Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Throwing away 6th grade – OR – The case for online portfolios

Last Friday was the last day of classes for Oklahoma City Public Schools this academic year. Yesterday, my son decided it was time to throw away his paperwork and notes from the year. This is a photo of Alexander throwing away ALMOST all the documentation and proof we have of his learning as a sixth grader.

Alexander throwing away 6th grade paperwork

I say ALMOST because there are several assignments he posted to our family learning blog, which remain digitally archived there online. He also shared his history day project, which was a documentary interview with his grandparents, on Celebrate Oklahoma Voices as well as YouTube.

Alexander loves his school, and as his parents we do too. His school is fantastic, ostensibly the best free, public 6-12 school in the state of Oklahoma. It’s the only school in our state which uses the IB curriculum, and every student has a “major” – either IB or a fine arts major. Kids are motivated, most teachers have high expectations for student achievement, the school has very innovative programs like outdoor school, etc, etc.

Our school does NOT, however, encourage students or teachers to publish any student work online. That means if we were not helping publish and archive Alexander’s work online as his parents, it probably wouldn’t be there. He wouldn’t have an academic digital footprint. I think that’s a shame. Perhaps in the years to come, I’ll have an opportunity to help improve that situation.

In his FANTASTIC presentation “Design Matters” at METC 2010, Darren Kuropatwa addressed the issue of whether student work can “live on” digitally longer than it does or would in the paper-based / analog world. Darren’s experiences as a high school math teacher and my experiences as a parent as well as professional development leader say YES: The lifespan of students’ academic digital footprints is potentially long and getting longer.

Philadelphia educator H Songhai took up this issue and need for digital documentation of our learning in his 2008 K12Online Conference presentation, “What Did You Do in School Yesterday, Today, and Three Years Ago?”

The perspectives of H and Darren rang in my ears yesterday as I watched my 11 year old son “throw away sixth grade” into our trash can outside. There was a LOT of important learning which went into that trash can, and is now somewhere in an Oklahoma City dump. I wish more of those learning artifacts were online so we could see them as parents, and he could have them as part of his academic digital footprint.

Human and Hoiho Tracks
Creative Commons License photo credit: A. Sparrow

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9 responses to “Throwing away 6th grade – OR – The case for online portfolios”

  1. Kelly Geigner Avatar

    I’m all for digital portfolios and think paper based binders are outdated, but I wonder if years down the road students will regret that so much of their childhood has been broadcast online for all to see? Even private sites can easily become public. I’m not sure I would want a history project from my sixth grade visible for my future boss to see. As a teacher I think digital portfolios make sense, but as a parent I’m not sure I want everything my son does produced online. Regardless, I think students have the right to decline what goes online, but some children are too young to understand their options.

  2. Gary S. Stager, PhD Avatar

    This is a problem much bigger than the medium selected for the “portfolio.”

    The cold hard truth may be that most of the “work” isn’t worth keeping, remembering, honoring or sharing. It’s just a paper trail of random curricular decisions and coerced busywork.

  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Kelly: I had a conversation at lunch today with Kevin Honeycutt and we discussed your point (prior to me reading it this evening.) Kevin’s take was: Everyone should have the right to discover their own mediocrity [earlier in their life.] Do you really think a future boss is going to evaluate/value you based on a project you did in 6th grade? Certainly online portfolios can provide opportunities for context. The work I did as a sixth grader is going to be at a very different level than the work I did in high school or college. I’m not saying every single word that is written at school needs to go on the public web. I am saying a lot more “final projects” and “final products” from class should be. Audience matters. When students know their work is going to be shared online with others, that can make a difference in terms of the motivation they bring to a project. Dr. Tim Tyson tells stories about this for his middle school students in Georgia where he was a principal.

    I never said, “I wish everything my child did in sixth grade was published and available online.” What I did say, and I’ll stick to, is that I wish MORE of his work from sixth grade was published/shared online.

    If he’s not proud of it or he doesn’t want to share it, certainly he should have the right to decide if it’s shared. He had and has that choice now for the things he’s published on our family learning blog. I just wish there was an intentional effort on the part of our school to do this. Not simply for their own institutional benefit / accreditation purposes… that is why 99% of the College of Education ePorfolio systems exist from what I’ve seen. Rather, from a parent communication standpoint and a “student digital footprint” standpoint.

  4. Kelly Geigner Avatar

    Wesley, excellent points! I appreciate the response because that is what I’ll be telling parents next year who are concerned about it. I think you bring up an excellent point that students will bring more motivation to the project if it is published online. Right now our sixth grade students “dump” everything they do in a binder. Metacognition is something we are trying to teach our students- and online portfolios are a great way to do this, it allows students to sort through their work, really evaluate it and decide what they want to share.

    Do you have your portfolios password protected or “free.” What sites do you use to store it? is an excellent one I’m thinking of using next year but if you have some to recommend I’d love to hear them. Also- do you require your students have a certain amount of items?

  5. Brian B. Avatar

    My school district is experimenting with Mahara ( It is FOSS built specifically for digital portfolios. Our middle school had a “fun time” working out paper-based, student-led portfolio conferences this past school year and they are all on board to move to digital portfolios this upcoming year.

    The students upload their artifacts (e.g. pictures, documents, videos, etc.), they create the way they want them displayed, and when/if they publish it. I suppose the nicest part of Mahara is that students choose what parts of their portfolio they publish to their peers, teachers, and/or the public (including parents).

    I’m sure we are going to hit some bumps in the road, but as the technology coordinator, I’m looking forward to the challenge of supporting the process.

  6. Diane Lauer Avatar

    Thank you so much for the pic and post “Throwing 6th Grade Away” as a former 6th grade teacher and middle school principal it brings tears to my eyes to see kids throwing away their year as you so aptly share.

    I absolutely agree that we need to spend the time to make electronic portfolios a priority – but I also advise providing students an opportunity to create learning artifacts that are so meaningful and powerful that they would never dream of throwing them away. That’s kind of a daydream I suppose, but I know we can get pretty darn close! Again, thanks for your thoughtful posts!

  7. Gary S. Stager, PhD Avatar

    Unless you change the nature of what students DO in school, then you’re just replacing the physical shoe box with a digital one that may be deleted at the end of the year, rather than carried home and thrown in the actual trash.

    The notion of a coerced portfolio, in any form, violates all of the values and features of portfolios that exist outside of schooling.

    Also, collecting should not be confused with metacognition. You only think about thinking when the artifact you’re thinking about is worthy of thought (to paraphrase Seymour Papert, “You can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.”

    I frankly find the digital portfolio discussion to be a distraction from the real work that needs to be done in creating productive contexts for learning.

  8. D. A. Avatar
    D. A.

    Agree on the digital portfolio points, but surprised that your family is not recycling, Wes! All the paper could be recycled and the binders could likely be reused…