Before I dive into talking about portfolios I wanted to give a brief overview of the school. If you want to learn more about Trillium follow the link to the right.
Trillium opened its doors 10 years ago in North Portland in a effort to create an environment where students and staff had a greater power to shape the curriculum. The school is a public K-12 school that additionally houses a pre-school in the same building. The school purposely bought a building in North Portland to attract a more diverse and urban based population.
Based on democratic education, constructivism and service learning, the school, from its first days has always tried to find ways to put the reigns of education where it belongs, in the classroom with the students and teachers. The staff and students created a constitution which outlined the powers of the students, the staff and the administration. Additionally systems were put in place for kids to have a major role in decision making in the school.
On an academic level project based learning and thematic projects have been the core of how students engage with the content areas. The lower school (primary and secondary) is made up of advising groups with 23 kids. These groups spend most of the day together working on whole class, small group and individual work and projects. The middle school and high school have advising groups as well as subject based classes.
Demonstration of student learning has mostly been done through project presentation, whole school project fairs, performances, role plays, publishing parties, assigned lessons, and on-going assessment by the staff. The middle school and high school does use subject based testing as well. The students from 3rd grade to high school are given State Tests in math, reading, writing and science by computer from one to three times per year.
In the original charter of the school we committed ourselves to portfolios as an authentic way for kids to preserve, reflect upon and share their work. Unfortunately for many years it was never a significant part of the educational conversation. Some teachers used them some didn’t. Most portfolios were hard copies of kids work stored in boxes or filling cabinets in the classrooms of the school. While in the intermediate class where I teach (students 8-11 years old) we used them as a source for reflection, for most of the students of the school portfolios meant little more than the work they kept at the end of a unit, a project or a class.
In 2005 I began to investigate the possibility of online portfolios. I believed that it would be a way to do away with all the paper and storage issues. Looking around the internet I found many online websites that had portfolios schools to pay for, but they were really out of reach for our school. $30 per student per year was typical. With a school of 360 kids that just wasn’t financially viable.
Eventually I stumbled upon E-PEARL a electronic portfolio project that was started at Concordia University in Montreal. E-PEARL is a piece of software designed for schools in Quebec to allow their students to have a robust and thoughtful portfolio experience. The software walks students through goal setting, assessment and documentation. It also allows for teachers and parents to provide comments and feedback. The software was free and was installed on our school server.
With great enthusiasm I jumped into learning about online portfolios with my teaching colleague. At this point only a few teachers had the interest or ability to begin to make online portfolios a part of the students experience. I have found that without a basic culture of the use of portfolios in hardcopy, it is really difficult to take that next step. Nonetheless a few of us plowed ahead and began to use E-PEARL to document what the kids were doing. We gave them mini-lessons on the software, we had parent nights to introduce the parents to it, and we tried to provide the students many opportunities to be on the computer to upload work and reflect upon it. This project lasted about two years but was doomed to failure by a few things.
#1. It required a tremendous amount of time and effort to upload the students work. Photographs needed to be uploaded to a web-based storage site, then downloaded onto the school’s server then, uploaded to E-PEARL by the students. Paper copies had to be scanned and saved to the school server and eventually uploaded by students. SO much of the work was required by the teacher. It wasn’t sustainable.
#2. The time between the work being completed and the students uploading it to their portfolios was often weeks. The school has a computer lab, but it isn’t always accessible, and the few computers in the classroom weren’t enough to be effective. This long period of time between completion and uploading/reflection made the reflection process ineffective at times. The students found it hard to remember exactly what they had done.
#3. Because of the scale of work required to make the portfolios happen it scared away most of the staff, especially those who don’t feel comfortable using technology. THIS is what really eventually killed the project. If we in the lower grades spent a lot of time creating portfolios and it wasn’t continued into the older grades it lost its strength and purpose of “long term” documentation.
#4. We realized to make any portfolio system work it needed to be driven mainly by the students themselves. With the support from the staff the students should learn to document, reflect upon and share their work. They needed to become self-sufficient in this work and E-PEARL was never really going to make that happen, especially the younger students.
#5. The storage of the portfolios was to be done on our school server, which wasn’t always reliable. If the system went down, we could not access the portfolios and/or information could be lost.
After we realized that E-PEARL was just not going to be successful I started to look around for other possibilities. I wanted something that was easy to use, made it easy to access and upload work, could be done by students, staff and families, and could be used with a number of technologies. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon Evernote. It seemed like it was a system that could work well for our needs. The only problem was there wasn’t a mobile device (what I thought was essential to get the students to really have fast access and easy control) that was cheap enough. I was excited by the Iphone, but it was too expensive. I was excited by the Itouch, but it didn’t have a camera, something that I see as essential for documentation.
Then, in the fall of 2010, Apple introduced the Itouch with a camera and the whole game changed. It was time to start experimenting with Evernote and see what it could do.
(to be continued)