Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Future Starts . . . in Wausau, Wisconsin?

You just never know where good ideas will show up first, but even I was surprised to discover that an elementary school in Wausau, Wisconsin has a fifth-grade teacher who has been helping his students create digital portfolios for TEN years.   Actually, the story was in the Wausau Daily Herald, but the class is held in Rib Mountain, which looks like a tranquil green (or white, as the season may be) suburb of Wausau.  

The story was picked up by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development people at ASCD Smart Brief, a group that has distinguished itself for extensive professional development for teachers and school leaders--and their advocacy for a "whole child" approach to education.  Now, that "whole child" term has a kind of touch-feely, California whoo-whoo feel to it, but these are serious people backed by solid research and located near the public policy hub in Alexandria, Virginia.  ASCD can actually ask questions about "Is it good for the children?" and create symposia that consider such topics as "Ten Components of Personalized Learning."  

So I am heartened to find on their news brief this small article from the Wausau daily that highlights the portfolio-producing teacher, Brad Schmicker.   Even in Wausau, the daily newspaper thought to put the words "analysis" and "higher thinking" in their headline, so why is it so difficult to convince our representatives inside the Beltway that those might be admirable ways to evaluate all student work?   Yes, I know, how would they "account" for schools without their numbers?!

But picture this:  The ten-year-olds in Schmicker's class use PowerPoint (finally a good use of this utility) to pull together photos, audio clips of their own performances and oral reading, video snips, and their personal thoughts about what they are learning--in all their subjects.  I know this may seem stunning, but imagine what these kids are learning, not only about their subject matters or their own talents, but also about how learning occurs and how they are progressing as they go through the year.  This is the area called metacognition, or reflective learning, surely the highest level of recursive thought and a seriously important way of stimulating and prolonging student self-motivation and lifelong engagement.   And what better way to demonstrate to parents what kids are actually doing and how they are progressing in their personal growth, as Schmicker does at the end of each year? 

That's the extent of the article, and I'm going to bet that the portfolios end there and do not follow the kids into middle school, but imagine the possibilities:  What if students were to begin their video portfolios in their earliest school years, when classes are smallest and personal attention is actually possible?   What if students began with saying their ABC's and the next year showed their progress in a video of themselves learning to read, followed by video/audio clips of themselves progressing in their reading each year?  Think kids would be interested in their own progress then? 

What if schools could elaborate on that simple format to have students record orally at first, and then in writing, what they believed to be worthwhile about their learning?  What if all of this were presented to parents during teacher-parent discussions each year?  Do you think parents would be more involved, more responsive, more willing to participate? 

What if these portfolios could continue through middle school and high school (sometime in that wonderful future when we institute personalized learning for EVERY age level and invest real money in making that happen)?  What if these accumulated portfolios formed the foundation for an edited version that were sent with the student's application to college, elaborated a million times by those more complex experiences and activities of later years?  Can you imagine a better way of introducing each student and helping him or her find that perfect career and college fit?

Well, the questions are not all rhetorical, because more and more colleges are doing the sensible thing and moving away from ACT/SAT scores as the standards of admission, because even they realize how narrow a picture such scores paint of each student.  At the center of such efforts is an organization called FairTest in Boston, which recently reported that more than 830 four-year colleges and universities are no longer basing admissions on tests, but rather on more creative forms of expression, such as student portfolios.

With the proliferation, at last, of computers in schools and even a few schools that provide laptops for each child, the day of the student portfolio--demonstrating student progress in all areas throughout their K-12 experience--cannot be far behind.  This is precisely the type of reflective learning that can give all students ownership of their own learning and provide a sense of meaning and direction for their accomplishments.  At last, something for parents to actually talk about with their own students and with their teachers, rather than the usual one-way dialogue of grades, test scores, and "lack of motivation" discussions.

To take this a step farther, consider the possibilities of the portfolio when combined with projects that actually engage students in their own learning.  Here is one of the best all-time examples of a whole school and then a whole sequence of schooling built around the idea that students learn better when they are actually interested in what they are doing (I know, this is NOT brain surgery, truly!):  Take a look at an Edutopia report on the Key Learning Community, a K-12 public school in Indianapolis.  If you click on the photo at the top of the article, you will go to a 2009 update on the school, which began in 1987 and has been adding grades ever since.  They have a ten-year track record as a K-12 school now: successful, collegial, creative, smart, collaborative.  All the teachers who responded to the original article just want to know how to sign up; imagine how many parents would fight to get their kids admitted there!

So here's the moral of this story:  If you're a teacher, start talking about portfolio-making for every child.  In the computer age (a little late to education, but still . . .) this is not nearly the forbidding task that it once seemed when we first started talking about portfolios and other means of "authentic assessment" way back in the '80s.  If you're a parent, start talking to teachers and board members about portfolios for every kid.  If you're a homeschooler because none of this was happening in your school, I hope you're having your children maintain just such portfolios right now! 

Changing the schools to something a little more about human progress and a little less about test scores has to be our work every day.  Congratulations, Brad Schmicker, you are certainly doing your part!  Hmmm . . . Rib Mountain, Wisconsin . . . Indianapolis, Indiana . . . the Midwest is just quietly going about its school reform, while on both coasts and in Washington, DC, the roar of the "school reformers" out-decibels the collaborative efforts of real educators, and the parents who support them.  Come to Facebook and join ChangeTheSchools in turning the tide on that endless debate, and putting fun and meaning back into education.


  1. Patricia,

    Refreshing to hear! A few others in that neck of the woods doing similar authentic learning approaches include: Wausau Engineering and Global Leadership Academy, DC Everest's IDEA Charter School (opening next year). They build collection and showcase portfolios using Project Foundry (


    Shane Krukowski
    Milwaukee, WI

  2. Yes, there are terrific pockets of things like this going on all over the place . . . and thanks for these new (to me) links! You have a great-looking blog, by the way. Hope you and yours will come by to help build a new vision of what we want our schools to become . . . As you say, Onward! :)