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Mirror, mirror on the wall….who is that learner I’ve come to be?

March 9, 2009

1st grade portfolio conferenceUnlike this week’s weather which went from 6 inches of snow to 60 degree temps in days, learning is a slow and steady process which sometimes eludes us.  In the classroom, teachers observe growth and change each day, but often seeing and assessing that progress when you are not there each day can be difficult.  I’m not simply talking about looking at scores or reading levels – but the deeper meaning of growth as a learner.  To better capture that image of growth over time, many schools use portfolios of student work which provide a mirror for the learner to evaluate her own growth and a more full reflection for adults to view the deep learning which transpires over time.

Children engage in analysis to appraise and compare, discriminate and distinguish just how their learning has evolved.  It also gives learners the opportunity to synthesize by assembling work, formulate explanation of their learning and the evaluate their growth.  It’s a time-consuming process, that requires collection of work, review and selection of specific pieces and time dedicated to both reflect on work and assemble the portfolio.

Some theoretical and pedagogical background on portfolios:

  • Portfolios emphasize the student’s role in constructing understanding and the teacher’s role in promoting understanding.
  • Portfolios also capitalize on students’ natural tendency to save work and become an effective way to get them to take a second look and think about how they could improve future work.
  • Research shows that students at all levels see assessment as something that is done to them on their classwork by someone else. Beyond correct answers, assigned letter grades, and grammatical or math errors, many students have little knowledge of what is involved in evaluating their classwork.
  • Portfolios can provide structure for involving students in developing and understanding criteria for good efforts, in coming to see the criteria as their own, and in applying the criteria to their own and other students’ work.
  • Research shows children benefit from an awareness of the processes and strategies involved in writing, solving a problem, researching a topic, analyzing information, or describing their own observations. Without instruction focused on the processes and strategies that underlie these types of work, most children will not learn them or will learn them only minimally. And without curriculum-specific experience in using these processes and strategies, even fewer students will carry them forward into new and appropriate contexts. Portfolios can serve as a vehicle for enhancing student awareness of these strategies for thinking about and producing work–both inside and beyond the classroom.

Over the past few weeks, our lower school children at St. Anne’s School worked to collect and select pieces of work for inclusion in their portfolios, with an eye on prize of leading the parent conference and sharing report cards.  This is truly a huge responsibility and a confidence booster.  When we send children the message that we trust in their ability to talk about their work, lead a conversation, and have ownership in their learning, they can and do rise to the occasion.  The process can be all-consuming – ranging from laughs and delight about how we’ve grown to remembering significant events or work to frustration over stuffing our work into clear plastic sleeves.  No matter what the assembly process is like, the finished product is a master piece to be shared and treasured.  Sure, there are those children who get nervous, but who among us does not get nervous at some point talking in front of others?  We sometimes see  rocking in chairs, sleeve chewing, hair tugging and hear tentative voices and nervous laughs, but as the half hour conference unfolds and the children see the positive responses, they generally relax and show their pride.  I always suggest a celebration afterward, usually involved a trip to the park or local ice cream shop. Leading  a meeting is arduous work!

I’ve attended portfolio conferences as a parent 8 times and as a teacher countless times.  Each conference is unique just as each child is, but each and every  one amazes me.  To observe a six-year-old take the lead in welcoming and greeting adults, explaining the agenda for the conference and then walk us through a handful of pages he selected is a sight to behold.  Children explain why they selected a page, how it shows what they’ve learned, what they would do differently now or how they learned to work with greater independence or depth.  When they are done, they turn to parents and say, “I am ready for questions and comments.”  Often, parents are speechless at this juncture, then pull themselves together to make comments ranging from “wow,  you did a great job!” to more reflective feedback such as, “I noticed you said it was hard to solve those math problems, but you also said you learned a lot.  Why do you think that is?”  Inevitably, one or two conferences bring tears to my eyes.  I know each child has been nudged with love and care, to do more than he thought he could and did so successfully.  Conference such as these bring a fresh perspective on each child and often rejuvenate us as we head into the last trimester of the year.  More importantly, they help children see the learner they’ve come to be and let them set goals.  Here’s to the hard work that happens every day in classrooms and to portfolios which offer the opportunity to see growth over the year!

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