Voyager Academy Charter School in Durham, NC is a project-based learning school that currently has about 1,250 students across grades K-11. We started with 320 students in grades 4-7 in 2007 and have grown exponentially. This upcoming school year we will add 12th grade and complete our growth.
[Voyager was featured Tuesday in Smart Cities: Raleigh/Durham]
As a project-based learning school, students create work that undergoes a series of revisions and critique processes. Final product work, therefore, is expected to be high quality, show real-world connections, and represent a student’s best effort. Examples of student work have included published books by students as young as 5th grade, student-produced plays about environmental issues acted out in a local theater, and business plan proposals presented in a simulated “Shark Tank” environment by 11th grade students.
With such thorough work produced, Voyager started looking for a way to archive the work with the goal of helping students demonstrate and realize their growth and potential over time. We also noticed that having a portfolio would give our students a competitive edge when applying to colleges or even jobs and internships down the road.
With the support of the technology committee and administration, we decided to have students create digital (or e-) portfolios showcasing their work starting in the 6th grade. We had recently moved our staff to Google Education Apps, and I was a fan of the seamless integration and usability of the many Google products. After doing some test work, Google Sites became the platform of choice for the digital portfolio initiative. To provide support to students creating the digital portfolios in Google Sites I created screencast video tutorials. The videos made it quick and easy for the students to create the portfolios and required minimal teacher guidance.
The digital portfolios were a hit with the kids! Essentially, the students were creating websites (albeit private sites) about themselves. What student doesn’t love that? We structured the portfolios so that the home page was about the student. It was not a place to showcase school work, but rather whom the portfolio was about. Here students could showcase interests, hobbies, and achievements outside of school. For example, students posted pictures, videos, and paragraphs about athletic performances, horseback riding competitions, karate competitions, vocal or dance performances, and much more.
As a teacher, I’ve always tried to stress to students that we all bring something to the table and are valuable in our own way. The digital portfolios helped students learn so much about themselves. I witnessed growing confidence in students as they assimilated ideas about who they are and who they want to be, as well as assembled artifacts representing their successes. Some of my favorite artifacts of successes shown on home pages of student portfolios include videos of a grand slam hit at a baseball game, a gymnast teaching how to do a gymnastics trick, and a vocalist performing the “Star Spangled Banner.”
We are now finishing up our second year of the digital portfolio initiative. The tutorial videos have all been re-done now that I can better anticipate questions from students and have learned how to produce a higher quality video. Students who are new to the school at any grade level 6th grade and above are allowed time to follow the tutorial series which totals just under 2.5 hours of instruction. The high school allows students time during advisory (or homebase) to work on the tutorials, and most of the new middle school students complete the series outside of school. I even had one 6th grade student complete her entire portfolio in a weekend! She was so proud.
Voyager Academy’s goal is that each year students add two to three big projects to their portfolio. High school students will also add resumes and internship experience as applicable. Students can add more work if they choose and are also allowed to add extra pages, such as an original artwork page, as long as the pages showcase work they have done in or out of school.
Another powerful aspect of the initiative is what teachers can learn from their students each year. Each teacher has access to the portfolios of the upcoming class and can see the academic progress and abilities of each student prior to students coming into school the first day. This helps prevent misguided notions about students, allows for greater differentiation planning, and helps with scheduling. Also, teachers of a struggling student can access his/her portfolio to find information about the student’s interests and use that information to help motivate the student.
In the “Student Work Examples” page of my website, you’ll see two pages of original artwork and an original poetry page added by students. I can’t stress enough that although the portfolio initiative supports the school’s mission and what teachers are doing in the classroom, the overarching purpose of the initiative is for the students. Students are creating something they are proud of and that they will be able to look back on years down the road and see just how far they’ve come academically and as a person. How great would it be if we all had something like this? I know my old projects either got thrown out or are buried in an attic somewhere. If only I’d had a quickly accessible and easily viewed culmination of my work, I definitely would have spent a lot less time stressing over college applications, job interviews and resume writing!