Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. ~ John Dewey

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Student-Led Conferences

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(Part 1 of a series of blog posts to be made into a free PDF. Your feedback, ideas and thoughts are critical!)

The Purpose

The purpose of this PDF is to help schools looking at adopting Web Based Portfolios (WBP) as a form of assessment with students over a period of time. By adopting a web-based platform as a container in which to house portfolio content, schools give students a web-based vehicle with endless possibilities to create, collaborate and communicate their learning to the world.

All-In-One Assessment Vehicle

Web Based Portfolios have been gaining ground in recent years as the skills needed to create digital content have become less complex. Remember the days when a digital portfolio meant courses in Dreamweaver or some other programing language? Those days are behind us as the tools of the web have taken over and simplified things to a point where a true Web Based Portfolio is possible.

In the past, schools, teachers and even students had to decide what their portfolio was going to reflect. Was it going to be a portfolio that showed assessment for learning or assessment of learning? The decision had to be made because in a paper-based world you just did not have enough space to physically hold all of the content to show both. In fact, in a paper-based world many teachers and schools started out envisioning their portfolios as a way to reflect on assessment for learning. In many cases, due to physical requirements in holding the amount of paper it took to show the learning process, many teachers and students ended up creating portfolios that showed assessment of learning. When a choice has to be made because of limited space to keep a rough draft or a final copy students will keep the final copy, and so will teachers.

WBPs if nothing else, solve this age old portfolio issue. With the cost of servers and web storage continuing to drop, creating endless storage space for students to show the learning process and allowing teachers to assess for learning is cheap and getting less expensive every day.

When students have endless space, a WBP not only shows assessment for learning, but also assessment of learning. We now have a vehicle that has the space to allow students and teachers to have the best of both worlds all in one place and the ability to track learning over great lengths of time.

Learning Over Time

The biggest issue a WBP solves is an issue that, up until now, we could not even talk about because we did not have a vehicle that allowed us to even have the discussion.

When we talk about assessing learning over time, or tracking learning over time, historically schools have done a good job of tracking assessment for learning year by year. Students come into 3rd grade, keep a portfolio of their work, and at the end of that year take their work home with them. The next year they come back as 4th graders and repeat the process all over again.

Education never had a system that allowed educators to look at learning year after year other than maybe a few teacher picked samples to go into a student cumulative folder. Of course these cumulative folders are better at giving us a snapshot and focus on assessment of learning not for learning in the long run.

With a WBP that belongs to the student, controlled by the student, created by the student, education now has a vehicle that can extend beyond space and time of a school year. Once a student creates a WBP and owns that space, the assessment for learning over a long period of time becomes natural. Students have one spot, with unlimited space to create, gather, and reflect on their own learning.

Think of the possibilities as a 7th grade teacher if you had students who were in your school system for four years and were able to look back at how they progressed as a reader. Students would have the ability to reflect on their growth as a mathematician from 3rd grade to 7th grade. The power of reflecting on one’s own learning across grade levels not just within them is something that until WBP, was a difficult if not an impossible task. I can imagine a day when a senior in high school has a body of knowledge all in one place that is his or her learning journey. Think of the wealth of information that would be contained within that portfolio. Think of the wealth of knowledge for the school to be able to track learners over time looking at a particular student as a learner.

This would never be possible in a paper-based world. The amount of information, knowledge, and understanding that would be in that one portfolio would not be able to be stored in a paper-based world…now think of all the students in your school or district. The paper-based world can not compete.

WBPs not only solve some of our biggest frustrations as educators but they create new opportunities that we haven’t even thought of tapping into yet.

Student Ownership and Conferences

A critical shift in moving to a WBP system is the notion that students own the portfolio. This, I believe, is a huge shift in the way we view portfolios. For many educators this will be a scary step. When students own their own learning, when they are able to reflect on their own learning, have some choice on what their portfolio looks like, acts like, and when they are able to update it anytime and anywhere, the control of the content shifts from the teacher to the student.

Otherwise known as student-centered learning, students become the true drivers of the content that is put within their WBP. The WBP reflects who they are as a learner. With the guidance of the teacher, students make choices on what learning artifacts deserve more attention than others and find ways to make those artifacts stand out (assessment of learning). In this way you have assessment of learning embedded within, surrounded by assessment for learning, which creates a learning assessment ecosystem that is rich with data, content, and reflections.

Many portfolio initiatives in schools stem from Student-Led Conferences. The Student-Led Conference, or conference format in which the student and student learning is the center of the conference, have gained momentum in the last decade and usually include a portfolio of learning.

As an elementary teacher I know the drill: Conferences are fast approaching and you realize you haven’t had the students working on their p
ortfolios for the upcoming conferences. You drop everything, and for two weeks focus strictly on creating portfolios. 3 reading examples with reflections, 2 writing pieces with reflections, 2 math papers, a spelling test, a piece of art, and the list goes on.

Portfolios are created for conferences, not necessarily to truly reflect student learning. WBPs allow content to easily be collected throughout the school year. Students might take a picture of their work, or something that represents their work, and put it in their portfolio. They might reflect on ten assignments, create and embed two videos, record themselves reading twice and write a reflection about it and upload all of it to their WBP.

Come conference time, the student creates a new category or tag called “conference 2010”. They then categorize or tag the content they want to show at the conference and are able to choose from a wealth of information-anything they want to show. They might in fact, show a sample of writing from 5th grade and one from 7th grade, demonstrating to their parents how they have grown as a writer over time. Or they may choose an audio recording of themselves reading as a 3rd grader not pronoucing their Rs correctly and then in 7th grade reading with emotion and having a great laugh about how far they have come and what they have worked on as a reader over time.

When we separate the WBP from the conference, it becomes a true vehicle of assessment for learning. With a WBP, educators can think about learning over time, in ways never before possible. We can find ways for students to deeply reflect on their own learning and allow students to truly own their learning. WBPs not only solve many of the issues that paper-based portfolios had, they create whole new assessment and reflection opportunities educators have only dreamed of.

Let me start this post with a disclaimer. There are a million ways to use blogs in education. The following is just one way we are using blogs at SAS.

As my time winds down here at SAS I find myself reflecting on the past three years and keep asking myself:

Did I leave a mark?

I think we all go through this and we all want this on some level. We want to know that our institution is better off because we were there. That somewhere we left a mark on a student, on the organization, or on fellow teachers. I think it’s a natural human feeling to reflect and hope that you have had a lasting positive effect at your workplace.

Last year I introduced blogging to SAS. A year later we have close to 700 student blogs/web sites and we’re closing in on 200 teacher blogs/websites. I say blogs/websites because I do believe the two are different and the way in which a user decides to use the space they have been given is up to them.

Last year we saw the blogs be “another thing” that we were doing at our school. This year thanks to some leaders in the classroom the blogs at certain grades have become just what we do.

Our middle school was been moving to a Student-Led Conference (SLC) format over the past two years. Personally I think it’s the only way to hold conferences with parents as it puts the student at the center of the learning process (what a concept). My last three years in the classroom I ran SLCs and at my last school in Saudi Arabia was head of a committee that saw us implement SLCs K-12 in our school (my lasting moment at that school).

Student-Led Conference are usually built around a portfolio created by the student. This year our 8th grade team with the help of Amanda DeCardy (8th Grade Math teacher, and next year a technology integrator for the school) set out to use the blogs as a place for student to produce, upload, and reflect on work in their classrooms. Essentially creating an e-portfolios.
Early in the year I sat down with the 8th grade team for about an hour and we discussed how students could organize their blogs using categories. 8th grade was a great year to start this project as the year before in 7th grade all of the students were exposed to blogging in their technology class which was taught by no other than…..me. 🙂

The students already had a fundamental understanding of blogging before the year began. The teachers then had the responsibility to help the students create an organizational structure on their blogs. One that would work for both class work and random reflections as well as for an e-portfolio. Each student with their advisory teacher (students have an advisory class that meets every other day in which the portfolios are created and maintained) set up an organization structure that worked for them and their blog.

This was the school’s first year using blogs as an e-portfolio platform but we also realized that not everything has to be done with technology so the Student-Led Conferences this year are a blended model of using both the blog as a way to reflect and a notebook portfolio.

Yesterday I talked with Amanda to see if we could get a student and their parents to let us record their Student-Led Conference to share with others both in and out of our school. For our school this will become a training video and at the same time allows us to share the great work our students are doing at our school.

If you have questions about the set up, the format or the use of Student-Led Conferences you can e-mail me or leave a comment below. Amanda is also willing to answer questions as well.

The one thing that I ask is that if you use this video at your school, or if you enjoy watching this very personal experience for a student that you PLEASE leave him a comment on his blog. He took a risk (dragging his family along with him). The least we can do is leave him a comment knowing the impact this video has had on you and your school.

Thank you Alexi and the Msays’ family for allowing us to share this with the world.

You can also download this video via iTunes on my On Deck podcast site.

My hope and vision for the blogs at SAS is this:

1.That they will be used as an e-portfolio platform for all students so that when a student leaves SAS whether in 9th grade to go to another school or when they graduate that they have a record of their learning that was shared with the world.

2.That teachers will continue to find innovative ways to use blogs for learning. E-Porfolios are just one aspect of the use of this very powerful and open platform. The ability to share knowledge with the world and receive feedback is a powerful learning journey.

3.That in two years time every student 5-12 has a school based blog that is part of their learning platform and is an embedded part of their schooling.