How Growth Portfolios Help Middle School Students Drive Their Learning

Michael Kris
Sep 27, 2018 · 3 min read

Shortly after I accepted the position as Head of Middle School at Rivers, I came across a box of memorabilia from my years as a student here. Mixed in among yearbooks and newspapers was a complete collection of my report card comments!

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My Rivers comments (names have been deleted to protect the innocent!)

Reading the words of my teachers immediately took me back. I could hear their voices encouraging me, correcting me, and guiding me.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking that one key voice was missing from the pile: mine.

How was I interpreting the learning experience? I wondered. What did I identify as my strengths and areas that needed attention? What strategies did I find most helpful?

Thirty years later, Rivers students continue to benefit from thoughtful, precise comments penned by caring teachers. They also get something else: a chance to add their own voice to the chorus. In the Rivers Middle school, every student curates a detailed portfolio every year.

The portfolio is not a glossy collection of polished pieces and perfect quizzes. It’s a growth portfolio. Rick Taylor, chair of our faculty portfolio committee, puts it this way: “The portfolio captures student growth over time — warts and all. It is a story of who they are as learners and members of the middle school community. More importantly, it is their story.”

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Students, not teachers, choose work that feels significant to them. Each month, we provide students with a checklist to help guide the selection process. For example, we ask them to identify a piece of work that shows “a skill that you’re working on but haven’t mastered yet” or “a new learning strategy you’ve tried.”

As Mr. Taylor notes, “In prompting students to choose a piece of work that, say, demonstrates a strength, or represents a challenge, or reveals something they found interesting or surprising, we’ve handed students a lens through which they will be able to see their growth over time. But that work? That growth? That’s all theirs.”

The selection process pushes students to regularly reflect on how their schoolwork is helping them grow as a learner. We spend time in advisory and in each of their classes identifying work for their portfolio. We offer a roadmap and navigation advice, but students stay in the driver’s seat.

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Eighth Grade Portfolio Night

Let’s talk a little more about that roadmap that helps kids “drive” their own learning. While we have always addressed metacognitive skills in the middle school, this year we are adding a little extra spark. On Monday, students will engage in their first “Meta Monday.” Research tells us that when students learn something about brain science — particularly the concept that the brain is a muscle and grows stronger when you challenge it — they become stronger students who are able to approach challenges with a growth mindset.

The theme for this first Meta Monday is, “Who am I, and who do I want to be?”

According to Melissa Dolan, the middle school curriculum leader, “Students will learn about neuroplasticity — and how advances in the sciences of brain plasticity show that virtually all students can improve their academic performance. They will also learn about how ‘neurons that fire together wire together,’ and that the more repeatedly we think, feel, or do the same thing, the more ingrained the neural path becomes.”

If you want to learn more about metacognition and the science of learning, here are two fantastic resources that we use here in the middle school:

Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying — by Barbara Oakley, Terrence Sejnowski, and Alistair McConville

Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains — by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

The Rivers School

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