It was 5:30 on finals day. Most students left the building at noon, giving teachers a chance to work on their grades before the weekend or prepare for the new classes starting on Monday. They had three hours; the possible uses for their time were endless. I was in the library’s prehistoric computer lab with a roomful of students who were still writing, revising, and polishing work for their portfolios.
Lloyd had walked out of the lab and into the adjoining library. At 5:30 college basketball comes on cable. Lloyd slid onto the library table, obviously through with portfolios for the day. “Hey, Linda, why do we have to write these evaluations anyway? You’ve got all my work in there. You’re the teacher. Just read my work and give it a grade. Why do Ihave to evaluate it?”
His eyes moved back to the TV where Arizona was playing UCLA.
I looked over at him. Somehow this year he’d moved from his one or two line papers without punctuation to essays, scrappy and sometimes not quite full enough to be called “done,” but a big improvement over last year’s meager output. He wasn’t ready for college writing yet, and our class was ending.
“Do you watch videos after your basketball games?” I asked, knowing that the coach always scheduled mandatory post-game reviews.
“Yeah, every day after our game we got to go watch those videos,” he answered without taking his eyes off Damon Stoudamire.
“Why do you think Coach Harris makes you watch your game after you already played it? Couldn’t he just tell you what you did?”
“Because then we can see our mistakes — and what plays we’re running that work.
We look at videos of teams we’re going to play, too, so we can see what kind of offense and defense they’ve got. We can see who to match our players up with. We learn their plays so we can outwit them at the basket.” He shifted on the table, still not seeing how his writing portfolio had anything to do with post-game videos. I turned off the TV and we sat and made comparisons between basketball videos and writing portfolios. With Lloyd it was basketball, with Harold it was wrestling, with Tawni and Aaron it was dance. The connection between teaching, practicing, performing, reviewing, and critiquing is a common thread between disciplines. It also gives me a way to connect the student’s passion with learning to evaluate their own writing.
I’ve had students make portfolios for years. When I first started keeping writing folders, I called them portfolios, but they were really glorified work folders where students stored everything from false starts and ugly “I didn’t want to write that poem anyway” fragments along with polished pieces. Now I’ve come to see portfolios as places where students keep the journey of their writing, but also as places where they analyze both their work and their habits, so they can take what they know and apply it to the next piece that comes along — just as my basketball players view their videos to improve their next game.
While most students enjoy rummaging through their folders and don’t mind tossing their work from one folder to another, they resist reflection. Lloyd’s comment that I’m the teacher therefore I should just do the evaluation is common. Most students aren’t accustomed to standing back from their work and assessing it. The routine has been: write it, turn it in, the teacher grades it, get it back. End of cycle. When the teacher evaluates a piece, it takes an essential part of the learning experience away from the student and gives the act of judgment and power to the teacher. Ultimately, students learn a great deal more about their writing if they learn to “watch the post-game video” and critique their “play.” But it’s hard to get them to that point.
Portfolios are hot items in the educational marketplace today. They abound in educational catalogues, teaching and assessment journals, and conference book fairs. Vermont has a state-wide portfolio assessment which other states are scoping out as “authentic assessment” becomes the new pathway to tie “workplace skills” to classroom outcomes.
As a classroom teacher and former director of the Portland Writing Project, I’m somewhat skeptical of legislators and school bureaucrats mandating portfolios.
The ones I’ve seen designed for English classrooms too often dictate types of writing students must include and then provide ways to score them so that once again student achievement can be reduced to a single digit number — easily compared across cities, states, and the nation.
I’m not interested in reducing my students to a single digit. I am concerned about their growth in writing and thinking. Frankly, I’ve never found district or state reading and writing scores to be reliable or useful in my classroom practice. I use portfolios to shape my instruction for individual students, but I also see portfolios as a tool to move students from object to subject in their education. For a critical teacher, portfolios are an evaluation method that pushes students to participate with their teacher in their assessment rather than being judged by teacher-as-outside-authority.
But let me be clear, I’m not a hands-off kind of teacher. Some of my colleagues believe the portfolio belongs to the student; therefore the student should be allowed complete freedom to select and control the content. I disagree. There are places and times when students have control; for example, at the end of my class, students make a book of their writing where they can choose all of the pieces. Jessica, a terrific poet, put poetry and pictures in her book; Aaron made his a collection of fiction writing. With portfolios, I try to establish and negotiate higher expectations. I’m setting the standards. Each grading period in each class, I determine the kinds of writing that students must include in their portfolio. This term in Literature and U.S. History, they need a literary analysis, a historical fiction piece, and a research paper on either a resistance movement or a person who worked for change. Students may also include poetry, interior monologues, film critiques that we’ve worked on, but unless
they complete satisfactory drafts of the requirements, they don’t pass. I provide lots of work time, models and demonstrations. These tasks are not merely assigned; they are taught. I spend two to three afternoons a week in the computer lab after school working with students who either need extra help or who want more work time.
Partly, my insistence on variety and standards comes from real world concerns: I’m at the high-stakes end of education; I work mostly with juniors and seniors.
Tyrone, a thoughtful rapper, would like to write every assignment — from museum critique to historical fiction — as a rap. But if I allowed that, I wouldn’t be providing him a rigorous education. He already knows how to write raps. He doesn’t know how to write essays. As more colleges move toward portfolios as entrance criteria rather than SATs, I want my students, who tend to score poorly on these tests, to be able to demonstrate their range. Beyond the college connection I want to push students to think more deeply about the world, to make connections in their essays between literature and life in their neighborhood. I don’t want just pretty words and adept dialogue, I want searing analysis. My students walk out the school door into a social emergency. They are in the center of it. I believe that writing is a basic skill that will help them both understand that emergency and work to change it.
The portfolio in my classroom fulfills several duties: It showcases students’ work in a variety of genres; it demonstrates their journey as writers — from early to polished drafts as well as stumbling first attempts at poetry, fiction, and essay to later, more knowledgeable pieces. And it also provides a space for students and teacher to reflect on the change and growth in writing and thinking as well as pointing out a trajectory for future work.
Over the years, I’ve made some discoveries and fine tuned my approach to portfolios. Some terms I’d end up with amazing evaluations — where students had obviously internalized discussions on craft and content; other terms, the analysis was thin — even when I could see remarkable changes in students’ writing. Sometimes I knew I’d crammed too much work in at the end of the term; other times, it was obvious that the portfolio prompts were too meticulous or too broad, and still other times, it was clear that my teaching was off target. Although I’m still struggling with the evaluation process, as well as the teaching process that precedes it, I’ve learned some lessons along the way:
Time Is Important
I’ve discovered students need enough time between their entry into the class and the analysis of their writing to see change or growth. Often the portfolio evaluation written after the first nine weeks of class is weak. Students are just finding the “basket,” learning to dribble. I’m still working at moving them from perfunctory for-the- teacher writing to committed writing, from all rhyming poetry to free verse, from diatribes to essays with support; but after nine weeks, the pathway has not been traveled often enough to see it clearly.
However, it’s important to begin the process, so they are critiquing their own work. Students also need to begin noting how they work, what they do to move out of a “block,” how to get a first draft finished. In short, they need to become critics of their own learning.
I used to jump into the writing evaluation at the end of the quarter without giving students time to reread their pieces. Now I devote a 90 minute class period for students to transfer papers from their work folder to their writing portfolio. Before they begin, I bring in one of my portfolios and talk about pieces I chose to put in and why. Some are samples of my best writing, others are pieces I want to work on, while some show how much my writing has improved. I show them all the drafts of my pieces — including the false starts and comments from my writing friends. I want them to see that most people do not create a perfect draft the first time. This is a noisy 90 minutes as students read and talk about their writing (mostly, but not always, on task). It’s when I hear students say, “I didn’t realize how much work I completed.” Or “Look, I didn’t even know how to line my poetry out.” And sometimes, “I wrote better pieces last year.” I learned that if I expect a thorough analysis of their writing, then I need to give that signal by weighing the evaluation as heavily as I do a major writing assignment. I need to give models, criteria, set standards, and give them adequate time to complete the task.
I also need to practice patience. It takes as much time to teach students how to think about and write a reflection on their writing as it takes to teach them how to write a literary or historical analysis. Older students with more experience tend to write better analyses than younger, less experienced writers. I have to praise the effort and push them to the next level.
Models & Prompts for Portfolio Reflection
When I first started asking students to critique or examine their own writing, I underestimated their need for models of self-reflection. I expected them to “do it” without knowing what they were doing. Bobby Harris, Jefferson’s basketball coach, wouldn’t spend two hours watching a game video without telling his players what to look for — or developing the criteria together. “What is self-reflection?” Johnny asked, “What do you mean what did I learn from my writing?” Amber didn’t understand how to use examples from her work for support. Students need to see what I want.
They need models of past portfolio evaluations so they can gain a sense of how to look at their writing. Just as they needed examples of former student essays or historical critiques so they could see what embedded and block quotes looked like in a text.
I found that students took their own writing more seriously after they listened to conversations by writers about writing. For this reason, I read selections from published writers, like William Stafford, Tess Gallagher, Donald Murray, and Toni Morrison writing about their writing.
Students are fascinated, for example, to discover that the idea for Morrison’s novel, Beloved, came from an old news article explaining how a woman killed her children because she didn’t want them to grow up in slavery.
I also save samples from previous years. I provide guidelines to get students started, but leave them loose enough so that students have room to follow their passion.
Inexperienced writers sometimes take the model and copy it exactly, substituting examples from their writing, but using the knowledge of the model. They are not really thinking deeply — they are mimicking. I’ve come to see this as a stage in their evolution. Some students like more specific prompts, while others find them stifling — so I vary them and allow them choice.
When a student says, he/she can’t get excited about this (or any) assignment, I say, “Find your passion.” They know they have to write an evaluation of their work. Renesa, for example, couldn’t put pen to paper until I showed her an article by a local columnist on writing. She wrote her evaluation as an advice column for writers, typed it in newspaper format — including her picture and examples from her writing to prove her point. Frank wrote his as a letter to my future students telling them what they could expect to learn about writing, then giving examples from his own writing.
Some terms, I ask my class to focus their evaluation on one genre — essay or fiction, perhaps. Using colored pencils or highlighters, they have to identify types of evidence, introduction styles, block and embedded quotes, and they must analyze their content and conclusion in essays. In fiction, they have to point out dialogue, blocking, imagery, flashback, interior monologues. Aaron discovered that he rarely used dialogue. Shameica realized that she didn’t use blocking and wondered if that was why people got confused about who was speaking in her story. Tony saw that he didn’t use evidence from Andrew Jackson’s speech on the Cherokee removal; in his critique, he had no quotes to support his position that Jackson was a “racist pig.” The act of coloring their drafts made the holes concrete.
Sometimes I ask students to draw a picture or write a poem that describes themselves as a writer and then write a paragraph explaining the image for me. Gabriella drew a sculptor with a block of clay. She wrote: “I am the potter with clay, molding, shaping, by taking off pieces and discarding pieces until I have a piece of art.” Jim wrote that he was a chef and his writing is dough that he pinches and pulls into just the right shape. Licy drew a jar full of candy to describe herself as a contributor to the class: “My writings and contributions are like the taste of candy itself — some sweet, some sour. Like melting bits of chocolate, I melt cultural information to teach the class something about Mexicans. Like the wrinkled wrapper, I make a sound so everyone knows I am aware. I am here.”
One obvious lesson I learned was that students should share their insights with the class. At the beginning of the new term, students showed their metaphors and drawings. These become conversation starters about the craft of writing. As students talked about their drawings or poems, they also shared their roadblocks and their detours. Johanna was a planner who ran into difficulty because her drafts never went as she predicted. The information didn’t lay itself as neatly as she initially hoped it would. Lisa needed to doodle to get started. Anthony said that seeing all of my drafts freed him to get started because he knew he didn’t have to get it right the first time. Peter taught some classmates his method of outlining that was flexible enough to allow for surprises, but gave his piece “river banks” to contain the flow. The point of our class discussion wasn’t to make students all work the same way through a piece of writing, rather it was to encourage them to find alternative strategies so if they aren’t successful they can try someone else’s for a spell to see if it helps them.
Portfolios are one small part of the total classroom, but an important part because it’s where I measure not only students’ success and growth, but my own as well. I can lay the foundation of expectations at the beginning of the grading period and help students meet those criteria. The compiled work and evaluation of it allow both student and teacher to reflect on what worked, on our mistakes, and on what we can do better next time. Perhaps because evaluations give us time to pause and look back, they also rehearse us for our next performance — whether it’s writing an essay or making a three point shot in the state tournament.