Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Power of Digital Portfolios

Student portfolios are nothing new in the world of education. Many teachers have been using them for years.

They can vary in appearance and purpose. Some may be physical binders, or hanging folders in a crate. Others may have become digital, in the form of slide decks, blogs, websites or a tool such as Seesaw. Teachers use them in various capacities, as well. They may be used to showcase exemplars of students work, or they may focus on process and house an array of work showing growth over time.

In a recent PD session, we focused on how digital portfolios can help students reflect on the process of learning. Often, we save reflection for the end of an assignment, unit or project. But by the end, we've missed the opportunity to improve, set goals and try again. Reflecting at the end of a learning experience is not entirely bad or wrong, and I've done it many times, but if we only reflect at the end of a learning cycle, we've neglected the valuable process of mistake-making and the growth that results. And many of those mistakes may have gone unnoticed by our students until the end–when it's a bit too late.

The school day is busy, that is a fact. And many teachers may feel constrained by the school schedule and the limited time they have with students to "cover content."

But we must find time to build-in opportunities to reflect. A digital portfolio can do just that. Even our youngest learners, with a tool such as Seesaw, can learn how to reflect on their learning and set goals for improvement.

Let's start in the top-right corner of this infographic.

Ownership & Independence: Digital portfolios provide a platform for voice and choice. Students have access to a variety of tools such as text, pictures, drawing and voice recordings. They can take photos of their work. They can choose which items to add. All of these pieces are empowering to students, and lead them toward more ownership of their learning and independence in how they reflect on that learning.

Track Growth: Most digital options store student work chronologically. This makes it easy for students and teachers to look at growth over time. What an incredible way for students to celebrate how far they've come as more items are added to the portfolio. And teachers? This is heaps of formative assessment at your fingertips to help guide and differentiate your instruction. More on that below.

Timely Feedback: Research shows there is nothing quite as effective and impactful on student learning as direct feedback to the student. In a digital portfolio, teachers (and potentially peers and/or parents) can leave immediate feedback, helping deepen the student's understanding and learning. For more information about feedback, check out this Edutopia article or The Power of Feedback by John Hattie).

21st Century Skills & Digital Citizenship: Digital portfolios are likely to hit on whatever technology expectations and standards you have in your district. And what a natural platform for discussions around digital citizenship and how to critique the work of peers respectfully online.

Reflection & Goal-setting: This is the true gem of digital portfolios. Give your students a chance to slow down and think about what it is they're learning–and how they're doing learning it. (Meta-cognition, anyone?) This is hugely powerful for all learners. We don't want our kids just going through the motions of school, learning to be compliant school do'ers. Nope. We want them to understand why they're learning things and how those things apply to the world. And, as teachers, we want to know how they're doing as they move along the learning process.

Formative Assessment: Every item in a digital portfolio is formative assessment for us. Have your students take a picture of their "just right" book and record themselves reading it. Boom, you have yourself a running record! Say your students are working on multi-digit multiplication. Have them choose one problem and write a story problem to go with it. They can draw a representation and record themselves explaining it. Immediate assessment at our fingertips, at any time of day (or night)!

Authentic Audience: Many digital platforms make sharing with a wider audience easy. A class blog, student website, slide deck or Seesaw are all great ways to encourage student sharing. And students love hearing the feedback of their peers. Why not invite your principal and other teachers at your site to participate in your students' learning? By providing an authentic audience, you are legitimizing student learning. Students will realize that their learning matters to real people other than you, their teacher (which, let's be honest, may not matter a whole lot to them). Let them share their awesome!

Digital Tools for Digital Portfolios

There are lots of platforms for digital portfolios. Think about your class setting and the access you have to devices. A blog or website might be appealing, or you may choose to start with a simple slide deck. 

My personal favorite is Seesaw. It is incredibly easy to use and intuitive, for both students and teachers. And... parents can be invited to participate in their child's portfolio! This is a huge boon for parent-teacher communication and helps parents feel connected to the work their child is doing at school. (I speak from experience!)

If you use iPads in your classroom, Seesaw is likely compatible with the majority of other apps your students are using. Projects on DoInk, Book Creator and Sock Puppets are easily integrated with Seesaw and can be added to the student's portfolio. 

Seesaw is also web-based and works on any computer or chromebook.

When students add a new item to their portfolio, they are presented with this menu of choices:


After selecting one of these options, students can then use multiple tools to further enhance their portfolio item. They can add labels and captions to pictures, record audio, take video (up to five minutes) and annotate using the drawing tool. 

Parents can also use some of the tools above. They can "like" their child's item (as they would on social media), leave a text comment and even record an audio comment for their child. This is amazing for students during their school day. What? My mom left a comment about my fluency practice? Awesome! 

The Seesaw folks are great and very responsive to teacher questions and requests. Check out their website, as well as the Seesaw Help Center for tutorials, implementation ideas and loads of PD in Your PJs videos!

Here's a Getting Started video to get you started!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Commitment to Change

Change. It's like growing old(er). We know it's inevitable, but we often fight it. We get comfortable in our habits and routines, and we dwell there–often for far too long. I have a list a mile long of various types of changes I would like to make in life: exercise more regularly, create better organizational systems at home, meditate. The list goes on.

As an educator, I think a lot about change and growth. It’s a constant focus in our work with students and guides our instruction throughout the year. We are always looking for evidence of growth and change over time. As our students explore, learn and mature over the course of an academic year, change and growth tend to be our measures of success. And when we don’t see that growth and mastery of standards, we worry–and then get promptly to problem-solving.

But what about the changes that we make as educators? Do we look for change and growth in ourselves? In our peers? In our schools? Are we expected to embrace meaningful change that will impact our students?

We must keep pushing ourselves to make change and try new things. Our students’ learning experiences deserve to be engaging, relevant and exciting–and different from the way we did things 20 years ago. Or five years ago, for that matter.

And our instruction deserves similar shifts, as well. As teachers, I believe we should be required to grow our toolboxes and encouraged to make changes to our instruction. We can’t let our fear of change prevent us from redefining the learning experiences of our students.

Brush aside your self-doubt and discomfort, and reject the notion that, as teachers, we must become “experts” before taking a leap with our students.

Change is exciting and rewarding. Change breathes life into our units and lessons. Change allows us to discover new tools to help us do our jobs better. Change reinvigorates our teaching and can fire-up our learners!

Change models risk-taking and mistake-making. Let’s demonstrate growth mindset every day for our students. Let’s show them what the learning process really looks like. Instead of feeling a need to become an “expert” before trying something, let’s partner with our students in the journey of discovery.

Change is empowering. When we go out on a limb to try something new, and experience growth and success from that effort, our confidence soars. Our mindset suddenly shifts toward “I CAN” statements, and we start to believe in the power and benefit of change.

Change is contagious. We are all inspired by the folks around us whom we see doing amazing things. Imagine if our school cultures revolved around this notion of change, and everyone began to try new things and share their experiences. That "change mindset" would sweep through our school sites like a bad cold!

I recognize that I may be on one end of the change spectrum. In high school, I lived (and schooled) on a working farm. During college and afterwards, I lived in two major cities on opposite sides of the country.

I've worked in publishing and for two internet start-ups. I've worked seasonally in the ski industry and as a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service.

I lived in the west for eight years, journeyed eastward for six, and then turned life on its head once more in a move to Montana (where we hope to stay for quite some time). Oh, and during all those wonderful, growth-filled transitions was a wedding and the arrival of two lovely children.

Clearly, I am not risk averse. I welcome and embrace change. But change doesn't necessarily have to be drastic. One doesn't have to move across the country with two toddlers to keep life interesting.

Scaffold your change. Fortunately for us, there are many ways to start. It doesn't need to happen overnight. Or all at once. There are many small changes we can make in our classrooms and instructional practices that are relatively low-risk and anxiety-free! Here are some ideas (in no particular order):

  • Introduce some flexible seating. Start with a beanbag chair or two. Add some table lamps to soften or eliminate some of the overhead lighting.
  • Grow your classroom library. Spend those Scholastic points and hit-up yard sales to buy high-interest novels and non-fiction that your students will love. And let them choose what they want to read!
  • Try the 'Hour of Code.' Curious about coding but haven’t started, yet? December 5th is the official kick-off, but really, you can do it any time of the year!
  • Start having class meetings. Take time to connect with your students in a new way. Where can you carve out 15 minutes in your schedule to build classroom community?
  • Do Number Talks. 10 minutes a day. In my opinion, it’s the best bang for your buck in building strong, flexible number sense. You will learn so much from your students, and they will learn amazing strategies from one another. So powerful.
  • Try a HyperDoc. You’ll never look back (and you’ll wonder why you didn't start sooner). Here are two great blog posts by Heather Marshall and Karly Moura to get you started.
  • Start using Twitter. What’s all the fuss about Twitter in education? How could I possibly find time to explore another social media tool? Start with 5 minutes a day: explore hashtags to hone-in on content and discussions that are relevant to you; read an article; retweet something you find interesting. Click here for some Twitter 101 resources.
  • Make an authentic connection. Connect with a classroom in another part of the country or world. You can do this through a Mystery Skype/Hangout, blogging, class Twitter account, etc.
  • Strengthen your parent partnerships. Expand beyond the weekly/monthly newsletter and try a tool like Seesaw. It's a triple-threat of wonderful: students can record their learning, reflect on their growth and collaborate with peers in meaningful ways; parents gain valuable, real-time insight into their child’s learning and what 21st century school looks and feels like; you, as the teacher, have endless formative assessment at your fingertips that you can access anytime, anywhere.

Blogging has been at the top of my personal change list for months. I’ve literally been mulling over this topic of change since August. What got me to finally commit to this change and actually start? The presidential election. No more apathy. No more excuses. For me, it was the kick in the pants I needed to begin my blogging journey.

So what's on your Change Menu for this year? What projects or ideas have you been considering as possibilities in your role as an educator? Don't delay or postpone! Get a jump start on your New Year’s Resolutions, and commit to a change (or two or three) in your practice.

After all, it's for the benefit of your students–our future leaders.