Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Best Laid Plans: E-Portfolios and a Lesson in Perseverance

          About mid way through the 2012-13 school year, I resolved to integrate e-portfolios into my English classrooms the following year. This resolution was made after observing a grade 12 student lob their paper portfolio into the nearest recycling bin after five months of ongoing writing, revision and reflection. This wasn't the first time that I had witnessed this "end of the semester portfolio tossing"ritual. This bothered me on several levels. My environmentalist self bemoaned the loss of trees and paper. I have no desire to single handedly support the British Columbian forestry industry. My teacher self worried that I had not created a process that was valued by students, evidenced by the clear lack of sentimental attachment to the end product.
          Inspired by teachers who touted the benefits e-portfolios, I began to research various formats and methods. In June, I arranged to meet a colleague from another school who had been successfully using e-portfolios in his French Immersion classes for several years. He generously shared his resources and his time to provide me with an overview of the process. From that point, I began to scour twitter and various educational blogs and sites for resources and tips. Having used webnode for years for my teaching website, I decided to stick with a format that I was familiar with. Finally, I was given the encouraging news that a class set of PC laptops would be available to ensure that I could devote class time on a weekly basis to the creation and development of e-portfolios in the form of individual student websites. With all of the pieces of the puzzle in place, I was ready to integrate e-portfolios into all of my English classes. Or so I thought.
         Reality soon set in during the early weeks of September. Logistically, collecting over one hundred internet parent permission forms from students in the first week of school was challenging, to say the least. Amidst the usual chaos of school start up, I now had now added an extra level of stress and aggravation. Miraculously, I was able to collect the majority of the permission forms by the second week of school, prior to our first e-portfolio block. Only a handful of students needed some gentle reminders, and additional copies, before they too returned their permission forms.
          With parental approval in hand, and an introductory lesson in Digital Citizenship, I casually sauntered down the hall to fetch the newly acquired laptops, filled with confidence and anticipation. Challenge number two. The cart that stores the PC laptops weighs a million pounds (okay, hyperbole, but not far off) and I couldn't actually physically roll it up to the ramp that led to my room. No weakling, I had to quickly enlist the help of nearby students, who took pity on the "poor teacher" and helped me lug the beast of a cart up the ramp. Anticipating possible technical challenges, I had requested that  a couple of "techie" students meet me at my room to facilitate the distribution of computers with my first class, thirty English 8 students.
          Challenge number three. Many of the students had difficulty logging in despite being provided with their district usernames and emails. For several of those who were able to successfully log in, their laptops immediately began to cycle through numerous updates. About half way through the class, only three students had made their way to to begin the relatively straight forward process of creating their website. Unfortunately, as more students began to access they were unable to create their sites. Frustrated and disheartened, it was time to begin the rather arduous process of collecting and storing the bulky laptops and their cords in the cart. With assistance, this took about fifteen minutes of valuable class time.
          Later that day, after having repeated a similar process with two more of my classes, English 11 and 12,  I contacted webnode to determine the problem. Apparently, with numerous students accessing the site from the same server, we were perceived as "hackers" and locked out. The problem was quickly rectified by webnode "white listing" our district email address. Those few who still struggled with logging in created Weebly sites. What I couldn't fix, however, was the  physical challenge of maneuvering the gigantic cart. It wouldn't always be feasible to enlist the help of bystanders. And so, I determined that although there were fewer Mac laptops available in our second cart, at least I was able to transport them easily, and the students did not have to go through the additional step of logging in.
          Week three of e-portfolis and finally, the majority of my students had successfully created a personal website that would reflect their goals and learning journey in English. We were still juggling laptops between students to compensate for fewer Macs, but most were able to begin to personalize their websites, record their learning goals and complete their first few writing submissions. This past week I was able to record and hyperlink each student site in a Word document so that I can quickly and easily follow their progress throughout the semester. My intention is that students will share their e-portfolios with me during an interview at the end of the semester. During this interview, they will have an opportunity to reflect on their successes and challenges, and share why they included various digital artifacts along with their writing submissions. These artifacts are intended to demonstrate key learning outcomes from each unit.
English 12 students immersed in their writing. Success at last!

          So rather than a lesson on how to create e-porfolios, the real lesson for both my students and myself, was how to persevere despite numerous challenges and obstacles. I am under no misconception that it will be smoother sailing for the remainder of the year, but with the continued support of my colleagues (thanks for listening to all my gripes and moaning) and my amazingly patient students (thanks for not throwing in the towel after the first disastrous day), my hope is by integrating e-portfolios to supplement in-class writing, my students will have something that will extend and enhance their writing experience, that they can take pride in, and that they can share with friends and family for years to come.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

And We're Off!

          How is it possible that we are entering the third week of September? Where did those first two weeks go? If you're anything like me, they flew by in hazy blur of class lists, new faces, seating charts, writing samples, library orientations, laptops, staff meetings, committee meetings, and if you're lucky, an opportunity to actually sit down with your colleagues once or twice to eat lunch and catch up.
          Amidst all of the chaos and excitement of school start up, I am very conscious of two things: Firstly, how are my students coping? Many times over the past two weeks, as I looked out at a sea of anxious grade 8 faces, or sleepy grade 11 and 12 faces, I marvelled at how well they were balancing the numerous demands and challenges of orienting themselves to a new schedule and a multitude of new rules and expectations. To me, my school and my classroom are like a second home, but to many of my students, especially those who are new arrivals, it must seem like a overwhelming wave of blank faces, mysterious rooms and undecipherable locker combinations. And yet somehow they cope. In fact by the end of week two, the air of sometimes overwhelming anxiety of those first few days had eased considerably. For my grade 8s, I felt a mini celebration of their new found ability to navigate crowded hallways of roughly 1400 students, was most definitely in order. 

Nothing says "Congratulations for surviving the first week of high school" like timbits!

          My second concern was, how are the teachers who are new to my school managing? If I was feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, how were teachers who didn't know where to find paper for photocopying, who didn't know the names of the secretaries, or who didn't know know how to use a document reader, managing to keep up with the unending demands of a new school year? Fortunately, in the same way that my school is blessed with friendly and welcoming students, we also have an amazingly supportive and welcoming staff. From our office staff, to our administrators, I can't help but be proud of the way that new teachers and support staff are gradually oriented to our school. With the additional support of individual departments and our Learning Partners team members, my hope is that teachers who are new to our school, much like our students, have also been able to transition in the last two weeks from slightly anxious and befuddled, to increasingly more confident and calm. 
          With most of the paperwork and confusion of the first two weeks out of the way, I am able to start focussing more on the diverse learning needs of my students. That sea of anxious and tired faces has begun to take shape, with individual student personalities and abilities pushing to the forefront. At times, it can still be overwhelming. To get a sense of the range of abilities and learning needs of my students, it is important to collect and read through numerous writing samples and activities. That takes time. Time that I don't have during the school day!
Not a bad place to do a little marking!
As well, I must admit that attempting to facilitate the creation of e-portfolios for the first time with close to a hundred students with numerous technology challenges and sweltering heat certainly tested my patience a bit, but by week three,  my students are already demonstrating a wide range of new found skills and abilities.
English 8 "Wanted" posters for "The Monkey's Paw".
          My goals for the 2013-14 school year?
1. Integrate e-portfolios into all of my classes to supplement and enhance in class writing. 
2. Skype with authors to extend a love of books and reading beyond the walls of my classroom. 
3. Continue to evolve and integrate our new Learning Partners program into our school community. 
4. Apply for an Action Research Grant that supports an exploration of methods to encourage the participation of experienced teachers, in addition to new teachers, in our Learning Partners program and by extension, strive to support innovative teaching practices and increased collaboration and collegiality. 
5. Make my classroom a haven for those students who need a safe place to eat lunch and hang out.
6. Make time in my day to sit down and eat lunch with an amazing group of teachers.

          Will my school year be a sprint, a marathon, or an easy jog? Most likely, a combination of all three. But in any case, "we're off"!