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Using Better Approaches to Improve, Showcase and Assess Student Work

Digital assessment and learning

Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Wisconsin’s Mineral Point Unified School District and author of the new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work. His work has covered using digital portfolios to enhance student learning, effective uses of classroom technology, teaching students how to engage in self-directed learning, and through his blog, Reading By Example, he provides insights and expertise on literacy and leadership.

In this interview, Renwick explains why it is important to showcase student work through student portfolios in addition to assessing it; shares advice for schools and districts to evaluate digital portfolio solutions; describes why new approaches to literacy instruction, such as gamification, are necessary to consider; talks about how teachers can help students develop the emotional domain of reading; and more.  

Interview

Rod Berger: In your new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom, you describe assessment as “messy.” Can you explain why assessment is often messy and how digital portfolios can help make sense of the messiness?

Matt Renwick: Assessment in education is messy because we are attempting to measure student growth and achievement. We are working with kids, very dynamic individuals who each bring their own interests, strengths, and needs. How can a single score or one grade truly gauge a student’s abilities or potential? That’s a rhetorical question; they cannot. I think education has used grades, scores, and levels for so long that it is very difficult to think differently about how assessment might better represent student learning in more accurate and affirming ways.

Digital portfolios can help a teacher and students get closer to understanding how a student is progressing and succeeding as a learner. Audio, images, and video can capture so much more regarding a student’s response to instruction. You can hear their enthusiasm in a speech they give, and see the pride in their faces when presenting a project they’ve worked hard on over the course of several weeks. Why would any teacher want to diminish their work by only giving it a score or a grade? Digital portfolios can become that necessary technology for communicating learning in the original form that it was created.

RB: The subtitle of your book is “Showcasing and Assessing Student Work.” We often focus on the assessment part and overlook the showcase element. What are some of the ways digital portfolios create a good showcase for student work and why is this important?

MR: Students, and really everyone, want to be recognized for their accomplishments and best efforts. Our society has little problem with handing out trophies and medals for success in sports and extracurricular activities. Celebrating academic work should not be a significant shift for anyone when we consider this context.

Digital portfolios can facilitate showcasing student work in a variety of ways.

  • Post pictures of students’ final products. These images should be shared with an accompanying text caption in which students describe what they created, how they did it, why it’s important, and what they want to work on for next time. This explanation, self-reflection, and goal setting provides context for student work and their future goals.
  • Upload video of student performances. Our families cannot attend every play, concert, and demonstration of learning, nor should they be expected to. Digital portfolios can bring families into the classroom by documenting their performances via video and then uploading this media for families to watch and enjoy at a later time.
  • Record audio of students’ current skills and understanding. Showcasing our students’ best efforts should not be limited to only final projects and performance tasks. There are reasons to celebrate every day. Maybe a student achieved the next level on a reading benchmark assessment or was finally able to pronounce a specific sound during their speech and language intervention. Parents can experience this success with their kids by hearing evidence of their accomplishments.

RB: Are there any specific digital portfolio tools you’d recommend? What do you like about it/them?

MR: The best digital portfolio tool is the one that allows students to best represent themselves as learners. Which technology a school or district selects depends on the discipline(s) that would incorporate digital portfolios, the level of access that students have to technology, the types of devices, and who would be the audience for student work. But above all of these factors is the big question: Why does a teacher or school want to use digital portfolios? The purpose for integrating digital assessment is the priority.

For example, Josh Beck and Chris Haeger at Cudahy High School in Cudahy, Wisconsin have their students use Google Sites to post their best work in English language arts. Students embed their artifacts in reading, writing, speaking, and listening into these personalized websites. Twice a year, sophomores and seniors have to present these best work portfolios to a panel of educators and community leaders. Their purpose for using Google Sites is to provide an authentic opportunity for students to showcase their abilities as readers and writers for people that matter to them. The other factors are important, such as types of devices they might have, but they are not essential.

RB: Shifting topics for a minute, you’ve done a lot of work on literacy. You’ve had your blog, Reading by Example, since 2011, and your Twitter handle is even @ReadByExample. One of my questions around literacy relates to the need for new approaches to reach and engage all learners. What is your perspective on the potential of new literacy approaches, such as gamification, to make a difference for young readers?

MR: Being literate in today’s world requires a much different understanding than when I first entered the education profession in 2000. Back then, print was almost the only text my students read as an elementary teacher. We visited websites for research and used computers for writing reports, but that was largely the extent of my students’ interaction with digital text. Seventeen years later, I could not imagine being a teacher of readers and writers without considering how to incorporate all of these new ways of reading and writing online.

Digital portfolios can be that entry point into delving into the new literacies, such as digital literacy, media literacy, and global literacy. For example, students could maintain a process portfolio on a blog such as Kidblog or Edublogs. They can reflect on their learning experiences in a safe online environment for an immediate audience, namely classmates. Using a blog as a digital journal can lead students to make connections with other classrooms around the world. Teachers in different parts of the globe can set up collaborative projects and guide students to comment on each other’s work. This can lead to sharing of digital products, such as public service announcements, that garner feedback and affirmation in the form of blog comments. The only limits we have with these new ways of being literate is our imaginations.

RB: Sticking with literacy for one more question, I’m interested in strategies that help students develop the emotional domain of reading: their interest, confidence, and motivation. What are some of your tips for helping students develop in these areas?

MR: Students should have, above all, access to books they want to read, can read, and can choose to read. Voice and choice are the essentials for developing students’ interest and motivation in reading. Confidence comes from many hours of practicing reading real texts and becoming better at it because of the time and access teachers provide. Teachers are wise to use the texts students are choosing to read as a way to assess their abilities to decode and comprehend texts. This can happen in small group/guided instruction and independent conferences.

These are not my original ideas; I am only sharing what I have learned from literacy experts on the topic of the emotional domain of reading. I wish I would have had this knowledge a decade ago when I was still in the classroom. If I did, I know I would be spending the majority of my time learning from the students about their reading lives and providing real time, personalized feedback, instead of all the time I spent teaching. In raising our own two children, we never taught them how to read. My wife and I just read aloud a lot of books to them. They knew how to read going into school.

RB: For our final question, I want to ask about ways to support students with special needs or second language learners. Are there a few specific ways to recommend using digital tools - whether digital portfolios or otherwise - to benefit learning for students with these particular needs?

MR: I have learned that when we perceive our students through a label, educators tend to lower their expectations for students with specific needs. Instead, let’s keep our expectations high for all students. This might mean not digging into student files right away. Instead, teachers can build relationships and a classroom community the first days of school. Allow students the opportunity to rise to the potential. If we seem them struggle, then we can ascertain as to why.

A favorite digital tool that can support struggling readers includes digital books that include narration and text support such as selecting a word for a visual definition to pop up. This can relieve the students of the decoding work so they can enjoy the text and comprehend it. Apple’s App Store and Nook (Barnes and Noble) Books both offer many titles with these features. Another recommended digital tool is voice dictation. Students who struggle to write can speak what they want to say and the application transcribes it into text. Now a student has a written first draft to work with and revise. Most computing devices now have this option available.

Further Reading:

School Leaders NowUsing Digital Portfolios to Give Students Control of Their Learning Journey

Getting SmartEngaging Parents to Engage Learners: Digital Portfolios Can Make it Happen

edCircuitNo More Hand-Me-Down Tech: Developing K-8 Learning Interfaces for Schools

About Matt Renwick

Renwick headshotMatt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Wisconsin’s Mineral Point Unified School District. He is the author of the new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work, as well as 5 Myths About Classroom Technology, both available from ASCD.

He also authored a free e-book, The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning, available from FreshGrade. Matt’s blog, readingbyexample.com, was named one of the Top 50 Education IT blogs by EdTech K-12 in 2013, 2015, and 2016. He was named an Onalytica Top 100 EdTech Influencer in 2015 and 2016 and was one of EdTech Digest’s EdTech Leadership Award finalists in 2017. Learn more about Matt at mattrenwick.com or follow him on Twitter @ReadByExample

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington PostScholasticAmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Down the Hall are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.