Portfolios: How Those Plastic Milk Crates Became My Friend (and Helped Me Tackle Paperwork)

Portfolio grading is all the rage in elementary school. And I get it. I do. It’s the most accurate way to monitor student growth throughout the year. But elementary teachers only have one roster of students. In secondary education, portfolio grading is nearly impossible. With at least six different rosters of students at about 25 students each (if you’re lucky…), portfolio grading simply requires time that teachers do not have.

It is possible, though, to incorporate some aspects of portfolio grading in secondary classrooms. One way teachers do this is periodic, though perhaps infrequent, student conferences to go over writing, assessments, and general progress. That, too, consumes a lot of time, and depending on the makeup of your classes, may not be feasible, as it requires the teacher to be focused on one (or a small group) of students while the remainder work independently (alone or in small groups). I know I’ve had many classes that – despite my best efforts – would become a three-ring circus if I tried student conferences.

Several years ago, my district adopted a curriculum that strongly encouraged the use of portfolios in the secondary classroom. I’d been teaching long enough by that time to know I would not be able to implement it in the way it was intended, but I was determined to try something and see how much I could do. I fully intended to do some type of student conference at some point in the year, so I had to make sure I kept the record of student work in my possession. Because, let’s face it: if we gave our students their work and told them to hold onto it until later, we’d never see it again. Instead of handing graded work back to students, I began filing them in folders. I had to get creative with this because I didn’t have access to any filing cabinets that I could use hanging files with (and, looking back, wouldn’t have wanted to use it anyway), so I used the next best thing: milk crates.

Did you know that milk crates are the exact size to fit hanging file folders? Well, they are. I bought a bajillion hanging file and manila folders and made portfolios for each class. I let students decorate their manila folders (which they loved – even the high schoolers), and all their work went in there.

I never got around to student conferences that year (or any subsequent year #teacherfail), but the use of these milk crate files had an unexpected benefit: It lessened lost work. Both students and I had access to the work from throughout the year. This meant that they could use old assignments to study. It meant they could find and correct assignments for additional credit. It meant I had a student’s (mostly complete) work record at my fingertips, and I had ammunition for parent conferences. I brought the files with me and set them in front of parents who were demanding an explanation for a student’s grades. It shut people up pretty quickly when they saw the quality of work (and, in some cases, lack of work altogether) their child was producing. This was true for my administration as well, if they had questions about a student’s work or grades.

It’s an easy thing to implement, and it saved me a lot of time and headaches with paperwork. Now, they’re a staple in my classroom every year, and I even “hire” a paper captain to do all the filing for me. I have more time and energy to devote to teaching, which is, of course, the entire point.

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