Writing Portfolios

I got an iPhone the February of my last year teaching high school. I am one of those ridiculous people who has about 1500 photos on my iPhone, some from that time (2011!). Last Friday I was at my daughter’s camp performance and trying to make a video of her reluctantly walking on a tightrope and I got the dreaded message that my phone was full and the video could not be made. As I rushed to delete photos her moment of awkward glory was lost. Bad mom.

While watching “The Grand Budapest Hotel” this weekend (review: meh), I decided to clean out of phone once and for all and found a bunch of photos from my last year teaching high school.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss teaching high school. I do. A lot. I often contemplate getting tenure and then taking a year leave of absence and going back to teaching high school to determine which I like better: community college or high school. There are pros and cons to both, like any job. But one thing I miss about high school is the systems and structures needed to run an efficient classroom. I was good at that shit. One system I implemented in my last years of teaching was the use of writing portfolios.

At my high school the students stayed with me for a semester and then they were mixed up again. Some would land back in my classroom and I would have them the whole year, others I taught for only a semester. With this in mind, their writing portfolios were a semester-long process.

The leg work for this system was early in the Fall semester. I bought hanging file folders with my own money as well as different colored file folders to go inside each hanging file folder. I clearly printed each student’s name and alphabetized the class’s folders. Each class period was color coded and a key was made and taped on the outside of the decrepit file cabinet (as in green = 1st period English 5, blue = 3rd period English 5). This took a couple of afternoons of work after school but before daycare pickup, but once the set up was complete it ran itself.

Each and every writing assignment (and draft) went into a student’s portfolio for the 18 weeks of our English class.

That’s a lot of work/writing.

When I gave back work, I gave the students time to look at their feedback and usually do some exercise related to that, and then I collected the work again and filed it in their writing portfolios. At various times I had student helpers (students who hated going to the cafeteria who would hang in my classroom during their lunch period/my prep and/or lunch period) who would file for me. Other times it was me–after school–filing like a low-paid secretary. But these portfolios and their maintenance were worth it for many reasons:

1. All significant student work was in one place. When a student would argue, “But Miss–I did that!” and my gradebook said zero, the writing portfolios were a great back up. I was meticulous–even rabid–about their organization.

2. It allowed for students to see their own progress. At the beginning of a new marking period we would do an exercise on looking at their work from the past marking period and I had them reflect on what they did/didn’t do, what their goals were for the new marking period, and what they had accomplished. I had them do this alone, in pairs, in groups–it all worked. It worked for the students who had done nothing because it gave them the chance to *really* see that they had done nothing (“Look! Your writing portfolio is empty!”) and to set goals to do something. For students who had worked hard, it gave them a chance to be proud.

3. When a student left me, I had their portfolio*. This was a great collection of authentic student work to look at for norming in our School-Based Inquiry Teams or for professional development that I led in my school. I had a drawer filled with students’ essays to use when working with my peers. Great resource. (*if a student asked for his/her portfolio, of course I let them take it)

4. I know I don’t need to tell anyone who’s a teacher, but teaching today is as much of an act of skill/creativity as an act of cover your ass (CYA). What better way to show that you are doing your job–and doing it well–than by having a system in place that documents your thoughtful teaching and your students’ amazing writing progress? It’s honestly a huge relief to know that if any administrator comes a-knockin’ on your door, you can pull open a huge drawer of authentic, scaffolded, scored-with-a-rubric student work and be like, “Voila, bitches!”

5. It encourages students to take responsibility for their own work. I discussed the writing portfolio process with the students. I had a huge bulletin board explaining it and documenting what should be in their portfolios. I believe in transparency in teaching and feel that students deserve that. The students had access to their portfolios, and I allowed them to add supplemental work as well. Some poets tossed in their heartbreaking poems about drug-addicted moms and dead friends. Some artists added their graffiti tags and tattoo designs with short written blurbs about what they meant. These small acts of creativity and the purposeful placement of their work into their writing portfolio always made me happy.

Teaching community college is different, but we are working this year to vertically align and backwards designour Composition II course to our Composition I course to our Developmental English course. After that, I am hoping we can implement a Writing Portfolio Exit for Composition I that will determine whether a student passes/fails based on the submission of a writing portfolio. Kingsborough Community College does this beautifully, and, when teaching second year students this year I realized that many, many students had not mastered basic Comp I skills yet had passed Comp I. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes–it’s a Herculean task.