#28daysofwriting Day 20: eportfolios & student centred learning

Last week, as I have already blogged about, I was fortunate to work with Dr Helen Barrett, the guru of portfolios.  Her wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm and excitement about the power of portfolios for deep learning and personal growth is infectious.  We had already decided that we would like to introduce portfolios with our Year 9 students as we implement a whole new cross-curricular junior programme.  As we are a GAFE school, it made sense to trial using Google Sites as our platform.

The English department have assumed responsibility for guiding the students as they create their sites.  I started off with my class asking them what they thought a portfolio was.

  • A place to put their best work
  • A folder with writing in
  • Somewhere to store paintings

I asked them where they thought the word “portfolio” came from and gave them 2 minutes to find out.  Google gave them an answer but did they really understand it?

dictionary definition of the word portfolio

No!  But are these definitions of “portfolio” what we mean in education?  Well, as Helen Barrett says, the purpose of a portfolio is many things to many people.  And as technology has developed so has the function, purpose and meaning of a portfolio.

The girls then looked to find out where the word “portfolio” came from.

the origins of the word "Portfolio"

But were we any further forwards?  Most of them had created portfolios of “best work” at Primary School, they had also “led” student parent conferences at Intermediate school where they explained to their parents, under the guidance of their teachers, what they had been learning.  So they had some understanding of what a portfolio might mean for them in terms of their learning.

To make it meaningful to them we really needed to explore what they could use a portfolio for, what it would mean for them, how they could have ownership of it.  So I asked them to brainstorm ideas of what they could put in a portfolio of their learning.

mind map showing what students considered were important components of a portfolio

Interestingly, they came up with the same things that Helen Barrett had suggested could be incorporated into a portfolio.  I started them off with the idea of a “Splash” page but after that it was all them.

We talked about the idea that their portfolio should be all about them, that they could choose what they put there and who they shared it with.  Although we also talked about how it may be helpful for their teachers and their parents if they felt they could share it with them for them to have an insight into what they were learning and how their learning identities were developing.

I think we have made a positive start.  The students in my class were very excited about creating their space.  They loved being able to make their sites their own by creating their own themes and colours and adding photos and quotes.  In the first few weeks of term we had created our “Mihi” and presented them to the class.  They were very keen to embed them into their “Splash” page.

I think, though, that we have only just started in our journey of portfolios and our challenge is going to be working out who has ownership of them and maintaining a sense of excitement about them.  I am convinced, after talking with Helen, that if they are to be meaningful for our students, if they are to really be a way of making their learning visible, and a way of expressing their identity, then we have to let them have total ownership of them.  We must not hijack them and make them a tool of assessment.  One of the questions I was asked was, “Will we get marked on what we put in our portfolios?”.  My answer was unequivocal, but I am not so sure about some of my colleagues.  I said that some of the work they may choose to put in the “showcase” part of their portfolio might have been graded and reported on, but the portfolio itself was theirs.  It is their journey, their learning, their identity.

It is clear that, increasingly, employers and universities will be looking more at a person’s ability to reflect on their learning, how the experiences they have had affect the way that they learn and the decisions they make, and the direction they go in rather than the qualifications they achieve.  I believe we have to encourage good practice and also model it as professionals.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has used portfolios in secondary schools as to how they have worked and whether students have continued with them as they have moved through the school.

#28daysofwriting Day 10: Digital Story Telling

Yesterday, I participated in a seminar at the University of Waikato as part of the annual Wcelfest on digital portfolios with the inimitable Helen Barrett, guru, grandmother and strong proponent of eportfolios.

She has been exploring portfolios and eportfolios for the last 30 years and is convincing in her arguments for their benefits for helping learners see how far they have come and where they need to go.

But she also talked about the power of digital story telling for finding people’s passions, for linking their past with their present and their futures.

As people select artefacts of their learning and their lives they build and realise their own identities.  She showed us a digital story made by a young Native Indian boy from a Reservation in the US in which he talked about who he was, where he came from, what his heritage was.  Sadly, he ended with the comment that his culture was dying, all that was left was the Reservation.  A few of his race holding on to their heritage, maybe not too late to take their stories, their songs, their language and their traditions forward into the future.

It made me think about the “mihi” that Maori use to tell about their heritage and whakapapa.

Our theme for this term for our Juniors is Globalisation.  As part of that, we are looking at identity, at language, at who we are and where we come from.  My students this week have been presenting their “mihi” and so I told mine to model how to do it.   I am not a Kiwi, I am not Maori.  I am a pakeha an “off comed’un”.  In my first few months in NZ I joined a Maori culture class to learn more about the land in which I had chosen to live.  Our tutor told us about how important that sense of knowing where you have come from is for Maori.  What your genealogy is, what elements of the land have shaped who you are and how you think and which ancestors have been influential for your thoughts and beliefs.

As part of that class we explored our whakapapa, and we wrote our own mihi.  I had to think a lot about what my connections were with where I came from.  Strangely, despite being born and brought up in England I have never really felt a strong connection with England.  I feel more connected to the Celts; the Scots and the Irish and even the French!  Although I feel very strongly that I am a Yorkshire lass!

Anyway, I am starting to ramble and 28 minutes is almost up!  So here is my digital story, my mihi. (apologies for any grammatical or linguistic errors)

Registered Teacher Criteria – a crisis of our time?

After four years teaching in NZ I am still getting my head around Registered Teacher Criteria – these are a set of hoops that every teacher in NZ has to jump through every three years to prove that they are teaching effectively and to have their teacher’s licence renewed for a further 3 years. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it is essential that as a profession we are accountable, that we demonstrate that we are continuing to develop, improve and update our skills.

At a recent conference I went to Eric Frangenheim used a memorable and very pertinent illustration by way of giving us an argument to encourage our more reluctant colleagues to embrace change. Imagine if you went to the dentist and you were faced with a surgery full of equipment from 20 years ago, and a surgeon who used techniques from 20 years ago – what would you think? Would you turn around and walk out and go and find a dentist with more up to date equipment? Would you think, well it doesn’t matter, it worked then so it’ll be fine now? I’m guessing that you would be pretty shocked and would soon be out of the door looking for a more forward thinking dentist who was keen to embrace new ideas for the benefit of his patients. Nobody is saying that “old-fashioned” techniques don’t work any more, they are just saying that they can be embedded and blended with new ideas and we can make use of new technology to enhance those techniques in the classroom just as we would expect dentists, doctors, vets…. to do.
As with many professions there is a fee to pay for the privilege of proving our competence. Whether you believe that we should have to pay or not is another issue.  Fortunately, the school where I teach reimburses us our registration fees, but I know that some don’t. It is also quite a complicated process; on the face of it, it would seem to be common sense, you build a portfolio of evidence of how you embed the 12 criteria into your teaching programme and your professional development. They are good, well-grounded criteria; everything, in fact, that most teachers strive to incorporate into their teaching. You have three years to do this and you can concentrate on different criteria at different times if you want to although most of them are over-arching. It should be stuff that we are doing all the time as effective teachers so there shouldn’t be any extra work, should there? In essence there isn’t, because most teachers I know are keen to improve their skills, update their knowledge and their practice, do their best for their students, the school community and develop personally and professionally.
However, that is not the nub of the issue – the crisis comes in with the whole “portfolio of evidence” part of it. In practice, when as teachers, do we have time to sit down and collate the evidence of how we work, some of which is pretty nebulous and subjective? Many of us reflect on our lessons subconsciously; that didn’t work with that class so I’ll try it another way next time, or that worked well, I’ll mentally file that and use it again; that class was a bit restless today, what was I doing wrong or was it just the end of the day/week/term?; I must remember to be aware that they come to me after Drama/Art/Maths….and that has an impact on their attitude. What we have to get into the habit of doing is actually recording those thoughts somehow so that we can prove that we are being reflective in our practice. That is the hard part, that is the part that we find difficult to find time for, that is the part to which we (well, some) are resistant.
So, how can we make that process as painless as possible and as easy for teachers to manage in the limited time they have available? Well, that depends on the individual and how they work. In my experience, there will be teachers who complain whatever they are asked to do; it is human nature – there is a percentage of the population in any walk of life who will complain and I am sure you have all come across them! They usually do what they have to in the end but just make a lot of noise about it on the way! There will be others who just get on with it in their own way; that way might be efficient use of their time or it might not. There will be others who actively seek new or different or more effective ways of recording their reflections and evidence in order to save time and make their lives easier. The latter are those who need little help or advice, the former need to be cajoled and encouraged to find effective ways of working – and maybe some of them have to be dragged kicking and screaming! The ones in the middle are the ones that usually welcome a helping hand; they are keen to learn new methods to document evidence to help them save time.

However, what seems to be causing a lot of stress just now is the emphasis on digital portfolios and the push in schools to be 21st century teachers and use the tools of the 21st century. We are being encouraged to create portfolios for our students for their NCEA coursework (or to get them to create their own and manage them!) but many of us do not use them ourselves. How can we possibly teach or expect students to do something we have no knowledge of ourselves? But when do we have time to experiment, to try new things out, to reflect, to learn how to do things, to change our outlook and our perspective on the way we have always done things? We snatch the odd hour here and there, are enthused by a lecture or something we read or are shown and then the next moment we are swamped by the next coursework deadline, a Parents’ Evening, reports to write, marking, lessons to plan, lessons to teach, schemes of work to write, parents to email/phone, staff meetings, HoD meetings, and the enthusiasm is gone. There is little time to acquire new skills and even less for consolidation of what we have learned…and then we are asked to jump through some more hoops, tick some more boxes, prove that we are good teachers, demonstrate that we are striving to develop our practice.
I don’t have definitive answer, sorry! I am lucky in as much as I don’t have a full time teaching load, so I have fewer classes that need to be reflected on! However, I am pretty much full on in the other areas of my work so my time is also precious, but part of my role and my time allowance is to explore the options that technology has to offer teachers by way of enhancing their classroom pedagogy and assisting them in their professional development. I have the pleasure of working alongside them and helping them and I have the luxury of being able to use some of that time allowance “experimenting” (which is how I have time to sit here and write this blog!).
I have several blogs on different sites with much the same content on them so that I can see how different platforms work and advise my colleagues as to which they might prefer. Our school is pretty much Microsoft driven so I have been using Onenote for the last few years to plan my lessons, gradually refining the way that I plan by linking documents, videos, sound files and websites to my lesson plans. I keep the previous year’s lesson plans and often go back to them to see where I was up to at the same point the previous year with a year group and to remind myself what activities I did. I found that although that record was there, I couldn’t always remember whether it had worked well or whether I had run out of time. So this year, driven by those thoughts and the new improved RTC system I started to also include a review of each lesson and how it had gone (when appropriate). I have found it quite a cathartic exercise, and also extremely helpful for my planning. It has really made me think about the way I teach the classes that I have and how I can adapt my methods and introduce new ideas. As I said earlier in the post – as teachers we do this subconsciously but actually writing it down made me think so much more deeply.
Since then I have discovered Springpad; Springpad is a web based note taking tool which is also available as an app on my Android phone (I think it is also available for iphones/i-pod touches). I don’t have Office on my home computer so couldn’t use Onenote. I tried the web-based version of Onenote and couldn’t get it to work properly on my home computer – probably my incompetence but I just found it too complicated so googled for an open alternative and after a little bit of research of the myriad suggestions found that Springpad suited me best. I love it! Now I have notes for all my classes, as well as for lots of other things as well, I use it for reviewing lessons, making notes in meetings and saving docs.

But what has all this to do with Registered Teacher Criteria, teachers’ lack of time, portfolios? Well I think it is a pretty good way of easily collecting evidence for your RTC portfolio. Think about it – you can plan your lessons on it, you can review them, you can add the worksheets you use in the lesson, you can add your schemes of work, you can take photos, videos and record sound of your class in action (even easier if you use the mobile app as you can do it directly from your phone and it automatically attaches the photos/videos/recordings to the note of that lesson plan), you can add your markbook and assessments and even student reports. All in one place. Just need to change some mindsets now….

Update: October 2016 – Springpad ceased to exist a couple of years ago so I exported all the information into Evernote.  The school I was working in then, like many has moved to G Suite so documenting evidence is now even easier!!