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One Teacher's Story

As an introduction to portfolio assessment, we would like to share one teacher's experiences and recommendations. Barbara reflected on and discussed her experiences using portfolios in a middle school French I class for two consecutive academic years.

Planning

Portfolios take a lot of planning to set a very clear purpose before introducing portfolios to the students and parents. My purpose was to provide evidence that students were recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities to see, use, learn about, and experience French culture outside the classroom. I also needed to set goals; mine were developing enthusiasm for the language and developing life-long learning skills. My hidden agenda was to get parents and the community involved in the children's learning.

I think it is crucial to prepare thoroughly and spend a lot of time with students introducing portfolios. During the first three days of the school year I spent a lot of class time talking about the structure and expectations of the class. I gave the students handouts on concerns, needs, and definitions and told them to share these with their parents and to refer to them throughout the year.

If you are going to use portfolios, start slowly. The first step is having students collect everything they do in a folder. After a while, you can start giving portfolio days, on which students work on their portfolios by revising, adding self-assessments, annotating and organizing. Later, I let the students pick one day of the week to work on portfolios; they chose Friday. I had them give me a written plan of action and a goal on each Monday preceding the portfolio Friday. The students who had not submitted this note were given assigned work. By the fourth quarter, I did not make them give me the cards, because they had learned how to set goals by themselves.

While the students were working on their portfolios, I worked with individual students and gave mini-lessons when difficulties and questions came up while they were working. I would announce to the class that I was giving a mini-lesson in a corner on one of the blackboards. If they did not want the information, they could keep working. They really liked the mini-lessons.

Portfolio contents

I required work in each of the four language skill areas, but each student had to decide how to demonstrate these skills. Listening was very difficult to assess; I tried to take into account what they listened to, for how long, and what they learned from the listening experience, not how much they had actually understood of what they had listened to. For example, one student found a French-language radio station, so I made tapes from that and lent them out to students. They had a hard time understanding, but my teaching point was that even if a student had understood very little, he had learned something about his learning. In this case, we talked about developing strategies for listening. In the area of writing, I started by asking for a paragraph or more for each assignment; this length increased over time. Some students simply could not do this (the students in the class were from the general school population and included main streamed special education students), so we talked about it as a class, so that there would be no sense of "why does that student not have to do this." We discussed the fact that everyone has learning strengths and weaknesses. I tried to turn this potentially difficult situation into a positive experience in which students actively participated in self- and peer-assessment and reinforced their identity as a community of learners.

Evaluation

I believe in having clearly set and adhered to criteria and in being very honest with students about their work and its acceptability. In the first quarter, I set the criteria myself because the students had no experience with that. At the beginning of the second quarter, we talked about portfolio criteria and defining criteria and then voted on the criteria for that quarter. I kept the criteria that all four skill areas be represented, and students chose effort, organization, planning, and "going further than you thought you could" as criteria. This gave them responsibility for learning and self-assessment.

I included conferences in my portfolio evaluation. In the first quarter, I required all the students to have a conference with me. This was very time consuming, so in the second quarter I required students with last names A-K to have conferences and made them optional for all other students. In the third quarter, I had conferences with all the students who had last names between L-Z and made conferences optional for all the other students. In the final quarter, I arranged with my principal to have covered release time for an entire day, so that I could have a conference with each student.

Parental involvement

Students were also required to have a portfolio conference with a parent each quarter before they gave me the portfolio. Parents were supposed to write a paragraph about the portfolio/conference. I did not grade portfolios which did not contain these parent paragraphs. In situations in which there was no parent present, I let students have a conference with an adult relative or another teacher. If students reported that their parents had no time, I called the parents and encouraged them to have a conference with their child, and this worked. I also offered a parent workshop on portfolios at the beginning of the year to inform parents of the agenda and why and how to get involved.

Outcomes

Creating portfolios shows students what they are good at and what they need to work on. Self-assessment is an important skill learned through portfolio use. The students learned how to look for specific criteria that made their work acceptable or not. In the beginning, students would just rate a piece "good" or "bad" but have no idea why; in the end, they had learned how to judge their own work and how to revise it. I am an enthusiastic supporter of portfolios, and by the end of the year all the students had bought into portfolios, too. Five of the students ended the fourth quarter one year above level, most were on level, and there were two or three strugglers.
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