As the school year winds down, and I reflect on the year, the high point was definitely my students’ Passion Projects websites. You can read about the project here, but I’m going to take what I’ve learned and hopefully provide direction for anyone who wants to go the next step with me. What’s next? A digital portfolio.
In September, my students will begin their ELA career with me by creating a Wix account. Wix is a free website builder site, and is very versatile and intuitive. Many people are telling me right now that Google Sites would be a better choice, and they might be right. For now, however, I’m going to go with what I know. Having helped 134 eighth-graders with wildly varying technological skills build a website in April, I’m beginning to feel comfortable with the concept, at least, of undertaking this new project.
In the beginning of the year, before students know about my flexible classroom of project-based learning (watch the webinar here), cooperative reading and writing, and highly differentiated teaching, they need to feel comfortable with the class, so I always start with something I feel most comfortable teaching—usually short stories, vocabulary or grammar. Later, as students come to understand my class, I demonstrate the wild academic risk-taking I want from them. This year, that came in the form of “Well, you’re going to build a website to use as your digital portfolio for your Passion Project.” By April, they all knew I was going to be figuring this out right beside them, but by that point it was OK, as they had been exposed to the importance of a growth mindset.
So, the risk for me right now is to start the school year with this wild idea (at least for me) that students will have a digital notebook really—a place where they will post assignments, create projects, showcase talents, and communicate with each other and the world. I’m going to walk you through the steps I’ve taken so far on the website and demonstrate how it will work for my students.
The first assignment I do in the beginning of the year is always something fun, culture building, and, I hope, revealing about the people I’m going to spend 180 days with in Room 255. This year, my teaching partner, Laura Klein, and I experimented with the Six Word Memoir, the One Word Challenge, and an I Am poem—essentially beginning each quarter with a “get to know you” activity, allowing for and celebrating students’ personal growth.
We’ve decided that our first weeks will be used to set students up on Wix, and we are giving them a fun and social-emotional assignment. We are going to have students create their home page. There won’t be requirements, per se, but I will ask that they use a selfie, put their name on it, and showcase their first get-to-know-you activity, the Six Word Memoir. As you can see from my demo website, this page is pretty low key, but requires students to learn how to load and edit pictures, insert text and begin to think about page design.
The next step will be for students to create their About page. This is a little more directed, and it requires a “Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Me” list, more pictures, and quotes or memes that represent what is important to them. They will share these first two pages with the class as their first-ever presentation. Through this page, they have learned to upload photos, quotes and memes from the web; create a list; use boxes; and continue to build their design style.
Balancing Teacher/Student choice
As usual, I’m never quite sure where I’ll end up as we travel through the school year together. I’m always open to the interest of my students—sometimes ending up having debates, other times service learning projects, and other times cross-curricular things. However, my own non-negotiables are short stories to learn to analyze literature, The Giver to learn how to apply analysis to a larger piece, as well as tons of great tie-ins, and now, The Passion Project. So, the demo site I built has sections for each of these parts of my curriculum. This leaves me plenty of room for student input about the rest of the year, but I still feel I’m doing what I need to do to prepare them for high school.
I know that I’m a newbie in this realm, so, if you are reading this, and I am missing some huge component, or you know a better way, please email me directly at email@example.com or leave a comment. I’d love to collaborate! As for now, I’ll leave you with the top-three priorities I’ve set for the fall as I implement a digital portfolio for the first time.
- My first priority is to remember that the beginning of the year is really overwhelming for many students, and I should not underestimate the need for class culture building in my excitement to “just get started.”
- My second priority is to cultivate the risk-taking that I love. This means modeling this behavior early on. I am purposely going to try to add some apps, gadgets and features to my demo site that will show my students I don’t always know what I am doing. They need to see me bomb a lesson, ask the question, “Does anyone know what to do here?” and then let them take it from there.
- And last, I will remember to focus on quality. Sometimes students think that if the learning is fun, it doesn’t need to meet the standards. This is the time to make sure they understand the expectation for any writing—proper capitalization, punctuation, spelling and clarity. Setting high standards here will pay off in June!
I’m eager to hear your ideas, and if enough people are interested, I’d love to do a webinar or Google Hangout. Just leave a comment indicating that, and I will put something together. We are all better together!