There are many things that I have waited to confess to my students until the time feels right. Over the years, I've told seniors that I chose my major in college because it had no math requirement. I've admitted to ninth graders that I was voted Class Procrastinator of my graduating high school class, and that I often finished my English essays in the hallways outside of my classrooms. And for my tenth graders, I confess this:
"I don't know if I could have done what I am asking you to do right now. And I tell you with absolute conviction that this means you will be more prepared to step into a college lecture hall or a boardroom than I ever was."
It's the truth, and often times, this is how we begin to talk about portfolios.
I work in a network of schools where students are asked to defend their mastery and growth by portfolio defense. They do this twice – once in tenth grade and once prior to graduation. Akin to a dissertation defense, students must stand in front of a panel and audience of their peers, teachers, parents, and even community members for over an hour and prove that:
- They have learned the content that was delivered… they know things.
- They can apply that knowledge to the larger world or to different contexts… they can do something real with what they learn in the classroom.
- That they can reflect on their process, as well as how they have been changed by their learning.
A portfolio defense system is not a new thing, it's just something I deeply believe in as I've witnessed how transformative it is for students to do something remarkable with their learning. Knowing, doing, and reflecting shifts the educational journey for the entire school community.
When talking with other teachers, it often seems like one of the biggest mysteries that faces us is what our students actually know. Many of us are drowning in assessments – formative, summative, original creations, state-mandated… and yet when asked to declare definitively what students actually know, many of us still feel uncertain.
Portfolio defense offers unequivocal feedback to both students and teachers in terms of what students have learned. When student after student gets up and is able to deeply explain allegory, I can feel confident that this was a successful moment in our experience together. And when very few of them are able to articulate why George Orwell chose to write in allegorical form, then I know what I need to do better next time. We all get clarity on what was surface level learning, and what really stuck in a different way than the score on a test in the moment, or an essay that was revised multiple times based on lots of feedback. We know what we really know.
Pushing students to make connections between knowledge and disciplines can be close to impossible when classes and content areas exist in isolation from each other. Portfolio defense requires students to identify the skills and content that they are gaining in one class, and make deep connections to other content areas or points of view.
Teachers collaborate with each other in order to help create inter-disciplinary projects and study, so that students can see a similar process of analysis whether looking at textual evidence from a piece by Shakespeare, or working through a quadratic equation.
I believe the true magic of portfolio defense comes to life when young people demonstrate their incredible capacity for recognizing and acknowledging, in specific and honest ways, their own process of growth and learning. Reflection is an elemental part of the learning structure. Without stepping back and looking at ourselves from a distance, we lose vital perspectives on why and how we did what we did, who we are because of that, and how we can do it better the next time.
The pride that emanates from students (and the adults who support them) after a portfolio defense is truly remarkable. They have done something extraordinary that many adults would struggle to do. And as Knowers, Doers, and Reflectors, they are becoming experts in the art of learning, which means we have done our jobs well. It is the crucial step that crystallizes the learning, transforms it from singular concepts into deeply interconnected growth, and leads us to what we do and who we are next.