they were creating their portfolios. And I believe, because they were given trust and responsibility, they all lived up to the high expectations that were set. Not once did we I find an instance of bullying. Not once did I find the students posting anything rude, derogatory, defamatory, etc. The fact that everything could be traced back to them, could have also helped with this situation, but I also think the fact that we trusted them, in an open and public forum really made them live up to expectations.
I then encouraged other teachers to ask the students to post work from their classes in their portfolios. A few really jumped at the chance to be able to display the work they were doing with their children. Students and teachers started to comment on the posts which also made their learning more relevant, giving the students a real world context and purpose for their work. Not to mention meaningful two way feedback. Some teachers didn’t quite understand the concept or purpose and as a result, didn’t utilize the students portfolios to their full potential. But I see this not as a criticism of them, but more a criticism of myself and my explanation of the tool to the teachers. I also didn’t ask all teachers as I wanted the portfolios to have a slow introduction into the students learning. I also didn’t want to overwhelm the teachers and make them think it was extra work (it’s not, I continually reinforced to the students that it was their portfolio and their responsibility). This is fine and I hope it is rehashed with the teachers next year, encouraging all staff to get involved, now that they can see how it looks one year on. Another way that this could be approached is to have teachers developing their own portfolios so that they can see how meaningful they are in the learning process. If the teacher knows, uses and believes in the purpose of the tool, I would assume that the tool would be more widely used in the classroom.
One stumbling point that I came across was the parents reactions. I jumped in feet first, and didn’t educated them enough about the cause. I also didn’t educate my superiors enough because when parents asked them questions about the portfolios, sometimes they couldn’t answer the questions the parents had. As a result, in November, just a few weeks into the implementation of the portfolios, I led a parent information session titled, ‘Digital Citizenship – Educating 21st Century Learners’. Ideally, this should have been at the start of the year, before or as we were starting to implement the portfolios for all middle school students. If I had the chance again, I would implement more regular, informal parents sessions as well, just so they understood where technology integration and implementation is leading and to break down the fear that is sometimes associated with new technology. In the future, I have to remember to get the parents and admin on board, even if it is a project that I plan to implement myself, in my class time. I have to make sure all stakeholders understand why the students are making their own portfolios, why they are so important, what amazing benefits they offer and also the possible risks and how we plan to address these issues.
This was the main reason why I didn’t end up introducing the portfolios to Grade 3 and 4. I saw the resistance from parents as a sign that maybe we aren’t ready to go down into the junior school with portfolios just yet and if we can show how effective they are in the middle school, then maybe the junior school parents and teachers can also see the amazing benefits. I do think that the students could manage the portfolios very easily, but I think it would take some education to get all stake holders on board.
In the end, I was very proud of how the middle school students utilized their portfolios this school year. There are some amazing posts and they look great. The students are working things out for themselves (Maybe all caps isn’t a good way to write? Maybe a different colour text for each line isn’t really necessary?) and I feel it’s really showing their thought process and learning.
I would also really recommend it to any educator that started to think about doing this in their own classroom. The ways that work can be displayed is not possible on paper. The fact students constantly reflect and write to a huge audience is not possible on paper either. Having a real world audience, where teachers, principals, parents, grandparents, family, etc. can all read and follow a students progress is so powerful! Students understand the implications of a wide, authentic audience and want to perform at their best. Plus the real world digital citizenship experience and trust that I gave the students to have their own publish space online is a huge benefit to any classroom.
I urge you to read some posts by my students and give some feedback, they love comments as much as adults! Here is an RSS feed of all of the middle school portfolios, I hope you enjoy them!
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