Tuesday, January 31, 2017

My Journey with Student-Led Conferences and Digital Portfolios

Student-led conferences have always been a part of my classroom and will continue to be a part of my classroom as they are an essential aspect of student ownership of learning. Having a student lead the conference puts students at the forefront of the conversation, right where they should be. When I started student-led conferences we had paper portfolios. The portfolios merely existed, we filled them with student work and the parent came in with the student and flipped through the binder, said good job to their child and away they went. To be honest, in my first year of teaching, I was relieved, it was quick, easy and I had my mind on a billion other things so the faster portfolio conferences were done and off my plate the better! The next year I knew I need to change things up, the conferences needed more purpose, I wanted my students to be proud of their work and really focus on their thinking and reflect on their work.

In my efforts to achieve such a dream, I gave my students a reflection card that had 3 stars and a wish. I provided time shortly before the portfolio conference night, to go back through the portfolio pick 3 pieces of their work they were most proud of and one that they would like to have done better on. I had Grade 4 students, so I gave them a little help with their reflection sentence, “I am proud of this assignment because…”. They couldn’t say, “Because I got a good mark”, so we brainstormed some reasons why they would be proud of their work. I also provided parents with a similar sheet, when they went through the portfolio with their child they would also write down or discuss what work they were proud of their child for (yes the same instructions were given to parents around “...because you got a good mark”) on three specific assignments. This definitely helped create a more purposeful and meaningful conversation around the student’s work.

In my perfect world, this process, or a similar process, would happen more frequently, but both myself and the world are far from perfect! I do my best to provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning through self-evaluations and comments, but time does not always allow for frequent reflection on learning for students (this is a whole other discussion around curriculum and time).

The next year I was asked to pilot FreshGrade, a digital portfolio platform, in my class. I’m not afraid to be a guinea pig so I jumped in head first. FreshGrade provides  a digital portfolio that is shared with teacher, student and parent only. Parents, students and teachers can comment on uploaded work/activities as soon as they are uploaded. Parents can get notifications to their phone (via the app) and/or emailed as soon as anything is added to the portfolio. This gave unprecedented access to portfolios in my classroom, access that parents had never had before. The digital portfolio also gave parents a window into my classroom to get a snapshot of the learning that was happening. Since the digital portfolio was new to me, I was spending most of my attention on getting students to add their work to the portfolios and assessing their work. I missed the mark in my pilot year on, what I think is, the most important aspect of the portfolio student reflection and parent interaction. Student reflection was relatively easy, that was a matter of ensuring provided the time and structure for my students to contribute to reflect and comment in their portfolios.

Parents, on the other hand, was not as easy. My first step was to provide parents with the information around what FreshGrade was and why I was moving to a digital portfolio, I sent this information out just before I had my students accessing their portfolios. The next step was at our portfolio night, I had students log into their portfolios to share their 3 Stars and a Wish. When the students were done I asked the parents their thoughts on the digital portfolio and then explained they could have access as well. I provided them with instruction on how to get set-up and discussed the importance of their comments on their child’s work. Any parents who did not show up for the portfolio conference night I sent the information home later. For families where internet access was an issue, I contacted them and let them know they were welcome to make arrangements with me to come in before or after school and use a school computer to access the portfolio. It was important for access not to be a barrier to families accessing a digital portfolio.

Increased parent access into my classroom through the portfolio also meant increased parent communication with me. Since I could the details of an activity into my students’ portfolios and then note if the activity was incomplete and parents were notified of a new activity, I started having less trouble getting some students to complete work. Parents were contacting me asking why their child had an incomplete and what they needed to do. That leads me to another aspect of digital portfolios (in this case FreshGrade specifically) that I really like, when I added an activity, I could also add my own resources. This meant I could include the assignment/activity/project instructions and rubric into the portfolio, parents now had access to what the assignments were as well as how their child was going to be assessed as well as the curricular outcomes that were covered in the assignment/activity/project. This caused parents to contact me about their child’s work sooner if they had any concerns and we could come up with a plan to support their child. This made portfolio conference conversations much more pleasant. Again, this process was far from perfect, I still had parents who did not attend conferences or connect with their child’s portfolio, however, my overall interactions with parents before, during and after portfolio conference nights were overall much more pleasant.

If you are considering starting portfolio conferences (student led-conferences) and/or making the switch to a digital portfolio for your students, I can not express how much it made my interactions with parents better and increased student ownership over their work.

Nathan McEntee
Learning Coach in Wolf Creek Public Schools
Ponoka, Alberta, Canada
Twitter: @mrmacteach
Google+: +NathanMcEnteeTeach

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