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Electronic Appeal: Writing Portfolios Go Digital (The Council Chronicle, March 04)

Teachers and students are learning from each other when it comes to mastering digital portfolios. They report that taking writing online is both a bit scary and very exciting.

Kathleen Blake Yancey has spent considerable time in her professional life exploring portfolios, which she explains as "a collection of work that is a selection from a larger archive." They can be papers in a folder, or as is increasingly the case, they can be presented electronically on computers via computer disks or CDs or as Web sites.

No matter the presentation, Yancey says the key components of portfolios are collection, selection, reflection, and projection, meaning a student is actively engaged in the process of picking, refining, explaining, juxtaposing, and proposing next steps in his or her writing.

Currently Yancey is involved with several portfolio projects at Clemson University, where she is the R. Roy Pearce Professor of Communication. These include a digital portfolio in first-year composition courses and another in health sciences. She says the school has approved expanding a digital portfolio approach to general education courses. Yancey also serves as a consultant for portfolio projects across the country.

Two such projects in Virginia Beach have worked with print portfolios for several years and are now adopting electronic portfolios. One is a sixth- to twelfth-grade portfolio project for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. The other project is a partnership between Tidewater Community College and three Virginia Beach high schools.

Virginia Beach Public Schools

Lorna Roberson turned to portfolios because they seemed a natural way of showing student growth in writing over time. This coordinator of middle and high school English for the Virginia Beach Public Schools was very interested in finding ways to measure such growth and to help teachers track students' writing journeys.

So she set about taking the idea to English teachers. She wanted teachers to learn about portfolios and then to make decisions about the kind of portfolio that fit their teaching styles and also met the needs of their students.

Small groups of teachers worked with Yancey and took what they learned to others so that gradually the concept spread across the district to include the approximately 700 English teachers at 13 high schools and 15 middle schools.

Roberson believes that using a portfolio approach has improved writing instruction and student writing ability. She says scores on the state test have improved, and she is also impressed with the fact that after the original grant for the project ran out, the school board, superintendent, and assistant associate superintendent picked up the cost of continuing professional development in portfolios.

After about five years of working in print portfolios, the district is now moving to electronic portfolios. It's a transition that makes sense to Roberson. For one thing, she hopes it might help with the paper storage issue that print portfolios can present.

She expects to reach a goal gradually of having all English classes working in electronic portfolios, with a lot of talking about the process and "making sure that we have the infrastructure we need to help teachers be successful."

Overall, what really impresses her about a portfolio approach to writing instruction is seeing students and teachers interact in a collegial way. "I think it changes the relationship completely. Rather than 'here's the assignment, do it, and I'll collect it and evaluate it,' the meeting between teacher and student becomes 'let's look at this, let's talk about why you did this, what were you trying to do, and did you achieve it.' The student can then go back and improve [the piece of writing]."

High School English Instructional Specialist Fran Sharer believes it's a simple equation--a portfolio's emphasis on selection and reflection equals stronger writers. When Sharer moved out of a Virginia Beach classroom and into curriculum and instruction, she stayed involved with portfolio work, partly by incorporating the portfolio into curriculum guides.

Elizabeth Beagle, an English teacher at Landstown High School and Technology Academy in Virginia Beach, has seen a lot of teacher interest in electronic portfolios. She attributes this to the many benefits, which she lists as: "storage, ease of reading, option of alternative assessment, variety, and integration of state technology standards."

She also notes some hesitancy among teachers who might not be as familiar with technology. But Beagle encourages everyone to try it, suggesting they start out slowly and build as their skills and confidence do.

"I think what the electronic portfolio does for a lot of students is that it unlocks their minds. I know when I first started doing this, I had students who would have been reluctant to turn in a standard, written portfolio, but because it was digital, it intrigued them. They were able to express their personality, using fonts, color, and graphics." Enticed, students turned in a portfolio, even if the quality wasn't always stellar.

Beagle says students keep print portfolios, and then toward the end of the school year, they compile digital portfolios. She strives to move students a little farther ahead in their writing and computer abilities each year. This year, she's focusing on helping students think through and explain their design choices and Web links, as well as teaching them about features such as tracking changes and making comments.

She considers this time well spent. "I think that the skills they are learning are useful . . . I want them to think about their writing and reflect on why they make changes, and how those changes come into play and what it does to their final drafts. If I can get them to think about that intelligently, then I think it will be well worth the time."

High School/College Partnerships

Chris Jennings has discovered the benefits to a portfolio project that seeks to better align writing instruction between the secondary and post-secondary levels.

Jennings, who is associate professor of English at Tidewater Community College and Director of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) Writing Coalition, says the project got started because teachers at Salem High School in Virginia Beach wanted to know why students were being placed in remedial writing courses at Tidewater Community College and what they could do to boost student-writing achievement.

So began the effort to align writing instruction, which includes using portfolios, establishing a high school writing center, and encouraging conversations and innovations among high school and college teachers.

The Virginia Beach partnership has grown to involve Tidewater Community College and three high schools--Salem, Landstown, and Green Run. Instead of using the traditional placement method for Tidewater Community College, which is a computerized, multiple-choice editing test, educators are looking at the writing portfolios that students prepare during their senior years at these high schools to determine composition placement at Tidewater. Jennings says the college success of these students is higher than that of traditionally placed students.

Other schools now can implement the project, which is in a dissemination phase. So far, 10 postsecondary institutions across the country have teamed up with secondary-level partners to do so.

This team has been working with portfolios for about six years, with some making the switch to electronic portfolios during the past couple years. Jennings says they are applying for an FIPSE-funded grant to explore digital portfolios as an extension of the current efforts.

"One of the things we found in the print portfolio is the student's voice comes across," Jennings says, "but the digital gives students more of a chance to individualize a portfolio, which is something that definitely appeals to students."

For more about this project, you can read "'Why Do I Have to Take Remedial English?' A Collaborative Model to Solve a National Problem." This article by Chris Jennings and Jane Hunn appears in Teaching Writing in High School and College: Conversations and Collaborations (NCTE, 2002). To order this and other titles from the NCTE Bookstore, visit, call (toll free) 877-369-6283, or e-mail

You also can watch for "Postmodernism, Palimpsest, and Portfolios: Theoretical Issues in the Representation of Student Work," Kathleen Blake Yancey's article about digital portfolios in the June 2004 issue of College Composition and Communication. Yancey also will have an article on digital portfolios in Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice, a forthcoming title from NCTE.

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Most Recent Comments (1 Total Posts)

Posted By: Anonymous User on 3/10/2011 2:45:28 PM

Are the portfolios derived from essay assignments in the English classes at all levels of high school, and are the original finished essays read and commented on by the English teacher, indicating what was done well and what needed to be done better, including usage, syntax and mechanics mistakes?

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