by Kelli Vogstad
It has almost been a year since I wrote my post called, Making Learning Visible through Digital Portfolios. We have continued our journey here at Cambridge Elementary deepening our understanding of pedagogical documentation and how we can best document student learning, so it is truly authentic, meaningful, and reflective of the learning that goes on in our classrooms. This year documenting student learning has become a regular and intentional process in our classroom. The children and I work together to choose, capture, and communicate evidence of learning with parents, but also, and perhaps most importantly, to improve student achievement.
I have seen first hand how and why our digital portfolios have become more than just a collection of activities and tasks; they have become tools of assessment that weave together the voices of the teacher, the student, and the parent. Using the Fresh Grade digital tool, student portfolios have become living documents as we work together discussing, planning, reflecting on the evidence of learning, and setting shared goals for future learning. I believe this process has been instrumental in moving our digital collections beyond glorified scrapbooks.
Throughout the year, we have thoughtfully combined formative assessment practices with our documentation, focusing on learning goals and intentions, taking stock of where students are in terms of these goals, and including assessments, both teacher and student assessments for learning. We have focused on both reflecting on and interpreting the documentation and making comments about where students are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there.
Our documentation of student learning includes three steps; we use three words that begin with the letter “C,” Choose, Capture, and Communicate:
In our first two years using the Fresh Grade digital tool, we focused on choosing and capturing tasks and activities that would show students’ progress, growth, and learning. We generally used four types of documentation which I have named and written about in a past post: Two of the Same, Showing the Knowing, Celebrating the Learning, and Explaining the Hows and Whys (Making Learning Visible Through Digital Portfolio).
This year, we continued to document in these four ways but have specifically focused on our third step: how we communicate the learning. Through modeling and conversations, sharing and using teacher and peer feedback, students have developed their skills of reflecting on and assessing their own learning. This process of reflecting on and assessing one’s own learning has made our documentation and communication of student learning more meaningful and powerful, not only improving students’ progress but also supporting teachers’ best practice.
I have also found, as students learn to reflect on and comment on their own learning, students have become more motivated and confident in their learning journey. Students begin to take ownership of their learning, becoming self-directed, self-assessors, and in doing so, continue to improve their learning. This year, I have also noticed that the more opportunities and experience students have, the more confidence and skill they gain to reflect on, make observations, and assess their learning. They have developed what I call a “language of reflection”. This reflective process also includes three steps as outlined below. The students use three words that all begin with the letter “N” to comment on their learning: Now, Not Yet, and Next.
To help students reflect on, assess, and make comments about their learning, I have, at times, given them additional sentence starters. With time and experience, I have noticed that students move naturally and independently to their own language of reflection that is individualized, meaningful, and personal as they share their observations, their thinking, and their feelings.
This year, one student coined another phrase, Yo’s, to help him remember what he needed to comment on; he called Yo’s, the yahoos, the oops, and the next steps that he will take in his learning. Some teachers help students by using other prompts such as “a star and a wish” (what I did well, and what I want to work on), or a rose, a thorn, and a bud (what was good, what was not so good, and what has potential and I will continue to work on). Whatever words and/or descriptors you and your students come up with is up to you; the goal is to provide opportunities for students to become reflective practitioners and to develop their understandings and skills so that they can confidently talk about their learning and describe the evidence that leads them to their assessments.
Ellie reflects on two writing samples, one from September and one from January (Two of the Same). She uploads her two photos and her comments to her portfolio:
Sydney makes a video of herself solving an equal-sided equation using the “Explain Everything App” (Showing the Knowing). She uploads her video as well as her reflective comments to her portfolio documenting her learning:
Marcus uploads a photo from his Literature Circle Journal and then adds a comment about his work (Celebrating the Learning):
And finally, three more examples of how students reflect on and comment about their learning across the curriculum:
Alicia reflects on one of her projects sharing a detailed description and her assessment of her creation.
Sebastian uploads the video of his group’s presentation and then shares a comment of the process, how he felt, and how he met some of the criteria.
Zach comments on his learning video he uploaded to his portfolio. His reflection is informative and detailed demonstrating his understanding of the learning intentions.
I am moved to comment on Alicia’s and Zach’s reflections. Both students end their writes with the words “practice makes perfect”. This idiom has become a familiar cliché which to many means that if you do something over and over again you will learn to do it very well. It’s true, experience can improve performance, but we also know that in order for practice to result in learning it must be meaningful, motivating, skillful, challenging, and rewarding. The work my students are doing is just that. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about doing your best and moving forward in your learning.
What has been most powerful this year has been hearing the children’s voices – what they think and feel about their learning. Through their own words, I can understand how students see and assess themselves in their learning. I can also see how their comments are becoming more sophisticated, detailed, and meaningful in their reflections. When one is able to reflect on his or hers own learning, it helps one become motivated and confident as a learner. Isn’t this what we want for our students?
A third voice that has become an important part of our journey is inviting the voices of our parents. Research has consistently pointed to the positive effects that parent involvement has on their child’s learning. Ann Davies, in her article “Getting Your Students Communicating About Their Learning”, Education Digest, Apr2001, writes about the importance of parents being involved in this process: “Research indicates that when parents are involved in talking about learning with their children, the children achieve more. The more parents are involved, the higher the student achievement levels.”
We have helped our parents share comments that go beyond, “Nice job!” and “Excellent!” Parents also share their observations, questions, and feelings about their children’s learning. Through parent meetings, three-way conferences, and emails, I have provided suggestions and examples for parents to help them use more “reflective language” in their comments to support their children in their learning. Parents have shared that they have appreciated a list of suggestions to guide them in making meaningful comments in their child’s portfolios that support their child’s learning.
Zach’s dad comments on Zach’s new Kidblog post, connecting with his ideas and then posing a question to move Zach’s thinking and learning. The parent has offered an invitation to move the learning deeper.
Jayden’s mom makes a home-school connection and then offers encouragement, to motivate the learner. The parent then poses a question to move Jayden’s reflection deeper, re: the workshop he participated in.
Ruby’s parents make a comment prizing and acknowledging her strengths and work ethic. They share a personal comment about how they are touched by their child’s work.
Adam’s mom and dad respond to Adam’s reflections, acknowledging and prizing his learning. The parents also add an observation, re: the learning demonstrated.
Parents also respond and make comments about what I share and communicate to them in Adam’s portfolio about his learning and progress.
I have always commented on my students’ learning making my thinking and feelings visible for parents to see and read about their children’s learning and progress. But, when children are given opportunities to make their thoughts and feelings visible, we can see the learning unfold through the eyes of the learner. This process of students and teachers making their thinking and feelings visible is what has made our portfolio documentation more authentic and meaningful in helping us communicate the learning. When we help students make their thinking visible, we not only provide a window into what students understand but also how they understand it.
Ron Ritchhart is his book, Making Thinking Visible, writes: “Uncovering students thinking gives us evidence of students insights as well as their misconceptions. We need to make student thinking visible because it provides us with the information teachers need to plan opportunities that will take students’ learning to the next level enable continued engagement with the ideas being explored. It is only when we understand what our students thinking, feeling, and attending to that we can use that knowledge to further
engage and support them in the process of understanding.”
Communicating student learning through digital portfolios has not only impacted students’ learning, but has directly influenced teachers’ practice. Teachers have had to reflect on and move towards planning and implementing activities and tasks that are worthy of documenting and reflect evidence of student learning and progress.
As my students and I continue to work together to document the learning that takes place in our classroom, we will have meaningful conversations about what it means to talk about and show their learning. We will create, talk about, describe, and reflect on the learning intentions, and the criteria for success. We will work and talk about the evidence that supports their observations about their learning and, together, we will gather information about the strengths and weakness of their performances in ways that inform all learners and all learning in the classroom.
This isn’t always an easy task. As I can often be heard to say, “It takes a lot of slow to grow.” Helping children talk about and reflect on their learning requires time and modeling. Children need to be immersed in good formative assessment practices if our portfolio collections are truly going to reflect student learning and progress. The interactions teachers create between sharing learning intentions and identifying clear assessment criteria is so important in helping children develop their confidence and skills in talking about what they have learned, need to still learn, and how they will do this. One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing teachers say, “They are too young; my primary children can’t do this.” Yes, they can! Even the youngest students in our school are talking about their learning. We want all of our students to recognize when they are learning and when they are not, and to be able to determine what to do to improve their learning. This is a tall order, but here at Cambridge Elementary, we are ready for the challenge.
This article was previously published in Teaching and Learning with Heart.
Kelli Vogstad and Antonio Vendramin are educators from Surrey, British Columbia. Kelli is the Vice Principal at Cambridge Elementary where she enrolls a class of primary-age students. She is a developmentalist, a curriculum maker, a kid watcher, and a lifelong learner. Follow her@KelliVogstad.