More on My Digital Portfolio Project.

As regular Radical readers know, I started a Digital Portfolio Pilot Project in my room last week.

I have 25 students using Blogger to record evidence of their learning over time.  I am trying to encourage them to write four different kinds of posts in the main stream of their blog — which we are calling their “Learning Portfolios.”  I am also trying to get them to think deeply about the essential questions in our required curriculum on static pages in the main navbar of their blogs that we are calling their “Showcase Portfolios.”

While we are only a week into our project, I’ve learned a few lessons worth sharing:

Blogger is better than I thought.

When I started this project, I was worried about using Blogger.  I’ve always seen it as a wonky tool.  That wonkiness was confirmed as I tried to create a template for my kids to use as a starting point for their portfolios — which isn’t impossible, but which also isn’t as easy as it should be (see my previous post).

But for every example of wonkiness that I find in Blogger, I discover a feature that I really like.  One specific example is Blogger has a feed reader built right into the blogging platform.  It’s called the “Reading List.”  What that allows users to do is consume and create content in the exact same place.

(click images to enlarge)

As soon as I found the reading list, I had my students add the blogs of their classmates — and then I started encouraging them to read and comment on new entries during silent reading time.

That does three things:  (1). It provides extra motivation for writers — if you know your friends are reading, you are more likely to create something new on a regular basis, (2). It provides readers with a constantly updated stream of new ideas for posts that they can create in their own digital portfolios and (3). It encourages students to comment on the content of others, which is exactly the type of first-draft thinking that I want to encourage in our digital portfolio project.

The reading list has also made MY life easier.  I’ve added the blogs of all of the participants in my portfolio project to the reading list in my Blogger platform.  Now, new content posted by my kids is one click away — making it easier to monitor their work and provide the kind of feedback and encouragement that they need in order to become better at systematic reflection.

A clear naming structure for student blogs is super helpful.

I think the best decision that I’ve made so far is requiring all of my kids to use the same naming structure when creating their blog in Blogger.  That has made it easier for me — and for the students involved in my project — to track down content being created by kids on our team.  Our blog addresses are predictable — and that predictability makes it possible to quickly guess the blog address of peers that you are interested in following.

I won’t tell you what our naming structure is yet — I don’t want anyone stealing it on me until I get all of my students signed up first! — but here’s a sample of what I mean:

Blog Naming Formula:  [student first name]isalearner.blogspot.com

Samples:  joeisalearner.blogspot.com, samiyaisalearner.blogspot.com, dewanisalearner.blogspot.com, laurenisalearner.blogspot.com

If I hadn’t required a common naming structure, my guess is that my students would have chosen blog names that would have been as unique and diverse as they are — and while I love that uniqueness and diversity, having a standardized way to find one another without much challenge facilitates connections between the kids in my classroom.  Those connections matter most to me right now.

A common naming structure also made it possible for us to get started quickly.  Instead of spending thirty minutes trying to come up with an interesting address for their blog, my kids spent two minutes replicating the naming structure that I created for them.  Getting started quickly matters, too.  It builds momentum in the hearts and minds of the kids who are participating and it reduces the likelihood of teachers saying, “I love the idea of digital portfolios, but I don’t have the time for them!”

My kids needed no technical help, but they DID need a ton of nudging around content and formatting.

Getting started on our digital portfolios was a complete breeze.  It took less than 30 minutes to get our blogs up and running and then another 30 minutes to show kids how to create posts, monitor comments, and personalize their templates.  The simple truth is that because twelve year olds like to tinker with tech, they didn’t need much coaching at all on how to accomplish basic tasks in Blogger.  In fact, the first portfolio entry written and posted by a student went live in the middle of my first 30 minute training session.

But they DID need a ton of nudging around content and formatting.

For example, every one of my students wanted to personalize the colors and text styles on their blogs — and at least half of them chose color schemes and font families that made their blogs more difficult to read.  Instead of thinking about their audiences, they were thinking about themselves — and the result was content that few people could consume without serious challenge.  That’s been a neat conversation and learning opportunity — but it is one I didn’t totally expect going into this project.

Another example:  My kids haven’t always done the best job REFLECTING in their initial posts.  Instead, they are REPORTING on what they are learning in their classes.  I blame that on the traditional structure of schools, y’all.  We don’t ask kids to do a ton of reflecting, so it’s not something that they are naturally drawn to.  Until we start to teach the difference between reflecting and reporting — a conversation we are going to have together in class next week — I shouldn’t be surprised to see that the content my kids are creating isn’t all that reflective yet.

I’d love feedback from all y’all on this stuff.  Does it make sense to you?  Do you have any suggestions for how I can make this better?

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Related Radical Reads:

My Digital Portfolio Project Planning

 

 

My Digital Portfolio Project Planning.

Over the last year, I’ve been working on a committee in my school district to think about the role that digital portfolios can play in helping students to document their learning.  I LOVE that our district is committed to the idea of portfolios simply because they promote more reflective learners and help our schools to move from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback.

That’s kinda my jam.

The defining moment in my own thinking about digital portfolios came in December, when I listened to my buddy George Couros explain the difference between Learning Portfolios and Showcase Portfolios at Convergence — a meeting of the professional minds hosted by our district’s Media and Technology team.

According to George, Learning Portfolios are all about giving students chances to collect evidence of their own growth and progress as learners over time.  They aren’t about spotlighting perfection.  They are about promoting reflection.  Showcase Portfolios, on the other hand, are designed to give students spaces to spotlight their very best work.  Both types of portfolios have value to learners — but both serve very different purposes.

George went even further, arguing that blogging tools make for perfect homes for digital portfolios primarily because they allow users to house a Learning Portfolio and a Showcase Portfolio in the same space.  For George, the constantly updated stream of posts that stands at the center of a blog space is the Learning Portfolio.  It should house regular reflections — celebrations of progress made, plans for moving forward, evidence of current levels of mastery, questions for consideration.

Static pages on a blog — which are almost always found listed in a header under the Blog’s title — are perfect for housing Showcase Portfolios.  It is a place where kids can do deeper thinking around what they have actually mastered.  Students can link to their best evidence in their Showcase Portfolios — and can update the content on each page as they demonstrate additional mastery over time.

That’s BRILLIANT thinking, right?  

The truth is that encouraging students to keep a Learning Portfolio and a Showcase Portfolio promotes different kinds of reflective behaviors.  We DO want our kids to get into the habit of regular reflection on what they know in the moment.  And we DO want our kids to get into the habit of organizing their BEST evidence that they’ve mastered important outcomes.  Making those two different practices manageable starts when we use ONE tool that can create separate spaces in the the same digital home.

I’ve finally decided to take George’s advice and start a Digital Portfolio Pilot Project with my students.  Here’s what I’ve done so far:

I spent a ton of time creating a sample of a digital portfolio.

You can check it out here.  Remember:  The posts in the body of the blog are a part of a hypothetical student’s Learning Portfolio.  They show progress in the moment.  The pages listed across the top header underneath the title are a part of the same hypothetical student’s Showcase Portfolio.  The are evidence of mastery of bigger curricular ideas.

This sample portfolio has been SUPER valuable in helping kids to understand just what it is that they are going to be doing as a part of our portfolio project.  The sad truth is that few had any idea what I meant when I said, “Anyone want to create a digital portfolio to document your learning?”  Those are practices that we haven’t prioritized in schools.

I’ve created several resources for the PARENTS of participating students.

Perhaps the two most important resources are my digital portfolio permission slip — which details some basic expectations that participating students have to follow — and my Digital Portfolio Tips for Parents — which outlines ways that parents can get involved in supporting the reflective work that their students are about to begin.

I’ve whipped up a list of every essential question that students are supposed to master in their core classes this year.

Those are listed in documents posted at the top of each Showcase Portfolio page.  Here’s a sample.  My plan is to have students use those questions as starting points for content that they can put on their Showcase Portfolio pages.  I figure that if they can answer those questions AND link to evidence in their Learning Portfolio of places where they were wrestling with those essential questions, they’d have something really impressive to “showcase” for the important adults in their lives.  The questions almost serve as prompts for kids who are working to build out their Showcase pages.

Along with my buddy Pete Caggia, I’ve created several different types of posts that I want students to try writing in their Learning Portfolios.

The hardest part of this work for my kids is going to be understanding what in-the-moment reflection looks like in action.  Again, that’s a function of the fact that reflection has been pushed aside in schools in favor of rushing through required curricula.  To facilitate better reflection, Pete and I whipped up four different kinds of thinking that we’d like to see in student portfolios.  This handout details those different kinds of thinking and includes samples that students can use as models.

I’ve settled on a blogging tool and started to introduce it to the students participating in our project.

The tool that I’m using is Blogger.  That’s not because I’m in love with Blogger.  In fact, I think that Blogger templates are kind of boring.  Wordpress has templates and formats that are WAY more polished.

But Blogger is approved for use by middle school students in our district — a key factor in making ANY tech decision — AND my students are already using Google products (think Docs, Classroom, Drive, Photos, Slides) for darn near everything else.  That makes Blogger the right tool for this project.  Familiarity + District Approval = Winning for Everyone!

I also put backups of my sample blog’s template and content onto jump drives and had every student install both my template and my original content when they were getting started.  Here’s why:  By pushing all kids to install my template and content, I can introduce the different kinds of portfolios by looking at an actual exemplar.  All they will need to do to make their own portfolio “personal” is delete my content and posts whenever they are ready.

Finally, I’ve started to create a bunch of quick tutorials that students can use to learn more about simple processes and practices in Blogger.  They are posted on the Portfolio Tools and Resources page of my sample blog — which also ends up on each STUDENT’s blog after they import my template and content.  My hope is that these tutorials will be enough to get most kids started with their portfolios.  They are pretty smooth operators, after all — unafraid of tinkering to figure out how things work.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?  Does it sound useful to you?  What questions do you have?  Suggestions?  What resources do you like?  What resources can you share?

 

 

In Praise of an American Educator.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard or not, Radical Nation, but Rick DuFour — a passionate advocate for public education, a mentor and friend to many, and a proud husband, father and grandfather — passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer.

 

Rick used his voice to make the world a better place for our students, y’all.

To his core, he believed that the power to change schools rested in the hearts and minds of classroom teachers who were willing to study their practice together.  Just think about that for a second:  In an era when it felt like the entire nation was working to eviscerate our profession, Rick fought for us.  Better yet, he taught us and challenged us and pushed us to accept responsibility for results.

With a seemingly endless supply of energy, Rick counseled and coached a thousand schools and districts over the last 20 years — laying out clear plans for the kinds of steps that practitioners could take if they were genuinely committed to ensuring learning for every child.  He’d nudge when necessary, unsatisfied with stagnation — but he’d also leave you convinced that it WAS possible for schools to succeed, no matter the circumstance.

And Rick made everyone around him a better person.

He was one of those once-in-a-lifetime mentors who was constantly teaching, whether he knew it or not.  I learned to speak from my heart after watching him testify time and again about the impact that poor educational policies had on both students and teachers.  I learned that success required personal grit and determination after seeing him grind as a both writer and a speaker.

I learned that the most important part of being influential is being approachable after watching him spend hours in one-on-one conversations with teachers or principals who needed encouragement or advice; I learned that humility and curiosity are the cornerstones of successful people after watching him ask as many questions as I ever saw him answer; and I learned that true joy in life comes from having a family who loves you unconditionally after watching him invest his whole heart into Becky, his soulmate and best friend.

Let’s face it:  The world lost one of the best American educators yesterday.  

But we haven’t lost his spirit or his soul or his words and ideas.  If we remain just as committed to the notion that together we are stronger, tomorrow’s students will benefit from the lessons that he spent a lifetime trying to teach us.

Goodbye, friend.  And thank you for believing in me.

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Blogger’s Note:  As I wrestled with Rick’s death this morning, I decided that the best way to pay him a tribute was to send a copy of In Praise of American Educators — his seminal book tackling the myth of our failing public school system head-on — to Betsy DeVos, who seems hell bent on destroying public education. What better way to prove that the voice of my friend and mentor won’t be lost even after he’s left us.

I’d love it if you’d join me in that effort.

Can you imagine how powerful it would be if Secretary DeVos’s desk was buried in copies of a book written by a man who believed in both you and I and in the power of the work that we do every single day?  And can you imagine how proud Rick would be knowing that we were willing to continue to fight for the kids sitting in our classrooms?  That was his life’s mission, y’all.  Let’s push it forward now and forever.

Are you in?  If so, here’s some help:

  1. You can buy In Praise here on Amazon.
  2. When you are checking out, you can have your copy shipped directly to Betsy by changing the Shipping Address on your checkout page.  Here’s the address for the Department of Education.
  3. If you want to leave a message for Besty, you can add a Gift Receipt under “Review Items and Shipping” on your checkout page.  Here’s what I wrote:  “In memory of Rick DuFour, one of America’s Greatest Educators.  Want to improve schools?  Read chapters 1-5.  You’ll be inspired.”

 

Want Better Faculty Meetings? Start Here.

Last week, I blogged about my decision to write “Kudos Cookies” notes to my students.

A simple idea built on a suggestion from my friend Chris Tuttell, Kudos Cookies are short, handwritten notes of praise paired with a sweet treat.  I write anywhere from two to eight notes every morning — depending on how much time I have after arriving at school — and make deliveries all day long.

The entire experience has been fantastic.  Not only are my kids surprised and thankful for the kind words that I’m sharing, my own spirit is buoyed every morning by the simple act of showing gratitude to the kids in my classroom.

But as I try to convince colleagues to write their own notes to kids, I’m hit with the same response over and over again: “That’s such a great idea!  I’m impressed you are doing it.  But I just don’t have the time.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I understand the time crunch all too well.  I’m behind in paper grading right now simply because I’ve chosen to spend 20-30 minutes every morning writing to kids instead of scoring assignments.  I’ve also been slow at replying to emails in my inbox — which I imagine is frustrating the dozens of people who need answers from me every single day.  The truth is that even I feel pressure to quit writing to my kids because I’ve got a ton of other things that need to get done.

Think about how heartbreaking that is, all y’all.

How did we get to the point where writing kind notes to kids is something that we can’t find the time for?  How many items on our To-Do lists would have a GREATER impact than telling our students that we are proud of them and spotlighting moments where they have impressed us?  If I quit writing and caught up on my grading and answering my email, would our school be a better place?  Would I be a better teacher?  Would my students be better learners?

Of course not.  The BEST thing I do each day is write to my students.  Each note strengthens a relationship and builds the confidence of a kid.  Nothing else matters more.

#simpletruth

The good news is that Matt Townsley and Santo Nicotera have found a solution.  Both are starting every faculty meeting with the same agenda item:  Writing positive notes to two kids that are hand delivered the next morning.

How awesome is that?

Imagine a room full of teachers spending a few minutes together reflecting on the strengths of individual students.  Imagine a building where written expressions of gratitude became a norm instead of an exception to the rule.  Imagine the positive message sent about priorities when writing to kids was the first thing done whenever teachers gathered together.  And imagine the frame of mind teachers would be in for the rest of the faculty meeting or professional development session after thinking about the kids that they serve.

And THEN imagine the joy that would ripple through your building on the morning after a faculty meeting or professional development session.  

Have 30 staff members?  Sixty students are going to start the next day with a tangible reminder that they ARE successful learners and that their teachers DO believe in them.  Wouldn’t that make your school a more joyful place?  Isn’t that what we mean when we talk about building a community of learners?  Aren’t kids more likely to respond to hand-written notes from the important adults in their lives than to the PBIS points and trinkets that you are currently giving to encourage positive behaviors in your school?

And 30 staff members are going to start the next day with a moment to show gratitude to your students — a behavior that we often overlook in schools because we are too darn busy.

So how do you get started?  Here are a few ideas:

Build 10-15 minutes into your meeting agendas for writing positive notes:  It doesn’t take long to write, guys.  I can write six notes in twenty minutes.  Setting aside ten to fifteen minutes is plenty of time for two notes.

But here’s the thing:  This has to be the FIRST item on your agenda.  Not only will that help by putting teachers in a positive, student-centered frame of mind at the beginning of your faculty meeting, it will ensure that you aren’t tempted to cut letter writing from your agenda because you run out of time at the end of the meeting OR put teachers in the position where they have to decide between writing a meaningful letter or going home at the end of a long staff development session.

Bring school-inspired stationary for every teacher to write on:  I write on cards that are 4 by 5 inch squares.  Four fit on one piece of 8 by 11 card stock.  On the front is a colored, school themed logo.  The cards are big enough for me to say meaningful things but small enough for me to fill in five minutes — so I don’t have to spend forever writing.  Print a stack of these.  Have someone cut them before your faculty meeting.  Ask teachers to pick up two as the enter your meeting — or hand out two at the door as teachers arrive.

Interview kids who have received letters:  The easiest way to convince teachers that writing to kids matters is to interview a few students and get them to talk about the letters that they’ve received.  One or two short videos of kids saying things like, “I felt noticed when I received my letter” or “I wasn’t sure my teacher liked me until I got my letter” will help to cement the notion that time spent on writing letters is well worth it.

Ask every staff member — not just teachers — to write letters:  Don’t forget that your custodians, classroom assistants and office staff members have positive relationships with kids, too.  In fact, they often have positive relationships with students who don’t stand out on the radar of classroom teachers.  Asking them to join your letter writing project will help to ensure that every kid is recognized over the course of the school year.

Recruit parents, the PTA, or your Family and Consumer Science classes to bake Kudos Cookies for you:  My students love the letters that I write.  They COULD be the only thing that you hand out to students.  But let’s face it:  My students also love the cookies that they get, too!  It makes getting a letter from me an extra special treat.  So talk to your parents or your PTA or your Family Consumer Science classes.  Give them a list of your faculty meetings and professional development days.  Have them bake cookies that you can hand out with your letters.  It’s a simple way to spread this project beyond just your classroom teachers.

NEVER skip letter writing:  Never.  Like ever.  The minute that letter writing is bumped from your agenda, you are sending the message to your staff that all of the other items you grind through — details on the new dismissal procedures, reports from the district’s financial planner on changes to your 401K plans, mandated video training on blood borne pathogens or sexual harassment in the workplace — matter more than showing gratitude to kids.  That’s what got us in this pickle to begin with!

So whaddya’ think?  Is this something you can see doing in your faculty meetings?

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Related Radical Reads:

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed

Writing Positive Notes to my Students is the Best Way to Start the Day

 

Writing Positive Notes to My Students is the BEST Way to Start the Day.

Regular Radical Readers know that I made a commitment last year to handwriting positive notes to the parents of all of my students (see here and here).  The entire project was awesome.  Parents appreciated hearing kind words about their kids and kids appreciated being noticed.

I started a handwritten note project again this week, but with a twist inspired by Christine Tuttell.  This year, I’m writing directly to my kids instead of their parents — and along with each note, I’m giving my kids a cookie:

Like Chris — who does a similar project with the staff members that she supports as an Instructional Technology Facilitator — I’m calling these daily gifts of positive words of praise paired with sweet treats “Kudos Cookies.”  Also like Chris, my main goal is just to spread a bit of joy every day.

And like last year, my kids are really enjoying receiving letters from me.  Every hand delivery has been met with smiles.  In fact, many mornings, I think I’m catching kids off guard simply because they aren’t used to getting direct praise from me.  That makes me feel bad — I wish I had the chance to give every kid direct praise every single day.  But the reality is that with 120 kids and 50 minute class periods, things move too fast in a middle school to interact with every child in a deep and meaningful way every day.

Here’s what’s interesting, though:  I get just as much benefit from the positive notes that I’m writing as my students do!

Starting every morning sitting quietly at my desk thinking about just what makes each of the kids in my room special matters.  It serves as a constant reminder that no matter how hard teaching can be, it is truly an amazing profession.  Better yet, it serves as a constant reminder that every kid sitting in my classroom has unique sets of strengths that are worthy of recognition and celebration.

That kind of intentional reflection about every single kid gives ME joy, too.  Better yet, that kind of intentional reflection makes me more tolerant in the moments when the wheels fall off during the course of the day for the kids in my classroom.  Because I’ve started the day by deliberately naming the strengths of my students, their weaknesses don’t leave me frustrated.

So whaddya’ think?  Are Kudos Cookies a project you’d ever consider tackling?  

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Related Radical Reads:

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed