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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1999
Vol. 56
No. 8

How Portfolios Can Shape Emerging Practice

The deliberative process of creating a portfolio helps new practitioners articulate their teaching philosophy as well as develop their teaching techniques.

The young woman carefully spreads out a quilt, nine concentric fabric circles of blues, whites, and lavenders, with a brilliant red at the center. She explains to a group of teacher educators that the quilt is part of a culminating experience for her elementary teacher certification program—her portfolio project. The program had challenged its teacher interns to choose any creative means to describe the story of their learning to teach.
The teacher, Elizabeth, who had never before made a quilt, observes that I bring this quilt into my classroom to remind me of what I learned in my teacher education program. Each of the six inner circles represents one of the high standards we were striving for. The three outer circles are the broad contexts of my teaching: That circle of blue with stars and a moon signifies the universe; the circle with flags represents our country; and the piece of a map, our state, the location of my classroom, the place where I am a teacher.
Elizabeth tells of the hours spent fashioning the quilt and of the reflective conversations it had generated among her colleagues. For her, the quilt is clearly a metaphor that represents her philosophy and the kind of teacher she wants to be—caring, reflective, collegial, and politically aware. It also represents all the lessons she has learned about teaching and learning.
Of course, only Elizabeth can interpret and communicate that meaning. If she does not, the quilt remains a private metaphor. Now, in the middle of her first year of teaching, Elizabeth displays the quilt in her classroom for her elementary students to enjoy and to remind her of how she envisions herself and her students as learners in their own right. When she faces challenges to achieving her vision, Elizabeth will hold to the high expectations that the quilt represents.
This first-year teacher raises important questions: Just what is a teaching portfolio? Is it best presented as a metaphor? Or is it something else—more structured, yet varied; self-revelatory to a reader as well as to a listener? And because this teacher literally brought her portfolio project into the classroom, I, as a teacher educator, want to ask, How—if at all—are other beginning teachers taking their teaching portfolios into their classrooms? What purposes—if any—are teaching portfolios serving? Have they been closeted away and forgotten? Or do teachers continue to use them and think about the processes that led to their creation? Are portfolios supporting their original promise as a scaffold for a new teacher professionalism (Lyons, 1998)?

Teaching Portfolios As a Theoretical Activity

Lee Shulman, who introduced the portfolio idea into teacher assessment, argues that serious portfolio making is far from frivolous: It is, he claims, a theoretical act (Shulman, 1994; 1998): It is important to keep in mind that the portfolio is a broad metaphor that comes alive as you begin to formulate the theoretical orientation to teaching that is most valuable to you. Your theory of teaching will determine a reasonable portfolio entry. What is declared worth documenting, worth reflecting on, what is deemed to be portfolio worthy is a theoretical act. (Shulman, 1994, p. 5)
Serious portfolio makers know this. They eschew the portfolio as a scrapbook activity. They experience portfolio making as a series of significant processes, which Shulman (1998) outlined in his definition of a portfolio: A teaching portfolio is the structured, documentary history of a set of coached or mentored acts of teaching substantiated by samples of student work and fully realized only through reflective writing, deliberation, and serious conversation. (P. 37)
  • the process of mentoring the portfolio development, a collaborative activity taking place through critical conversations with mentors and peers during a teacher education program;
  • some set of goals or standards describing what teachers entering today's complex classrooms should know and demonstrate;
  • a body of evidence of the portfolio maker's learning about teaching and student learning, such as videos of classes, student portfolios or other work, curriculum units, and lessons that failed;
  • a set of reflections, or critical interrogations, about what was learned about teaching and learning that accompany each portfolio entry; and
  • a public presentation of the portfolio to a community of colleagues, cooperating teachers, and teacher educators. Then the portfolio maker can claim readiness to take responsibility for a class, and a teacher educator can decide about certification.

Portfolios in the Classroom

Engaging in the portfolio process does not guarantee that new teachers will continue these practices once they enter full-time teaching. They have enormous hurdles to overcome, beginning with the job interview. Some interviewers respond well to portfolios; others show disdain or a lack of interest. The harshest realization can occur when the new teacher accepts a classroom of his or her own. Then, despite all the teacher has learned about reflection or sustained conversations about teaching and learning comes the cold realization that today's schools offer few opportunities for those portfolio practices that teacher interns are taught are crucial to their development. Introducing portfolio practices into their schools for most teachers becomes their responsibility.
  • as habits of mind that help teachers define good practice;
  • as processes that teachers use for reflecting on their own teaching and learning; and
  • as new teaching strategies that reflect the practices that teachers regularly ask their students to engage in, such as reflecting on their learning.

Developing Habits of Mind

When Martha Mann, a high school English teacher now in her fourth year of teaching, thinks of her portfolio experiences, she asserts that "it is something that is a part of my practice. It is something I think about all the time." Martha suggests that the portfolio process has given her important "habits of mind." When asked for an example, Martha begins with a story of her first portfolio experience, when she met with two other interns as they struggled to choose portfolios entries. Martha reconstructs her discovery: We started laying things out before us and putting things together. It seemed very haphazard. I had isolated pieces that I knew represented moments in teaching when I felt very good about what I had done. I felt that I had made an informed decision to do something a certain way, that maybe it had not been successful the first time, but through modifications, it had become successful. Finally, I felt I had made an informed decision to do something that had a positive effect on students. . . . And I also knew there is a theory and knowledge that supports what we had done.
Continuing, Martha uses an example of a grammar lesson. Using my knowledge of Multiple Intelligences . . . I told my students to make a visual representation of a sentence fragment. And some used Legos, some used clay, and some made posters. . . . But when the products came in—a sculptured head with one piece missing, or a poster of a puzzle with one piece missing—it clearly showed me that they had learned. They did know what a sentence fragment was and they expressed it in a way that was comfortable for them. . . . And so I said, "This is good practice! This is the way it needs to be done."
Thus the teacher articulates an instance in which the students and she had achieved what they set out to achieve, they had enjoyed doing it, and she had evidence in their products. And she knows that "there is a theory and knowledge that supports what we have done." She has transferred a process of using standards to assess portfolio evidence to be a rubric for assessing her own practice. How has Martha come to this knowledge?

Bringing Knowledge to Consciousness

As Martha muses, she remembers that at first, everything seemed random. Even though "we knew it was good, it was having to articulate why it was, to tell the reasons why, that was difficult": We weren't able to articulate it until we had that dialogue where we prompted each other or supported each other. . . . We constructed this personal history of teaching, asking, Why would I put this in? Why this rather than that? . . . It started to jell for me when people on the team would say to me, "This is what I hear in what you are saying." I couldn't hear the themes myself.My theme was the connection between art and literature. I use art a lot in my teaching, but I didn't connect that that was something I did regularly until someone on the team pointed out, "You seem to use art a lot." . . . It had emerged through dialogue, through the observations of other members of the team.
Thus, a significant teaching practice, a cornerstone of her teaching philosophy, is revealed only in conversation with colleagues. Martha says that reflecting and feeling more confident about her work are part of her practice because she did develop a portfolio. For Martha, a portfolio is not static; it's growing. . . . It's the dialogue with other teachers. We talk about teaching, and we talk about kids. And I think some of those habits of mind come from the portfolio process.

Having Students Reflect on Their Own Learning

Another teacher, who teaches biology, has her students reflect regularly, a practice that she herself engaged in through the portfolio-making process. This practice not only allows her to understand what her students have learned, but also serves in refining the curriculum. For example, to capture the imagination of her class, she dreamed up an activity she called "The Case of the Dead Dance Teacher." The plot revolved around the fictional murder of a swing dance instructor. The police had three likely suspects and evidence that included DNA from the victim and the perpetrator; they needed the help of the high school biology students to crack the case. With state-of-the-art equipment borrowed from a local university, along with the advice of a professor at the DNA lab, students extracted and analyzed DNA and discovered who did the crime.
The journals of these "wanna be" prosecutors revealed the path of their inquiries. A final exam yielded insight into their knowledge. But only when the teacher asked her students to write a reflection, to say what they had learned, did she understand the meaning they had constructed from their work: I had them do reflections similar to what we did with our teaching portfolios. Things go so fast for them. They go from class to class and there are a million things happening every moment. They don't take the time to reflect. Either they are not motivated or they don't think to do it. Asking them to reflect forces them to sit and stop and to say, "Perhaps I got more out of this than I thought I did."
Today's climate of school reform asks teachers to engage their students in higher-order thinking skills, to be reflective about their own practice, to integrate evidence of their students' learning, and to actively work with colleagues to continually reexamine their practice and the curriculum.
Educators who have coached teacher interns in developing teaching portfolios comment on the power of the portfolio process. Some new teachers in New York City regularly join their former faculty coach to engage in conversations begun during the portfolio process, to share the contexts of their schools, and to support one another through the first tough years of teaching (Rust, 1999). On the West Coast, teacher educators trace how a research question that they first formulated as a portfolio inquiry continues to shape their practice (Grant & Huebner, 1998).
Portfolio processes in classrooms today are yielding significant results that are making a difference in teachers' practices and in the lives of students. Makers and givers of teacher tests might do well to ponder whether these tests have such lasting consequences on practice.

Grant, G., & Huebner, T. (1998). The portfolio question: The power of self-directed inquiry. In N. Lyons (Ed.), With portfolio in hand: Validating the new teacher professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lyons, N. (Ed.). (1998). With portfolio in hand: Validating the new teacher professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rust, F. (1999, January). Making sense and making connections: Narrative practice in teacher education and continuing professional development. Paper presented at the Portfolio Conference, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.

Shulman, L. (1994, January). Portfolios in historical perspective. Paper presented at the Portfolio Conference, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.

Shulman, L. (1998). Teacher portfolios. In N. Lyons (Ed.), With portfolio in hand: Validating the new teacher professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press.

Nona Lyons has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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