Three Recommended Technologies for Digital Student Portfolios

Right now I am closing in on finishing Chapter 4 of my upcoming ASCD book Digital Student Portfolios: A Guide for Powerful Formative Assessment (working title).

The first three chapters offer a definition of digital portfolios and why they should be utilized in every school. Now I am at the fun part: Describing the technologies that can be used for this type of initiative.

Next is a graphic I have “rendered” that summarizes the pros and cons of each of the three recommended technologies for digital portfolios: blogs, dedicated portfolio applications, and websites. It’s a draft. What are your thoughts on this topic? What am I missing or possibly misinformed in my knowledge about these tools? Please share in the comments.

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Opting In

Testing season is upon us. In our Title I elementary school in Central Wisconsin, we have had students preview the computerized assessment. The Chromebooks have been configured and the wireless tested. For the next six weeks, all 3rd through 5th grade students will be taking the Forward Exam, our third different standardized test in as many years.

All of our students except one: My son. He will be sitting this one out.

Our reasons are many. As a parent, I don’t believe the test will glean any useful information about his abilities as a learner. As our school’s principal, I want to set the example with regard to my position on this issue. As a person, having a student sit for multiple hours taking an examination that will have no bearing on his school career makes little to no sense. Students at this age cannot advocate for themselves.

This is not a simple or straightforward decision. Our school has been the recipient of $100,000 in state-level grants for the past three years in large part due to our student achievement results. We have taken pride in receiving these awards, in spite of the reality of how we received them. If other families in our school elected to opt out their kids, our school could lose federal funding – 95% of a school’s student body has to take the test to avoid sanctions. As I said, not so simple.

For these reasons, we are not only opting our son out of this year’s standardized test; we are also opting him into a performance portfolio assessment.

While the rest of the student body is testing, my son and I will be working together to develop an online repository of different artifacts that demonstrate his progress and performance during the school year. Each artifact will be accompanied with a personal reflection about why he included the piece and what knowledge, skill or disposition it showcases about him as a learner. We are using Google Sites for this process. He can take this digital portfolio with him throughout his school career, adding to it and replacing artifacts when appropriate.

I have no problem with families electing to opting their child(ren) out of the standardized test. It certainly makes a point and, collectively, can lead to some much needed change in education. At the same time, when we express our dissatisfaction with something currently happening, I believe we should also be offering some alternatives and creative solutions. Otherwise, we may create a vacuum that gets filled with something pretty similar to the problem we were trying to get rid of in the first place.

If we are opting out our kids of the standardized test, let’s be honest about why with them. When I spoke to my son about this decision, I explained that I believe developing a performance portfolio of his best work from the school year was a better way to showcase his learning than a standardized test. (He responded with, “I’m not sure what you are talking about, so I’ll just go with it.”) I also shared with him that this decision was both taking a position on an important issue and offering a solution to the problem.

Opting out is easy. Coming up with solutions is harder, yes, but it is also an essential part of advocating for equity in public education. Why not be a part of the solution?

How do we separate achievement and effort?

Our family recently stayed at my parent’s place, on our way to a short family vacation in Madison. My mother was rummaging around in some of my stuff from my school career and pulled out a college paper I had composed. Written on the title page of my work (a report about The Doors for an elective course in American music) were three words:

Two days late.

I remember this work because I actually enjoyed writing it. We were allowed to choose which musician(s) to research. The professor left a number of positive comments on it with regard to the content and organization of the paper. After rereading it, I thought I had provided some sound conclusions about the influence of The Doors on other artists and rock and roll in general. It was saved since the 1990s, when I took the course, if that says anything.

What I don’t remember is that it was two days late. Really – no clue. My best guess is that I probably didn’t organize my time well enough to complete it by the due date. College offers a lot of distractions! 🙂 There were a few grammatical errors that might have been corrected had I been more diligent about a writing schedule, something I try to do now.

At the end of the paper was my grade = C. The biggest factor: The 20% that was docked off my final score, 10% for each day late. I was given a C for an A paper.

That was back in the 90’s. Education has come so far since then.

In a column written for Education Week, Nancy Flanigan addresses the varied comments left on a teacher’s post. The subject of the post was the failure of her students to complete her assigned activity while she was away. “What an incompetent sub! Give ’em all zeros!” and “Candy and a free day for the five compliant ones!” were a few suggestions.

Being able to communicate a student’s attitude and responsibility a part from their understandings and skills is an issue still today. There isn’t a perfect system. Standard-based grading gets us closer. But, with all of the standards teachers need to tackle, the management itself of this type of reporting can become overwhelming and burdensome.

What have you found more effective in separating achievement from effort? Please share in the comments and start a conversation.


Podcast: Five Commonly Accepted Myths About Education Technology @BAMRadio @ASCD

I joined Dr. Rachael George for a podcast on BAM Radio to discuss my ASCD Arias book 5 Myths About Classroom: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning?  Enjoy!

Student Engagement Still Low in U.S. Schools

I don’t often repost other bloggers’ content, so when I do…

Scott McLeod shared on his blog survey results from Gallup about the level of engagement in learning that secondary students are experiencing. When almost 1 million students state that they become less engaged the more years they spend in school, this is a cause for alarm. These results say more about education than any test score might reveal. Below is his post.

The latest results are available from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students. Over 920,000 students participated last fall. Here are a couple of key charts that I made from the data:

2015 Gallup Student Poll 1

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2015 Gallup Student Poll 2

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The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘lifelong learners’.

Why do you think students continue to become more disengaged as they progress through our school systems? Please share your ideas in the comments.

From Idea to Iteration: Honoring the Process of Learning #IPDX16

41t7g4xHHzL._SX258_BO1204203200_One of my favorite books to read aloud, to staff and students, is What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and Kae Besom (Compendium, 2014). According to the summary posted on Barnes and Noble:

This is the story of one brilliant idea and the child who helps to bring it into the world. As the child’s confidence grows, so does the idea itself. And then, one day, something amazing happens.

This is a story for anyone, at any age, who’s ever had an idea that seemed a little too big, too odd, too difficult. It’s a story to inspire you to welcome that idea, to give it some space to grow, and to see what happens next. Because your idea isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s just getting started.


It’s been a year and a half since I published my first book on digital portfolios for students. In the time between then and now, my beliefs regarding the smart use of technology to provide authentic, connected assessment for students to showcase their understanding and skills have largely stayed the same. I continue to reference this resource in my workshops, such as the one I facilitated today at AcceleratED.

The consistency in the concept that learners require access, purpose, and audience for this type of learning to take place gives credibility to what I’ve shared today and in the past. This is what I knew at the time:

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Source: Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (eBook, 2014)

The visual was designed to locate access as the cornerstone for all of the other work we might engage students in with regard to digital assessment. The purpose of the learning task and the audience for this work would envelope the access students require to share their learning in ways that best meet their needs and preferences.

My thinking has not changed in these three tenets of engagement with digital assessment. However, I am wondering if this visual is the only representation for this framework. As I was flying over the Rockies from Denver on my way to Portland for the excellent AcceleratED experience, a new visual coalesced.


This graphic was not rendered with the same production quality as the previous graphic, but the difference is hopefully clear. By provide access to students with multiple ways to represent their learning (audio, video, image, text), they can feel more successful as well as better inform the teacher about the next steps (purpose) in their learning journey. Motivation is increased when there is an authentic audience involved in viewing student learning, namely their family through digital tools such as FreshGrade ( One tenet of engagement informs the other, which informs the other, and back again. Kind of like learning! 🙂

In my subsequent experiences as a school principal who visits classrooms regularly since writing this digital resource, I have found that the digital portfolio assessment process is as much of a cycle as well as a framework. Was I wrong in my initial thinking? I don’t think so. It was my paradigm at the time. I think the premise still holds true. What I’ve realized since then is, what I imagine as a mental model doesn’t necessarily translate to reality. As a lifelong learner, I’ve received a lot of feedback from other educators and explored different perspectives on this topic. The more I learn, the more questions I have.


The main message from What Do You Do With an Idea? is that when we share something new and possibly innovative to the world, it is hard to predict where the idea might lead. Others start to own it, put their personal stamp on it, and eventually make it their own. This is okay. I have given digital portfolio assessment “some space to grow, and to see what happens next.” It wasn’t my original idea anyway. The initial framework has evolved due to other educators’ perspectives and from my own reflections. Who am I to stop these continuous iterations? I look forward to what the framework might look like in 2017.



Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement: Start with Success (and lots of interesting books)

This is the third entry in a series of posts I have written about my experiences in increasing literacy engagement at the schoolwide level. Click here and here to read the first two installments.

I have been meeting weekly with a group of 5th grade boys as part of a book club. We have lunch together and talk about books, at least when it suits them.

Their teacher emailed me recently. “Do the boys have to read The City of Ember? They aren’t reading it at home. I think it is too challenging for them. Plus, I have finally got ____ reading another book independently.” We had selected, together, to read this science fiction book out of a preview stack provided by me.

Fresh Starts

Students who struggle with reading struggle for a variety of reasons. Maybe they lack reading role models, or there aren’t a lot of books in the home. Decoding, fluency, or language processing might be a challenge. The culture in a classroom or school may not conducive to lifelong reading as a habit, a shared belief that this is something “we all do”.

I think all of these situations can be traced back to a common theme: Lack of success. Students who are nonreaders do not equate reading with positive consequences. Their previous attempts to become better readers have resulted in perceived failure due to the reasons listed previously. As these nonreaders grow older, their peers too often do not value reading, and therefore it becomes cool to not read.

Nah, I don’t read on the weekend. It’s the only chance I get to play on my PS4!

I doubt the validity of this student’s response. Even so, reading has never had more competition in students’ lives than in today’s connected world. So how do we connect reading with a student’s reward center?


I am not a big fan of house projects. “Hate” would be too strong a descriptor, but let’s just say my family knows not to bother me when I am trying to fix an appliance or a household item.

One area in which I do feel confident regarding home repairs is light fixtures. I’ve successful replaced three different ceiling fans/lights in our current house. This didn’t happen by accident. My father-in-law helped me with the initial projects. These forays into home repair were easier tasks: Uninstall the old fixture, rewire the new one, and secure it to the ceiling. What is important is that I was doing the lion’s share of the work. My father-in-law was there to help hold up the light fixture and offer suggestions for tools, but I was doing the repairing and installing.

Scaffolding in reading obviously looks different than a home project, but the premise is the same: Offer opportunities for initial success, and then gradually raise the complexity for the tasks with the right amount of support. With this idea in mind, I had the three students in our book club read the graphic novel adaptation of The City of Ember. They devoured it within a day or two. I also suggested the movie adaptation, which one of the students watched over holiday break. In addition, the audiobook version was made available to them through our school library.

Our conversations blossomed after their initial exposure to the story line. “Do you think it was a good idea for Doon to trade jobs with Lina?” one student asked a friend. We had a lively debate about how the story might have been different had Lina not been a messenger and subsequently did not discover some of the secrets of Ember. No, we had not read the original novel. But our group still enjoyed the story itself. How we experienced the story was what changed.


While the story was known to our club, they still had not “read it” in its truest form. The little details that only a novel can provide were still left uncovered, unknown, and unappreciated.

However, our group’s purpose was not to read The City of Ember, but to become more habitual about reading. They now had a connection between a story and enjoyment, so we decided to capitalize on this.

I brought in a box of books from a local children’s book store. The owner was familiar with high-interest texts that were also accessible for many readers. Over break, I read a number of the books both with my own children and independently to become familiar with them before making recommendations to the book club and the students’ peers.

This led into our first project: Bless a bunch of books. Two copies of each book from the Joey Pigza and City of Ember series were purchased, along with a variety of other texts. Most were fiction. A few of the novels, such as Zero Tolerance, contained content that were appropriate for a middle level audience. These “edgy” books was sure to pique students’ interests.

Our group’s jobs included stamping the books with the Howe Elementary School logo and discussing how we might present these texts to our classmates.

Student 1: I will share the first City of Ember and then you two can do the second and the third.

Student 2: You haven’t read the first one yet? How can you share it?

Me: Maybe not having read all of the book could be a benefit? I mean, he’s (Student 1) not going to give anything away, plus he can show how much he wants to finish it.

Student 2: Hmm…good point. Mr. Renwick, you can share the fourth one in the series?

Our conversations were very informal, yet authentic and directly related to our goal of increasing reading engagement. How often does this happen in classrooms? My guess is not a lot. We are busy doing so much of the work for students, such as cataloging and blessing the books, activities that really belong to them. Giving students ownership in the entire reading process in a classroom can increase their self-concept because we show them – not tell them – that we trust their judgment.

Supply and Demand

In a blog post on Stenhouse a few years back, Peter Johnston summarized the findings he and Gay Ivey observed when adolescent students are given few reading requirements other than to read a lot of books and talk about their reading with peers. One of the tenets of this research was to intentionally limit the number of high-interest titles available to students to 1-3 copies. The purpose was to create an artificial demand for these books, forcing students to have conversations about what they were reading and how far they were along in them, i.e. “When you are going to be done with that book?”.

On our big day, the students took center stage.


Standing at the front, these three students were now seen as readers. How might this have changed their perceptions about themselves?

Once all of the books were recommended, we let the 5th graders have a look at what was available now in their classroom library.


The few remaining titles was evidence that our student-led book talk was a success.


Following Up

As I saw students from this classroom in school after our book talk, I asked them about how their current reading was going.

I couldn’t get Zero Tolerance right away, so I am reading Jungle of Bones instead.

Right now I am reading Sunny Side Up. Michael let me read it next because he was already done with it.

Can we read the Joey Pigza books out of order? Someone said I shouldn’t, but the first one isn’t available yet.

These comments served as helpful data to assess the level of engagement students were experiencing with independent reading.

So…where do we go from here? First, this is one snapshot. Today’s success is not necessarily tomorrow’s results, although this classroom is set up to let readers read with abandon. Second, what happens in one classroom does not translate to the entire school. It certainly doesn’t mean that these practices aren’t happening in other classrooms. But for a school to go building-wide with any change, there has to be a level of dissemination among faculty, a sharing of ideas that will lead to building a collective capacity for increasing reading engagement.

Until next time!