The Senior Exit Portfolio: Measuring the Lifelong Practices through Student Reflection
The ELA teachers in the Herricks School District on Long Island have engaged in much thinking over the years to focus on best practices for our students. Herricks is a K-12 district situated on Long Island in a diverse community with over 30 different languages spoken in our students’ homes. Just a short distance from Manhattan and area hospitals, many of our students’ parents hold professional positions or own their own businesses. Like many school districts on Long Island, we have a growing ENL student population. Most of our students are college-bound with many of them attending four-year institutions.
Similar to all teachers across the state, we feel the pressures of high-stakes testing and limited time. With those restrictions a given, I decided to lead teachers in a reflective exercise at a department meeting a few years ago to focus on what matters most. I asked the teachers two simple questions: what do you value and how do you measure what you value? Teachers put sticky notes on the wall with their responses, and we quickly found that what we valued had not changed much since we all entered the teaching profession. We wanted to provide students with a love of reading and writing, the skills to succeed in their future challenges, and the ability to be empathetic citizens who will make positive contributions to our society.
When the draft of the New York State Next Generation Standards came out, we looked at the Lifelong Practices of Readers and Writers first. We immediately noticed how aligned our thinking had been with this new document. Teachers felt encouraged by this addition to the Next Generation Standards.
At the same time that we began to look at the new standards, we had been discussing ways of changing our experience for our 12th grade English students. Teachers of our English 12 course experimented with new ways to challenge our seniors and to keep them engaged throughout the year. Through teacher collaboration and professional development at the annual NYSEC Conference in Albany, several teachers had begun to institute an inquiry-based project modeled after the Google-genius hour. This project, completely self-designed by students, engaged them more than anything else we did with them. Further, we knew that we had to create a new end-of-year summative assessment that would both motivate students and provide teachers with an accurate view of what students had learned from the course.
The Exit Portfolio was born. I had seen versions of this type of portfolio at the Edleader 21 annual event, so when I suggested the portfolio to the English 12 teachers, I had little more than a nugget of an idea. Not surprisingly, the teachers ran with it – we asked ourselves, what do we want students to be able to demonstrate to us as they leave our high school ELA program? Immediately, teachers turned to the Lifelong Practices of Readers and Writers. These traits were the ones that we have been trying to instill in students since an early age (even before this document existed officially). Most of our students have spent 13 years in our system; it was time for them to show us what they have learned.
We designed a project asking them to do exactly that. Through a combination of newly created work along with reflections on past work and experiences in ELA, we asked students to create a portfolio that showed what students had learned about the lifelong practices.
Last year we piloted this project in the second semester. We asked students to reflect on each bullet point under the Lifelong Practices and to provide evidence from their experiences. We challenged students to continue to self-select new reading and write new pieces throughout so they could demonstrate their achievement of these practices. Further, we asked students to reflect on their past – what reading and writing pieces had influenced them most? What have they learned about themselves as readers and writers? What conclusions could they come to about themselves as learners? How might this information help them as they go off to college?
In addition, when they completed all of that work, most importantly, we asked them to do a presentation.
Overall, the first year of the project was a success with the need to revise some parts (of course). We had found a project that second-semester seniors actually enjoyed – no easy task. At a time in their lives when they are struggling with their identities, thinking about how college will change who they are, and reminiscing about their time spent in high school, the Exit Portfolio provided an academic outlet for their complex emotions and reflections. Some students were able to go back to their writing pieces from elementary school to reflect on pivotal moments for them; others returned to their favorite picture books from childhood or young adult novels that inspired them.
Of course, we learned a lot too: from the nuts and bolts – the teachers learned that this project needs to start very early in the second semester because it is a long one – to the more nuanced – students were overwhelmed by receiving the large assignment all at once. Teachers adapted on the fly last year to break down the project into its smaller components, providing scaffolding to help students get to the end product (a project that extended over 25 pages in most cases, including reading logs and journals, writing logs and pieces, and the various reflective components).
This project also made us reconsider our practices K-12. Students wanted the opportunity to reflect on their experiences with reading and writing, but in some cases, they did not have the evidence readily available or they could not remember what they had read. For years, we have discussed instituting some type of ongoing record of student reading. With the Senior Exit Portfolio as the end goal, we realized that we needed a formal way of tracking student reading. This year, the department decided to have every student create a Digital Reading Record that tracks a student’s reading over the course of each year. Students use Google Slides to keep a running record of what they have read as full-class texts and through their self-selected reading. Further, we have emphasized the use of Google Drive to house student writing so that students will have a wide array of possible pieces to reflect on.
Some of our ideas did not come to fruition last year, but maybe another school district out there could find a way to implement them. One of our favorite ideas is to have a panel for the student presentations akin to a dissertation committee. Ultimately, we would love to have a panel of teachers from K-12 sit on this panel, perhaps even an invited guest of the student, to offer feedback and praise on the student’s reflection of his or her career.
Ultimately, the Lifelong Practices of Readers and Writers from the Next Generation Standards have helped us design an end of program assessment that offers the opportunity for students to reflect on their experiences and growth while thinking about how their learning will influence their future. We share this project in the hope that other students will have this opportunity and that we can collaborate with our colleagues across the state on improving this valuable experience for all.
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