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Expanded story: ePortfolios

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Click here for the <font color="#0000FF">Summary</font> on this project; click here for the <font color="#0000FF">Overview and key findings</font> on this project.

By Susan Klimczak and Mica Pollock, with narratives in second half below excerpted from “ePossibilities: The power of a grassroots approach to student-curated ePortfolios in an urban high school,” a chapter written by Susan Klimczak, SHS teachers/eportfolio leaders Michelle Li and Chris Glynn, and Somerville education organizer Joe Beckmann, for an upcoming book on ePortfolios and Web 2.0 tools edited by Helen Barrett, (Student-Centered Interactive E-Portfolios in the Cloud).

As described in <font color="#0000FF">Summary</font> and <font color="#0000FF">Overview and key findings</font>, we found that when students and teachers designing and reflecting on ePortfolios were allowed to freely imagine what ePortfolios might communicate, then designing ePortfolios could be a great catalyst for meaningful educational change. In particular, students got a chance to recognize and articulate who they are and what their gifts are --- opportunities that all agreed are not always fully present in classrooms and learning cultures as they now exist in schools.

Overall, we feel that to lay the groundwork for supporting ePortfolios, we created conditions that supported a small but enthusiastic learning and designing community for ePortfolios among teachers and students to thrive.

Here are student and teacher participants’ additional thoughts about the communicative power of eportfolios.

¡Aha! New conversations about students’ talents can happen when youth can use an ePortfolio to communicate what they can do and who they are.

At a practice session where teachers and students shared their eportfolios, one young woman shared a draft eportfolio entry that described her interest in blogging about books. A conversation sparked about her unknown talent and someone suggested an internship. At another presentation of the eportfolio project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society in December, a young woman (a native Spanish speaker) talked about how she went from sharing her poetry with no one, to showing supportive eportfolio pilot teachers a poem she wrote on an iPod from a hammock in Central America. Her poem included the line, “It feels like no one cares. When I speak, no one listens.” After a teacher praised her poem early on in the eportfolio project, she made it into an online video. Friends who saw the video then started praising her poetry and considering sharing their own. The experience had led to a new confidence and motivation to share her skills again. “I shared it and people were like ‘wow,’” she said. “It made me feel good about myself.”

¡Aha! Students who see each others’ work want to share more of their own.

At Harvard in December 2011, a teacher noted that students “get excited working on these, we see them giggling to each other.” A student said that showing his work to other students in the eportfolio project “helped me be less shy – and to take other people’s opinions into consideration. It helped me to make new friends – it gave me better opportunities to express myself.” He added, “when I first entered the eportfolio project, I didn’t like to talk to many people and I didn’t have friends. Then people talked to me, they liked my website – we’ve been friends ever since.” A professor in the audience then commented on this shift in the audience for schoolwork: to students, it seemed, “an assignment [now] isn’t just jumping through a hoop to demonstrate knowledge only to teacher, but also performing for each other to demonstrate that they know what they are talking about.” And as SHS teacher Chris Glynn put it, even if students alone saw their work online, this was a “100% increase in viewers in comparison to the previous portfolios, which sat in a dusty cabinet.”

¡Aha! Students given the opportunity to describe their work in 21st century skills terms -- as a display of “creativity” or “skills at working in groups” -- started to honor new skills (e.g., a student honored his own ability to make a gear shift) and, to describe things they did outside of school that others hadn’t seen or valued (e.g., a student showed his ability to run a soccer team or build a house).

One student particularly liked her “teamwork page,” where she shared evidence of her work in the community program “SPF 100,” leading local youth campaigns preventing student substance abuse. Another student said that the task of selecting and considering entries for her eportfolio entries, and particularly the process of trying to find evidence of her skills for the “Verified Resume” categories, helped her “discover myself.” She found “that I liked working with kids, that I might want to be a pediatrician when I get older.”

¡Aha! Eportfolios can spark broad transformations in the conversation about teaching and learning.

Having new rubrics inviting students to show off their skills in various areas prompted some students to share skills others had never seen. As teacher Karen Woods put it at Harvard’s Berkman Center, students making entries in her class also began to reflect on their own learning process. “I want them to think about what they want to post on there. If it is to be meaningful it has to be meaningful to them,” she explained. She encouraged her students to “take the piece of work that was most challenging, that you learned the most from, and reflect on that. That’s what I want to see on your eportfolio.” She added, “I think it gets at the heart of what the eportfolio is about – individuality. Even though we do the same assignments we experience it differently.” She shared how a student in her class had explained her assignment choice: “I wanted to choose this piece of work, a cell model – to include in my folder – because it was one of my best pieces of work in bio,” the student had said. “I also thought it was a fun assignment to add to my eportfolio, because most of my assignments weren’t as exciting. Creative class assignments make me more willing to learn.” An audience member agreed on the under-acknowledged importance of reflection in education – of “looking at your own learning, and taking the time to say, ‘what did I learn, what am I good at?’”

¡Aha! Audience matters. Communicating your talents with people who care makes you want to share more.

Who will see these eportfolios in the future remains to be determined. Right now, eportfolios are private to students (who can share with whomever they like) and teachers, and shared by students’ permission in classes. At the Berkman Center presentation in December 2011, some students said that anyone was welcome to comment even critically on their work. But they also made clear that the caring adults in the eportfolio design group had prompted them to post their “best” online. The aspiring poet above made clear that discussing her poetry with OneVille staff and eportfolio teachers had allowed her to feel safe enough to post her first poem. After that, teachers saw her poetry and encouraged her to share more. So did peers, looking over her shoulder at the library!

As one teacher said, “The first viewer is self; teachers are also viewers, and students know that. We encourage them to think of this as a professional Facebook. Capitalize your ‘is’ and write out all your words.” Teacher Michelle Li said that a next goal of hers was to use eportfolios to share work in “student-led parent teacher conferences.”

The following italicized teacher narratives about the potential of eportfolios come directly from “ePossibilities: The power of a grassroots approach to student-curated ePortfolios in an urban high school,” a chapter written by Susan Klimczak, SHS teachers/eportfolio leaders Michelle Li and Chris Glynn, and Somerville education organizer Joe Beckmann, for an upcoming book on ePortfolios and Web 2.0 tools edited by Helen Barrett '(Student-Centered Interactive E-Portfolios in the Cloud).

Michelle Li, English teacher and ePortfolio project leader, discusses how the project revitalized her connection with teaching and tells the story of a struggling student who found her voice through creating an entry for her ePortfolio.

What happened with ePortfolios has brought me back to “Why I Wanted to be a Teacher.” In the daily grind of “teachering,” I lament that I don’t have time to do the things I once dreamed I would in my life as a teacher. Instead I spend my time in the grind covering the prescribed curriculum the best I can in the time given with the varied academic backgrounds of my students, creating a paper trail to document incidents that detract from time on learning, responding to e-mails about concussions and other unfortunate mishaps that take away from time on learning, chasing after students and parents for various reasons.

Enter ePortfolios. I can honestly say that ePortfolios allows me to do what I became a teacher to do and what the state and school want me to do at the same time! It’s very nice if every student reads all the literature, thinks deeply about it, and writes about it using standardized grammar and mechanics. But what matters most to me is that she approaches the world with a curious mind, summons the courage to ask questions even when asking questions doesn’t come easily to her, finds ways to work with others, and is able to tell her unique story of what she does best in front of an audience.

Take the case of my student, Karina whose family are new Bostonians from Central America. As a ninth grader, Karina rarely spoke in class and when she did was barely audible. She was earning Ds and Cs in her classes and had an Individualized Education Program. Karina also was sweet and cooperative, and elusive and evasive, all at the same time. In the first four weeks, Karina produced nothing during drop-in hours at ePortfolios, but she did show up. In her planning process using the 21st century skills self-evaluation tool, Karina scored herself highest on creativity, yet could think of nothing to show her creativity. Then in week five, she brought in a poem written on her iPod while stargazing from a hammock on a summer visit to Central America. Karina had never shown the poem to anyone, and only reluctantly showed it to one of us and we recognized its beauty. This was how Karina found her voice.

We interviewed Karina to elicit an artist’s statement, cajoling what Karina had never shared with her teachers, peers, or family. Soon Karina found that she could create an original ePortfolio entry to demonstrate her creative expression by recording herself reading the poem aloud with Audacity and putting together a set of images using Animoto to go with it. She spent hours choosing exactly the right “sad violin music” as an accompaniment. After many recording sessions, Karina had an entry ready for our community ePortfolio presentation night. As a ninth grader Karina needed to be pushed and prodded to get up in front of an audience to show her work and was amazed at how her work impressed people. Tellingly, the theme Karina chose to talk about in her ePortfolio presentation was “It’s not what you see on the outside. . . there is more on the inside!” A year later, Karina stood with presence in front of scholars for an invited ePortfolio project presentation at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She blew a number of the gathered scholars away with her confidence as she showed her poem to the group and fielded questions from many who assumed she was “an exceptional student”--which she most certainly is! Just not in the traditional sense.

Witnessing this transformation was beyond gratifying. Web 2.0 tools and caring adults helped Karina to demonstrate gifts she had that had not fit the prescribed curriculum of high school classrooms. To see it in action and to witness the young woman Karina grew into in such a short period of time gave me goosebumps. By all accounts, Karina has just blossomed academically and continues to grow as a reader and writer. I have no doubt her experience in ePortfolios has impacted her ability to take a standardized test with confidence. It is truly gratifying to have both the goosebumps and the tangible evidence of a student’s improved critical thinking and writing skills as a result of ePortfolios.

Social studies teacher and ePortfolio leader Chris Glynn likes how ePortfolios help him know about students before they even arrive so he can find ways to engage them. He tells a story about changing and greatly improving a classroom assignment by using Web 2.0 tools as a result of an ePortfolio student’s request.

ePortfolios have radically changed how I approach my classroom practice and instruction. My teaching philosophy has always centered around the idea of preparing students for the many important and difficult decisions they will have to make in their lives and in the world around them. That is why I was attracted to the ePortfolio project when it was proposed at our School Improvement Council. What seemed to be at the center of this experiment was that students would be taking control of their education and making decisions about what they see as important representations of who they are and what they think they are good at. What I saw throughout the process of creating these ePortfolios was that students felt empowered about their own education, and could even affect they way their teachers would approach their teaching practices. Let me illustrate this with a couple of anecdotes.

One student, Vanessa, who was participating in the pilot phase of the ePortfolio project also was a member of one of my classes on American Government. In this class, we had been studying a unit on the media and public policy, and how the interplay between the media, the public, and the government works. I assigned them a media journaling project, in which they would record their daily impressions of media presentation (the how of the presentation, not necessarily the content of stories alone) by handwriting in a marble composition notebook. They would examine different types of media, analyze the characteristics and styles of news presentation, and hopefully draw some conclusions about what types of sources are reliable for learning something, which are more likely to be biased, and so on.

After one day of journaling, Vanessa came to me with a suggestion. She asked if it would be all right for her to design her own media blog online in which she would present her findings, which she could also link to her GoogleSite ePortfolio. Instantly, I said, “Of course!” Not only that, I took her idea to the entire class. The students thought her suggestion about the project was a great one, and all began creating their own blogs to analyze media and think and write about media literacy. I had students post their blog links to an already established secure school system. What resulted was a classroom full of students who were creating this living entity that was their own (and on public display to boot!). I began receiving emails from their parents writing about how excited they were to be looking at what their children were doing in class. This all came from Vanessa who, thanks to beginning her own ePortfolio, thought about better and more valuable ways to think about her school assignments. She truly was at the center of her own education, thinking critically and making decisions about what she thought would benefit not only herself, but her classmates as well.

Another memorable story about the way ePortfolios have changed how I think about teaching increased my ability to engage a student. At the beginning of this school year, while looking over my incoming student rosters, I recognized one name as a student who had participated in the ePortfolio project the previous year. The first thing I did after that was go straight to his ePortfolio to remind myself about who he was beyond name and year of graduation (the only things that appear on classroom rosters). I felt like I was at a significant advantage right from the beginning of the year because of being able to go through his ePortfolio before he walked into my room in September. Instead of spending a couple of months trying to get to know the student’s personality and learning styles, I was able to see how unbelievably artistic this student was by viewing the pictures he had uploaded and embedded into his Googlesite ePortfolio. Right off the bat, I was able to tailor assignments that I believed would engage him from the beginning of the course by allowing him to be artistic in his presentations and projects. Already, his performance in social studies has outshined his previous years’ performances. It seems to have given him confidence; the student has come out of his shell and seen his talents validated to the point where he is proud to show them.

Seeing this student’s progress immediately made me think about how valuable it would be to have an ePortfolio available for all incoming students. What a great thing it would be to have a sense of who your new students are and what they believe is important before the year even begins! By changing my approach, thanks to the student’s ePortfolio, I believe I was more able to engage him in history, and allow him to express the content in the way that helped him learn best.

Susan Olsen, a Spanish teacher, uses Web 2.0 tools to engage “at-risk” students.

I knew that students who were thriving in school had enough confidence in their own abilities to create engaging ePortfolios. My greatest curiosity about ePortfolios was in discovering their strengths and limitations for supporting “at-risk” students. What we found for these “at risk” students was that indeed some were able to dive quickly into the process and thrive. Other more tentative students like Karina, needed a tremendous amount of adult and career coaching before they were able to create an entry that “sparked” and inspired other entries and an impressive ePortfolio. Then, there were still a few “at risk” students who were unable to find a way to find a genuine “spark” from their experiences that lit up a path to full ePortfolio success. I believe that using some of the Web 2.0 tools we discovered in ePortfolios can help teachers engage “at risk” students in exciting classroom assignments that would serve as such “sparks.”

As a Spanish teacher, I have always been convinced of the usefulness of Web 2.0 tools in the World Languages classroom. Recently, inspired by the success of Web 2.0 tools in ePortfolio entries, I created an assignment in which students used Pixton, a software with which they create interactive cartoon strips. To my delight, an “at risk” student who had been very frustrated got engaged and not only finished the project first but also produced the best cartoon of the class. He put what he learned into the online interactive cartoon in a thoughtful and creative way. For my students, using Pixton was fun and easy, and they enjoyed the satisfyingly professional look and feel of their work. In a word, using Pixton was highly motivating in a new way. It sure beats doing grammar exercises on worksheets!

Click here for the <font color="#0000FF">Summary</font> on this project; click here for the <font color="#0000FF">Overview and key findings</font> on this project.