Shifting into Digital Portfolios: A 4T Conference Reflection

Digital Portfolios 4T Conference

Last night, the first day of the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing kicked off, and one of the first sessions meshed nicely with my own teaching goals this year. Aram Kabodian, a friend from the National Writing Project (and fellow poet and middle school teacher), presented a session webinar about the benefits and logistics of digital writing portfolios. (He wrote about digital portfolios for Digital Is, too.)

This year, I have launched digital portfolios with my sixth graders, using our Google Apps for Education system. My professional teaching goal (and student learning goal) center around digital portfolios, so Aram’s webinar and resources were perfectly situated for what I am thinking deeply about and implementing right now.

Here are some of my takeaways from the sessions:

  • I loved that he had us sharing out the oldest piece of writing that we still have. It reminded us about the power of the past, and how writing can connect us to who we were, and who we are. I wrote about a notebook of poems from high school that became the first steps into writing songs. I’m afraid to look at that notebook but I know where it is and what’s in it, and that writing is me, the past me;
  • We talked and wrote with Aram about the rationale behind digital portfolios. There are some main reasons why one would use digital portfolios: to capture growth of a student over a set period of time, to document; to incorporate media into the collection; to share with parents what work is being done; to share with administrators; and to give students a representation of the writing they are doing (for future look-back moments);
  • Aram explained how he assesses digital portfolios, using some focused literacy lens around writing standards connected to classroom lessons, and around the number and genres of pieces that students must work on throughout the year. To be honest, I have not yet gotten that far in my implementation, but I know I need to figure out assessment somehow that makes sense for students and myself;
  • I was thankful that we spent time talking about how to nurture reflective stances by students, so that the reflective writing is part of the writing experience and of the digital portfolio itself. This requires scaffolding and modeling of reflection that goes deeper than the general ideas that most students fall into;
  • Aram uses a wiki site for his portfolio system, and I wonder about whether a wiki really works, when thinking of reflection and public space, and also, ownership of writing (Whose space is it? Aram’s or his students’?). Aram says he can only keep a student page up for a year after they leave, and then it gets removed (otherwise, he has to foot the additional cost). It make me acknowledge that just about every platform right now that I have researched has its downside;
  • I asked Aram about whether his use of digital portfolios is an isolated experience for students — if teachers in the grades above him also use portfolios, so that student growth might be seen over a longer period of time rather than a single grade. He said, no. He is the only one doing it, as far as he knows. I’m the same, I think. With Google, students can keep their writing for the next six years, from sixth grade to high school graduation …. what an opportunity that is, right? But I fear the potential for a true writing and learning portfolio might be lost if our district doesn’t see the merit;
  • Aram’s webinar reminded me of where I need to go from here:
    • I need to get my students doing more writing so that they have more to choose from in the end;
    • I need to mull over the assessment of portfolios and how to make it meaningful;
    • I need to work on lessons around more reflective writing practice;
    • I need to think about what the writing portfolio will look like in June. Right now, they are collecting writing in Google Drive. Next up, we will make some folders. But eventually, as with Aram’s wiki site, I want students to carve out a place where they “present and publish” — with Google Sites, probably (although I get frustrated there, too);
    • I should connect with the seventh grade teachers in our regional middle school system.

Overall, I learned quite a bit from Aram’s presentation at the 4T Conference, and I know I have a lot to think about and consider, and a lot to try out and figure out this year.

That’s the benefit of a pilot year, right?

Tinker, try, adjust, reflect, reset ….

Peace (inside the inside of the portfolio),

Digital Writing is Untethered Writing

Digital writing is untethered writing

I’ve been having an interesting backchannel discussion about digital writing with some friends of mine, whose opinions I greatly respect. An issue in our discussions arose around the idea of curating writing that has been posted in one site on the Web and whether or not the writer needs to grant approval for someone else to curate that writing into another digital space. (There’s a slight twist here, in that the topic that sparked this conversation concerns inviting specific people to write for a specific site for a specific reason.)

On one hand, I think the argument that a writer should have some say over where and when their writing is re-used once it is published makes sense. They wrote it. It’s their ideas. They took the time to craft it into something worth curating. They created something.

But …

… on the other hand …

… digital writing is untethered writing.

Therefore, I think that if you publish it as a digital text, you have to be aware that someone else might find what you write interesting and useful, and the might just pull it into some sort of curation, either for personal saving (like Diigo, for example) or for community sharing (like via a retweet, or a magazine, or Flipboard). I might email a story to you, or recommend one via our social networking. I wrote about a similar topic with the automated curation that is built on algorithms. (I don’t know where that post ended up, but I hope it found a home somewhere nice.)

This ability to curate and be curated doesn’t mean that someone has permission to scrape your content off a website and put out there elsewhere as if it were their own. That’s theft. That’s not what I am talking about (although digital spaces does make that easier than ever to do).

What I mean is that while we — the writer — might put some writing at a certain website, such as this blog or that digital space over there, someone else might come along and pull what we made into another project via RSS or hyperlink or some other format, and the writing moves onward.

Or, as Cory Doctorow wrote in his book — Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free — that I recently reviewed here in this space (maybe you curated it or bookmarked it?), we can think of content that we create (writing, media, etc.) as a dandelion in its puffy seed phase, casting ideas to the wind with hope that something will catch root somewhere, in some time. If you write it, someone may read it. You just won’t necessarily know when and where your writing will find its reader.

You need faith — faith that your writing can withstand the sharing world. Faith that your ideas can travel and still have impact. Faith that the digital world is not taking away from the writing experience, but adding to the potential: of audience, of medium, of impact.

It’s complicated and frustrating and liberating, too — this idea of ownership with digital writing. Sites put up paywalls, I know. Others use technology that resist copying or sharing. I’m all for Creative Commons designations. None of this seems to really matter, though. The writing moves on at its own pace, in some form or another.

Again, Doctorow’s “think like a dandelion” metaphor seems apt.

I find myself coming more down on the side of “let the ideas go free as much as possible” than the side of  “keep the writing tethered to the extent possible.”  I know that makes a lot of writers uncomfortable. It may be that those writers will avoid the digital spaces, and hope that the dandelion seeds still take root somewhere.

Me? I’m one of those fools who takes a deep breath and sends the seeds scattering.

Peace (in the shift),

At Middleweb: Connected Reading with Connected Learners

Connected Reading review comic

Over at Middleweb, I reviewed a new book about “connected reading” by Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks. They push our thinking about the ways that Connected Learning principles can take root with adolescent readers.

It is a thoughtful book that looks at classroom practice and the ways in which Turner and Hicks were doing the “connected reading” even as they were writing the book itself. (I am sucker for that kind of reflective writing)

Read the review of Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World 

The comic I share above was my way of putting connected reading practice into reality, as I mapped out how I came to review the book and then am asking readers at Middleweb to extend the conversation even further.

You can do the same.

Peace (in the read),

The Scent of Books and the Tangible Experience of Reading

I guess I have been more aware of the tangible nature of books lately, for whatever reason. It began with receiving The Marvels book by Brian Selznick and has kept in the back of my mind as I have been reading some Sheldon comic collections by Dave Kellett on my iPad with the Kindle app.

I’m noticing form and function as I read, and paying attention to the beauty with physical books, in contrast to the flexibility and accessibility of digital books. I’m no Luddite, of course. But I’ve never been an e-reader sort of person. I do use the Kindle app to read e-books when I need to, and appreciate some of its attributes of annotation and bookmarking. But it’s not my preferential reading experience, however. On airplane trips, I’d still rather lug around a huge novel than open up the app on my mobile device.

So, yesterday, when one of my students brought in a gift from parents — the new illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — the entire class surrounded her in wonder at this beautiful book that has amazingly colorful illustrations. She said her mom pre-ordered it back in February, and she has been waiting (not really patiently) for it arrive. She was so excited, hugging the book as if she never wanted to let it go.

At one point, she opened the book up and put her nose right down into the spine. She closed her eyes as she inhaled deeply. We all watched her, curious.

“I love the smell of new books,” she said, smiling but sincere. “There’s something about that new book smell.”

A friend was standing next to her. This friend is another book lover whose father, I know, collects antique books. This friend nodded, in agreement to the comment, but then added an ancillary thought of her own.

“And the smell of old books, too. There’s something mysterious about the smell of old books,” she said, almost wistfully, as if she was imagining herself wandering through an old bookstore. I thought of my own childhood adventures in old book stores and in libraries, about the undiscovered stories and yes, the scent of those collections still linger in my memory.

I nodded in agreement to both of them. In the back of my mind, I thought: no e-book reader will never get a comment about the sense of smell like that and the way that sensory experience provides an emotional connection to a book. (Should I say “never” here? Who knows what sensory experiences they might build into the e-reader in the future? I should know better, perhaps and yet …)

There sure is something tangible and experiential about physical books — the ones with the covers and the paper pages. It’s the scent of a shared love of stories, of the ideas of writers, of other readers before you, of characters that move you and settings that draw you in. It’s the sense of magic about to unfold, and I still believe that the reader-to-book experience doesn’t quite cross the lines in the age of digital e-readers.

Peace (under and inside the pages),

PS — Ironically, Apple announced that is now has interactive Harry Potter e-books available (no doubt, part of some marketing effort connected to the release of the illustrated book). While I admit to being intrigued to what those might look like, I’d be more apt to shell out the cost for the hardcover illustrated Harry Potter that my student owns.

A Look at Literacy in the Digital Age

Literacy in the Digital Age

Teaching Channel has just finished up a four-part series on Literacy in the Digital Age that is worth a visit. The posts are by Nancy Franzi and Steve Figurelli.

They write:

Kids have access to information; we must teach them how to navigate a world constantly evolving where content is at their fingertips. The traditional application of ELA isn’t enough for future-ready learners. We would argue our students read and write more now than they ever have before — between texting, social media, gaming, and everything else they do in their digitally fueled, online lives. Our vision must evolve to incorporate a new approach to literacy instruction, one in which technology becomes an accelerator to personalize and create meaningful learning contexts.

The four posts in the series cover quite a bit of terrain that focus on technology and tools around some domains of literacies, connected to the Common Core shifts and “Future Ready” ideas. Even if it bothers you that this is the organizational strategies, the series is worth investigating as the writers put the technology into learning contexts.

I’ve included my own “key find” for each post that I want to investigate further for my classroom or my own writing (sometimes, those two goals merge together; sometimes, not).

Lots to explore …

Peace (and remembering: it’s not the tools or technology),


Both Sides of the Telescope: MetaWriting and MetaComic

Last week, I started to work on a sort of meta-comic because comic creation has been on my mind — both for a guest blog post I have submitted for the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing and for the upcoming Digital Writing Month in November.

I began with this:

Eat the Words

And then ended with this:

I wanted to explore if I could use one comic platform and then pull back the lens a bit, and show how one comic was part of a larger comic and idea, and then those were part an even larger idea, and so on.

I was shooting for the idea that inspiration comes from all different places, and different platforms change the way we create things. And in the end, well, I don’t always know where ideas come from. I just know, the string is getting pulled.

The lens was pulled back, showing ever expanding views of the comic in creation.

I put that comic project aside when I got caught up in some other things, but a post by my friend Terry Elliott, inspired by friend Ian O’Byrne, entitled 140 is Dead, 14o is Dead! Long Live the 140! caught my eye, as Terry writes about how Twitter changes the way we write. In doing so, he played around with editing and revision, moving from a wide view of writing to something smaller and confined.

Terry writes: “I think in the end that Twitter has made me a different kind of writer.  Perhaps it makes me better because I need to reconsider and edit based upon a simple set of initial conditions, fairly rigid editorial guidelines like the 140 character limit. Perhaps it makes me better because it makes me write more then less then more again like the exercise above until I get it right enough.”

The lens was pulled in, showing ever narrowing views of the writing in creation.

It struck me that Terry and I were looking at each other through either end of the compositional telescope — him, with his writing; me, with my comic.

What I wondered was, where do we meet in the middle? Maybe the telescope is the world, and this blog post in the place where his view meets my view.

Peace (in the view of the world),

Slice of Life: A Moose in the Meadow

(This is a post for Slice of Life, hosted by Two Writing Teachers.)

Moose in the Neighborhood

We live in the suburbia of Western Massachusetts, but it is not unusual to see wild animals wandering nearby. The influx of new homes on what used to be forest lands and open space has pushed animals into contact with humans on a regular basis. We have bears regularly traipsing through our backyard. Deer often wander into our neighbor’s large side yard. I won’t get into the mice that try to set up shop in our basement, except to say it is a season-long struggle to keep them out.

But a moose? Not so often. The last time I saw a moose in our Western Massachusetts neighborhood was many years ago, when I was taking a walk with my two older sons (who were much younger than they are now) and we came upon a mother and child moose in small dingle around the corner. We were startled. They were startled. They took off. We just gawked.

Did you know moose, with its lanky legs and odd-shaped torso, can run pretty fast? I know that now.

So, the other day, as I was driving my son to his clerk job at the family-owned grocery story, we were noticing a lot of cars on the side of the main road. Uh oh. I thought it was an accident. But it turns out, a moose was standing there, in the meadow off the road, watching the people watching it (they had phones out; he didn’t). It was a fairly large moose, just staring out. A few police cars were nearby, to protect the people as much the moose.

On the way home from dropping my son off, the moose was still there, but had moved to the further side of the field, and was now munching on the leaves of a tree. More people were stopped, and traffic crawled. I got home and told my middle son to get on his bike and drive down the street to see the moose.

“And take your camera!”

He did, and he did, and the picture above is the best that he could get. The moose had moved deeper into the field, and by the time I went out again about 30 minutes later, the moose was gone, as was all of the traffic. I went to get my youngest son from baseball practice, and he would not believe me that a moose was in our neighborhood.

“It was not.”

“It was. It’s true.”


“Really! A moose!”

Luckily, my other son backed me up. And he had photographic evidence.

Peace (along the moose tracks),

Student Mentor Texts: Hooking the Reader

At the start of this school year, and in the midst of our first real writing project, my students are writing short stories. Our focus is on “strong story openers to grab the reader’s attention,” among other things. It’s all about hooks, dialogue, inference and tension.

I’ve been showing some mentor texts and now that my sixth graders have enough written, I can begin to share some of their own writing as mentor texts. I’ll be post about a dozen openings around the classroom, and I created this Slides show as a way to publish at our class blog site, too. (Slides is like any presentation software, but I like how it has a folded box effect.)

I’d go full screen for better reading here, but you can also just glide through the show to get a sense of the stories and the writing, and how Slides works.

Peace (just gotta read about it),


Teacher-Writer, Annotate Thyself

Using comments via google docs

We’re in the midst of a short story unit right now, and my sixth graders are deeply engaged in writing a story. I gave them complete freedom on the story idea, and have been focusing in on strong openings, formatting of dialogue and plot design. This is their first endeavor in Google Docs, and they love it and I love it.

And we haven’t even gotten into any of the collaborative tools at our disposal yet ….

As per my norm (not Norm, from Cheers. Norm!), I am writing a story alongside them. (You can read my progress so far, if that interests you) Actually, when I am not conferencing with them about their stories, I am writing my story, and projecting it up on the interactive board, so they can track my progress as I write, revise, rewrite.

They are fascinated with me as a writer, it turns out. I worry about my writing being intimidating to them, but that hasn’t seemed to happen at all.

I’m starting to annotate my thinking of my own story, too, to show them how a writer might reflect on the act of writing. This is all part of our digital portfolio work. Soon, I will be having them shift from writer to reflector of writing, and I need to model some of the ways this looks. Using the comment feature on Google Docs seems like a good way for me to do this, and it has been helpful.

The act of annotation, particularly of your own writing, forces you to consider agency. What choices did I make? Why this and not that? How did I overcome the obstacle presented by that cliffhanger? Where did I get tied in knots and how did I undo those knots to keep the story moving along?

I know, as a writer, I do these unconsciously, without thinking. I am forcing myself to become more transparent in my writing practice, in hopes that it provides a path for those students who struggle with the reflective stance. It is one of those critical thinking skills that some of 11 year olds get, and some don’t quite get.

Peace (off to the side of the world),

Playing a Global Game of Comic Strip Panel Lottery

I Dream in AnalogI came across a new comic maker (Thanks, Maha, for the tweet!) that seemed worth checking out. It is called Fun Palace Comic Maker, and is part of a larger Fun Palace group that is doing intriguing work around the arts and science and more.

The options at Fun Palace Comic Maker are fairly limited — you can’t adjust the number of panels, or resize the art, or add your own art. But the limitations are part of the charm, and this narrow element of choice is at the heart of the rationale of the site, which is built along the lines of a “panel lottery.” (See Scott McCloud’s Five Card Nancy game)

The comic maker site was conceived by Matt Finch, and you can read an interesting interview with him over at Comics Grid about his intentions and thinking behind the Fun Palace Comic Maker idea. It also sounds as if there are more innovations to the site coming down the road.

Finch notes, in that interview at Comics Grid:

Making an online game was as much about reaching an international audience as exploring the digital medium in itself – “the world’s largest game of Panel Lottery” – but it also let us do things that you can’t achieve with pen and paper, or cut-up comics on a desktop. — Mike Finch

Still, for what it is at this point, it was fun to create something quickly (although, when I tried it on my iPad, my comic crashed on me … I had to move to the desktop), and when you “submit” your final comic, the site sends it off to a companion Tumblr site for archiving. I like that collaborative publishing piece of Fun Palace.

I made my small comic on the theme of digital writing because that is on my mind these days with the approach of Digital Writing Month in November (more on that in the next few days).

Peace (at play),