Anchoring Online Portfolios

When I was an elementary classroom teacher, my students built elaborate portfolios to document their thinking and progress. As a specialist, I carry components of this into my practice — intervention groups document and reflect on their learning regularly — but it feels truncated and telescoped.

Last year, I taught a daily section of fourth graders, and this year I am looping with them to 5th. It is usual for me to be the “instructor on record” now; I am more likely to be found coaching, co-teaching, or teaching intervention groups. It seemed like the perfect time to resurrect my work on student portfolios — with new, shinier technology than we had in 2010!

Framing the Portfolios

The selection of artifacts for a portfolio communicates the values driving the classroom. For this particular group, I wanted to focus less on content — a strength for these high achievers — and more on the mathematical practices. Just as I was planning the framework for my students’ portfolios, I stumbled upon Chrissy Newell’s tweet about “journal check-ins.”

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I made a google doc that listed each of the six prompts and offered a sentence frame to start reflection.

Our categories:

  1. Shows some of your best mathematical thinking
  2. Justified your thinking
  3. Learned from a mistake
  4. Used a tool or model
  5. Made a connection
  6. Discovered another strategy

Sample Portfolios

The following three portfolio pages are fairly standard and representative of the group’s work.  This means that there are some spelling/grammatical errors, some very cursory reflections (none were as detailed as I had modeled/hoped for), and some jarring graphic design choices. (Some nine-year-olds like flashing lights!)

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Sample #1: Ryan’s Fraction Work


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Sample #2: Gabi’s Number Theory Work


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Sample #3: Charlotte’s Data & Statistics Work




Planning for Technology Access

My last year in the general ed classroom, I had every student keep personal blogs. Students published their polished pieces from writer’s workshop, reflections from some learning experiences, and commented on one another’s writing.* I watched reluctant writers become avid bloggers, requesting to stay in during recess to type new posts or comment on their friend’s. Many of these kids did not have ready computer access at home.

With this group, I wanted to devote some class time to portfolio work, but ultimately some portfolio work became homework. I am also fortunate that most of my students have reliable computer access at home. I e-mailed all parents about this plan before implementing it with students, to make certain it would be supported and not come into conflict with parent use of technology or family screen time rules.

To make our portfolios, we used:

  • GoogleSites, to make an publish our portfolios as websites
  • Google Drive, to organize and store work samples
  • Google Classroom, to help keep track of some assignments
  • Genius Scan+ app, to scan in work quickly, and upload it to google drive

Implementing our Portfolio Framework

Before taking an end of unit assessment, we spend 15-20 minutes identifying portfolio artifacts that address at least 3 of the categories. Students mark their artifacts with sticky notes so that we can take pictures. They also record a separate sticky with a list of all their chosen artifacts — at least 4 per unit — to keep track of their selections.

Then, students take the end-of-unit assessment for the rest of the block. As they finish, they start photographing their work using the Genius Scan+ app. The app quickly scans their documents for conversion to PDF or JPEG format, and has the ability to upload straight to google drive. Each student has a google drive folder to store all of their work for the year, organized by unit, that they also share with me.

What’s Working

Check_mark_23x20_02.svg.png Students are increasingly independent with using the technology.

When we first started the portfolios last year, I felt like I had launched myself into a nightmare. I had to spend time training them on how to use google sites — to add a new page for each unit, to embed documents and images, to add text spaces, etc. Questions were coming at me at a million miles per hour, and it was difficult to keep up. None of the students had any previous experience with this before. We lost two or three days.

Now, after using the portfolio framework for a full year, students are much more confident with the technology. Students are able to do it during some choice blocks (e.g. “independent study”) or even for homework. The quality of the reflective writing when it’s not done with a teacher present, but the tech pieces are all there!

Check_mark_23x20_02.svg.png Students are starting to think about the artifact categories over the course of the unit — as class values!

They know that these portfolio artifacts are not just about the product of the portfolios, but guiding principals for our class. We value justifying our thinking, and students may, in part, value it because it’s something they get to show off at the end of our unit.

Either way, I do love hearing them praise one another for justifying their thinking well, or learning from a mistake, or making a strong connection… which is often followed by “this would be a great artifact for your portfolio!”

Check_mark_23x20_02.svg.png Students and I craft goals together based on the artifact categories.

“Hmm, I notice you hadn’t chosen a piece for ‘justify your thinking’ in a while. Why do you think that is? Is mathematical communication something we should focus on in the next unit?”

“Look at your work samples for ‘learning from a mistake’ over the last three units. You’ve grown so much! What do you notice?”

When having such abstract conversations as goals about math practices and habits of mind, it helps to have an anchor — in this case, the portfolio. We have evidence to examine together. We have something to talk about.

Check_mark_23x20_02.svg.png We shared portfolios during the last week of class to frame two journeys: the story of the mathematics over the course of the year, and the story of the mathematician over the course of the year.

The story of the mathematics: what were the biggest ideas from each unit? How did our mathematical ideas and understandings build over our units of study? What was important about studying ratios before studying percentages? What would have happened if we had reversed them? (Coherence of the curriculum drives this conversation.)

The story of the mathematician: how did the student develop over the year? What progress was made in terms of mathematical thinking, but also in terms of mathematical communication and reasoning? Where are we now, as mathematicians? Where do we want to go?

We used the last two days of class to tell these stories. I think the students would unanimously say that the most fun part was not the telling of the story, but the nostalgic remembrance of some of our old investigations. “Oh, the 1000 lockers problem! The peaches problem! Hey, Ryan, remember when we…”

The kids know best: the most fun part of math is in the doing

What Still Needs Work and Thought

thoughtbubbleIt still takes a long time to finish the portfolio page for a unit.

I wonder if I can cut down… Is there something that we can front load throughout the unit? Should we do fewer artifacts?

thoughtbubbleStudent reflections for each artifact still feel sparse.

I think to improve these would require some more individualized feedback and/or (and!) time spent in class analyzing thoughtful reflections. Honestly, the pages take long enough to make that I haven’t made this a priority yet.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about connecting instructional routines to a lesson, and Charlotte Sharpe (@getting_sharper) wisely wrote that she first focuses on the mechanics of the routine with her preservice teachers before launching into some of the nuances I wrote about. This applies here, too. It was very important for the students and I to have a good grip on the mechanics of the portfolios before working on improving the content. Thankfully, the mechanics of the portfolios includes the categories for the artifacts., so after mastering a few basic things about google sites we were able to center our conversation on selection and mathematical values.

thoughtbubbleAre these the categories we want?

I haven’t revisited our categories since we launched this portfolio project. One girl asked if we could add a 7th possible category: “finding a pattern.” We talked as a class as to whether sometimes finding a pattern could fit into one of the reestablished artifact categories. Students thought it might be about making a connection, or discovering another strategy…

That said, “being a pattern seeker” is one of the “Habits of Mind” outlined by Al Cuoco, E. Paul Goldenberg, and Judy Mark from the EDC. (Read a great article about using these habits as an organizing principle for curriculum on the PROMYS website!) These authors outlined:

Students should be…

  • Pattern sniffers
  • Experimenters
  • Describers
  • Tinkerers
  • Visualizers
  • Conjecturers
  • Guessers

(The article also highlights some habits of mind mathematicians may demonstrate.)

The article frames these habits as an organizing principle for curriculum, so shouldn’t think also work as an organizing principle for our portfolios? I selected a list based on the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, but there are many other options! I could have even used the chapter titles from Tracy Zager’s Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You Had.

Moving Forward

We just started our second unit of the year, Introduction to Proportional Relationships. Students are finishing up their portfolios for Unit 1 (Scale Drawings) on their own time now. What small changes should I make for this unit? …for the rest of the year?

*An old classroom blog! Most of the interesting entries are locked/marked private, but some of the public posts live on at .  They’re… humbling. The entry that will yield the biggest laughs is probably our Album Release. You mean your fourth grade teacher did not have you write and record math songs to karaoke tracks? Also: this was 2009, and well before the dawn of google apps for education.

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