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How we work in our class Part 2

Testing gives you a snapshot. Portfolios give you a movie. Dr. Helen Barret

Welcome back to part number two of my best practices. In this part, I will share ideas of a portfolio-based learning approach and a weekly plan model which supports students' self-assessment practice. These two ideas and ways of approaching teaching are not new, but they are powerful in making the learning environment more learner-centered. Like with every method or tool, the main questions are: "Why are you using it?" "What is its purpose and what are the wanted outcomes?" and "What skills does this tool or approach increase in students?".


For example, most of us have seen the situation where younger kinds start to run wildly and scream when they are finally "freed" to run into the gym. One of the main reasons for that phenomenon is observational motor learning. An individual mirrors and processes information coming through senses that helps the individual preserve their body parts concerning space, force, and time. Is this necessary to know? Maybe not, but at the same time, it explains this fun phenomenon and expands your understanding of it which might lead to a more planned approach.


The education field has not faced many significant changes since its early days. However, modern progress and increased demands from society to emphasize how to learn and the importance of soft skills have profoundly affected education. It has also provided new ways of examining learning and making learning more student-owned than before. So how can it even be that we are still trying to assess and evaluate cognitive skills as a reflection, critical thinking, or reasoning with the old-fashioned memory exams? It is pretty easy to agree that assessing these skills needs alternative assessment tools where individuals and groups can reflect and see their learning process. One of these alternative tools is an E-portfolio. Portfolio as its self is not a new method like mentioned above and has been used a lot in artistic fields. Portfolio use and approaches vary a lot, how and for what it is used, so that's why the definition is complex. The main idea is that the portfolio includes works of students and groups they have worked with. The student selects these products to show achievements, progress, and ways of thinking for himself and others. Thus, a portfolio combines two essential aspects of learning: process and outcome.


 

Portfolio


During the years, I have been trying to make a balance between process and product mindset. Of course, students like to see the final product of their works, especially when the Project-Based Learning approach is used because the whole process might last half of the semester. However, it is easy to forget where everything started and what nuances were during the journey, even if reflection pitstops have been provided. Therefore, portfolio and especially Google Sites have been my choice since it is user-friendly, and I have not found a better portfolio platform for the visual part.


A portfolio provides an excellent opportunity to support the learning process for all three main characters involved in the learning process: student, teacher, and guardians. It provides visual and dynamic proof about students' interests, skills, strong sides, successes, and development areas in a specific period. In addition, the portfolio is the systematic collection of the student's studies and reflections, and it gives students a chance to learn how they learn and helps teachers assess students as a whole.


So here are quick steps on how to start to build a good portfolio. The first step is to clarify and understand the different roles of each participant in the process.


STEP 1 - Participants

1) Student - The most crucial person in the learning process is, of course, the student itself. We have been talking about autonomy and freedom of choice, so how does it sound if you can influence everything in your portfolio, from the colors you use on your main page to writing your reflection on how your week went? Sounds quite engaging, at least to me and for most of the students that I have been teaching in the past and teach right now.


When we talk about motivation, we always come back to success or see the development in our own work, which is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. Such as, it has been fascinating to see how in ten weeks, some individuals started to write five short sentences when the starting point was to write five words based on the weekly launched video about week highlights. Or how five sentences have broadened to an even diary-type of organized self-reflection time during the days. I have noticed that when students can pick up their best parts of learning, they are also more open-minded to accept help while practicing skills they are not handling yet.


For example, one of the students started his portfolio by adding only pictures because he couldn't write words. Still, because of the practice and the motivation to write about his week to get an extra Classcoin, he is now adding single words to the pictures to describe his feelings. You can imagine his smiling face when we went through his progress during the first ten weeks.

2) Guardians - It is always a good approach to explain learning environments, structures, and targets to parents/guardians because home plays a significant role in creating the best possible support network for the learner. While we practice self-regulation skills and experiment with different learning strategies, guardians must know how a student is processing to support in the best possible ways.


I am currently working at a school where we do not have any traditional hardcopy books for everyone as daily learning materials. Every material is done and differentiated by the teacher in every subject. In my class, we use the Project-Based Learning approach, which gives everyone a chance to contribute to the same topic but with totally different objectives and materials. This approach is sometimes very confusing for the parents who have been used to having books and subject-based schedules. During the first meeting with the parents, I agree with them that at the beginning, it is hard to follow their kid's progress when we do not have any books. Still, at the same time, I provide a more authentic way to see what we are doing as a team and emphasize that, most importantly, how their kid is learning. In the beginning, parents are cautious. Still, after the first ten-week spell, I have received comments like, "Anton, the next step is to install a camera in your class because, during the Student X learning path, we have never been that close to the learning and activities X is doing during the week." Positive feedback is always lovely, but here, the most considerable success from my side is that parents are more connected to their kids.

3) The teacher plays a critical role in making the portfolio purposeful and meaningful, especially when kick-starting the ideology of the learning approach. The teacher is the engine of explaining and making students more involved in their learning from an assessment point of view, encouraging them to take responsibility for their learning, and, most importantly, guiding them to see the learning process. One of the most significant advantages of a portfolio is the continuous feedback students receive from their peers, teacher, and guardians. Thus, allowing the teacher to connect better with the students and notice progress more effectively.


A desirable portfolio is not just a collection of students' work over a period without a clear direction. Ideally, a portfolio is as student-centered as possible, where students see themselves as unique members who contribute on individual and team levels. At the same time, the teacher is guiding and creating an environment where students can make choices no matter whether they are correct or not.


 

STEP 2 - Main questions

The first question you can ask yourself is what the purpose of the usage of a portfolio is?


The answer to this question will help you and your students determine what work is fittable for it? My advice is to keep it simple and concentrate on the learning goals and key areas of learning, which show strengths and areas of improvement, and don't forget success stories, never mind the subject or topic.


My answers are:

  • Assess teaching methods/practices and their suitability with the student.

  • Help students remember how their days and weeks have gone and what they have been doing as individuals and a group.

  • Support students practice self-assessment and show that they can learn and progress related to their goals with necessary practice.

  • Connect home and school to be more collaborative and make the information flow more transparent from a teacher's point of view.


The second question is, what kind of data or materials are wanted to be included in the portfolio?


Here making and showing clear objectives is vital while taking students into conversation and asking their opinions on what skills they want to learn. In this part, our class has three mandatory topics set by me that are systematically filled throughout the week. The main areas here are to promote learning by doing-process, develop reflection skills (especially writing and multiliteracy), and extend students' understanding of how they learn. Even though we are focusing on reading and writing skills, many students have been adding audio and video files to answer and explain the given tasks.

  • Science part - Our science lessons always starts with a functional demo where we research various phenomenons: Like emulsion where students have been simulating oil catastrophe on the sea by collecting spilled oil from the water by using different methods like chalk or demonstrating how our lungs are working by creating a model using a plastic bottle and balloon. All hands-on activity is collected into video, which is shared with the students and afterward explained by students' own words what happened and added to the explanation of the topic made by me.


  • Video of our week - This part has been the most popular with all the groups I have had during my career, and because of that, I am using it also with the current group. Every Friday, which is named Positive Friday, we have a premiere of a new blockbuster movie at our last lesson. The main characters are all students from our class. The video is around 2min, and it revises our week by photos and videos. Students and I take pics of the most amazing and exciting stuff we have explored or done every week. The videos have been created so far by me by the KineMaster app, but I already have two volunteer students who are learning how to make videos by themselves. The videos are used as material in our studies. Everyone needs to transport the video from our class Google Classroom site to their portfolios and write about the week guided by the assistance questions. As you see, the idea is simple but rewarding.

  • I live and learn - In this section, students include different parts of their works and explain what has been done. Additionally, they write down the reason for choosing the theme, assignment, or final product. Students are guided to select at least three products/themes/assignments from each week by the following categories:

1) This was the most exciting part of the week.

2) I learned new material or context.

3) This part challenged me. Still, I did my best even though future revision/support is needed.

The difference to the video of our week part is that students are going more specific in their choices and topics we have been learning. Students are also practicing reflection, data analyzing, and, most importantly see what they have learned and where they need more practice. From a teacher's point of view, this process allows one to spot areas of the students' needs and provide a more learner-centered approach while combining students with their peers more productively. Variations of the groups diversify a lot from the level of support needed. Still, I try to put everyone into a "professional" position where individuals can support and guide others.

During the last ten weeks, two other topics have been raised and included in the portfolio by the students initiative:


  • My feelings - Some students wanted to write about their feelings and their reasons. This initiative came up after our regular use of Zones of Regulation and Positive Friday day activities. In this part, students can freely express themself in a more diary writing mode which has provided "therapeutic" moments and development of writing skills during the days.

  • Games I like to play - Games play an enormous part in many students' lives, so why not take some elements from them and enhance school work simultaneously? Even though I am a fan of physical activity more than E-games, but like we know, you use all the chips and tricks you are given. This part is divided into two sections: description of games and game design.

  • In the first section, students describe games they are playing and develop their planning and vision skills while practicing making strategies for accomplishing given tasks in the games they play.

  • The second section was sighted by the first one when we started to talk about what kind of games students wanted to create. This conversation led to the creation of own board games for the whole school. This event was a hit during the last week before autumn vacation, and most importantly, students' self-esteem grew when other school members praised their work. I feel that this part and future game creation opportunities will take some students' motivation high.

The third question is what the criteria of assessment are?


As mentioned before, the purpose and objectives of the portfolio need to be provided and discussed with the students. Students cannot be forgotten in the criteria of assessment conversation either. Assessment criteria which are decided to evaluate the level of the student's performance should be clear and easy to understand and mirror the student's individual learning plans.


Examples:


One of my student's targets is to improve his reading skills; we have agreed that the student collects texts he has been reading during the project and includes them in his portfolio. Additionally, we have also added audio samples of his reading to the portfolio, making his portfolio even more authentic.


Another student's target in his Personal Learning Plan is related to improving his fine and gross motor skills. During the first ten weeks, his improvement has been palpable. For example, we practice cutting with scissors, tweezers, foot strengthening, and different balancing methods (static and dynamic). However, the most significant progress has been seen in throwing the ball up in the air and clapping hands before catching the ball, which started from not catching the ball to the point where two claps are the best result. Videos and pictures of activities can be found in the portfolio with the comments of the student.




 

Weekly plan - model


The main idea of a weekly plan is to maintain students' freedom of choice inside the learning context and increase a chance for the teacher to provide more targeted support to the individuals or small teams. The weekly plan also plays a big part in ongoing students' self-assessment practice and helps guardians see the workload and objectives for the week. Workload and goals provided by the weekly plan are also for the students who can prepare for the week and see the tasks beforehand, which releases anxiety from some individuals. The weekly plan does not include all the assignments provided during the week but those expected at least to be done at home or school. For example, instead of using word homework in our class, we use ongoing projects that need to be done.


I have three different weekly plans for three different group combinations based on the student's personal learning paths and objectives for learning. Thus, everyone feels like part of the group, even inside the topics, where goals vary from practicing hyphenating to expanding vocabulary and writing self-created stories. While students practice self-assessment of their work, they can also see their team members' self-assessments, which has slowly enhanced social interactions between peers and even enabled a couple of learning from each other sessions.


By the way, if you are interested in creating an E -version of the weekly plan in Google Sheets. I would recommend checking the following instructional video where Pekka Peura and Lauri Hellsten explain step by step how to use Google Sheets for it.




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