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Creating Active Student Portfolios

by Gini Cunningham

posted in Reference and Education

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A collection of writing over time helps students (or anyone) recognize growth. When teachers grade papers and return them so that students can toss them and then you collect more and do the same, the opportunity to compare growth and evaluate advancement disappears. Portfolios furnish a quick solution. Some teachers prefer a complicated process that includes massive collections, sorting, shuffling, and much time. Time is a commodity that teachers do not have in excess so I will offer my streamlined approach. Purchase or order manila folders in a variety of bright colors
Why would colored folders matter? The folders are great because papers slip in and out and are easily re-ordered. Since you store them in your classroom in a special file drawer, they remain as a collection and not scattered about a desk or locker. Why colored folders? After years of experience and cover comparison I have found that when folders are colored, students treat them in a special way. They write their names on them and maybe add a pleasant design or two, but for unknown reasons the folders are treasured. When I used the tan colored folders students marked on them with scribbles and smeary messes with no treasuring evident. I never pinpointed a specific motive as to why, but it proved to be true after many trial runs. Bright colors work.
Start with a Table of Contents that is double or triple spaced. As students add papers they rank them from the best to least best. Students simply "squeeze in" the title of the new paper. If they have to rewrite the Table of Contents every time they adjust the order, they may decide to not adjust the order at all. The contents are student selected. While the teacher can make recommendations and a high mark may prompt a student to add it to the portfolio, students must OWN the contents.
Every paper needs a title. This simplifies the creation of the Table of Contents. This also is what authors do. I encourage students to use a title page for each paper as well. This dresses it up and leaves a space for teacher comments and peer feedback on the final draft. I have them stack this: title page, final draft, rough draft(s). Every paper needs a date. Tracking progress over time is impossible if there is no note as to when it was written. It is also interesting to analyze why an excellent paper appeared in December and then observe the writing cliff of January through March. What is happening in the student's writing life or your instruction?
I encourage students are encouraged to add papers from other subjects as well. If a student struggles with writing but shines in mathematics, of course, s/he wants to showcase excellence in other areas. This is also enlightening background information for the teacher. At the end of the school year, some of the papers may go home since with your prolific writers the portfolio will be an inch or two thick. 3-5 pieces of excellence remain in the folder to be passed to the teacher in the next grade level. The new teacher hopefully continues the practice and this repeats right up to graduation when a fantastic compilation of writing has been created.
Add pieces of work every 1-3 weeks so that the portfolio is always a work in progress. Occasionally have students write about their best/favorite piece explaining why they like it and why they prefer it to another. This metacognitive process advances critical thinking skills.
Remember that the portfolios are private between you and each student and the contents must not be shared without the permission of the student. Allow students access to their portfolios as needed. Just be sure that there is a checkout procedure so that the portfolios are returned. Periodically build in class time so that students can peruse, reread, and enjoy their work. Their appreciation of writing and their efforts will grow. Encourage other subject area teachers to participate in student-generated portfolios. This makes for a marvelous Portfolio Night event.
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