George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Final Portfolios: Ending the Year with Meaning

May 7, 2014 Updated May 8, 2014
Image credit: Monisha Das

“All in all, this year was tough but I made it through. I learned a lot about culture, society, and religion. Society shouldn't determine who you are as a person because who [can] judge us? We as individuals can only judge ourselves.” —Excerpt from Long Nu's final portfolio

One way that I attempt to help make meaning of a year, give students the final word about their learning, and achieve a collective sense of completion is by assigning a portfolio project as the final major assignment of the year.

Portfolio Overview

With or without access to technology, final portfolios are opportunities for students be creative as they reflect on, describe, analyze, and interpret their own work and learning from the year. Instead of being told what they should know, students have an opportunity to articulate their learning and their realities in their own words as they create a product of personal and emotional value.

“This class has really made me think about where I fit into the world, and how I can use my position in the world to incite change.” —Excerpt from Ruby’s final portfolio

“At first I never knew stepping out of my comfort zone would make me feel like a new person.” —Excerpt from Monisha’s final portfolio

The Process

I begin the process by having students read over their work from the entire year. Each student sits, claiming a section of table to her/himself. Spread in front of them is their work from the year -- papers spilling out of graded work folders, worn journals overflowing with entries, large pieces of chart paper, and many open tabs on their laptops display assignments, docs, and websites that they have created. This first stage reminds students of all that they have accomplished. "Remember this? I forgot all about it!" is a frequent refrain. At times students are impressed by their work, and at other times disappointment is clear: "Ugh. I didn’t do so well on this."

I want them to read through their work and notice multiple things that they may not have previously realized. For this reason, I don't tell them all the details of the project at the outset. Instead, I ask them first to record at least 15 quotes of interest from their own work. The quotes must be from different assignments and significant to them for some reason. (Maybe one quote contains a powerful idea, another is something they now disagree with, a third is a quote where they appreciate the style of the writing, etc.) By completing this first assignment, they are beginning to develop larger ideas and insights into their learning from the year.

The next day, with their collection of quotes in front of them, I ask them to sit in groups and create a list of General Understandings that begin to summarize their learning from the year. I make it clear that they can think about both whatthey learned and how they learned. I give examples to get them started:

  • Multiple perspectives help develop different understandings of reality.
  • Discussions can lead to insights and learning not possible for an individual.
  • Struggle is a necessary part of transformation.

I am intentional about modeling with complex and varied General Understandings. For each General Understanding, I have students take notes about units, assignments, projects, and memories of class activities that can be used to support the statement. During this stage, each student contributes ideas, and group wisdom helps develop individual ideas farther. Ultimately each student will choose his or her own General Understandings based on the wealth of ideas and possibilities that each group has generated on the chart paper hanging in different parts of the room.

Incorporating Creativity and Individualization

The next step is for students to draft and write the portfolio essay, the introduction to their selected body of work from the year. For my high school version of the project, students write 500 words focusing on two to three General Understandings. Each General Understanding must be supported by quotes from their own work throughout the year. By using their own work as sources, students continue to review, acknowledge, and accept the authority, power, and connections in their work from the year, while also identifying where there is room for growth.

If technology is available, portfolios can be created as blog posts. Quotes from student work can link directly to pages with those assignments. I require that students include links to at least five different examples of their collected work.

With or without technology, artwork can be a powerful element in portfolios. I have had students use a word cloud generator to create word art that represents their learning from the year. Students can create many different expressions this way.

Final Thoughts

Every year, final portfolios give my students a structure for evaluating themselves and articulating the most important aspects of their learning and growth. The day that the portfolios are due, we sit in a circle and hear an excerpt from each student. The range and variety of essays is a poignant reminder of the value of creating individualized learning experiences.

Final portfolios can be a reflective tool not only for students, but also for teachers. Reading portfolios rejuvenates me, helps me realize and understand things that I had not realized about different students and their experiences in my class, and helps me to identify my own areas for growth as I continually work to refine and improve my teaching practice. Creating structure that encourages students to develop individual, insightful voices can provide a powerful reminder of why the work of teaching matters.

“There’s different sides to ourselves that we don't really see at a first glance. Those parts of us can be brought out when we create poetry and view things about the world in different lenses. We not only learn about ourselves, but we learn sides to people surrounding us and people who are thousands of miles away. Throughout the year, I've been able to see parts of myself that I haven't seen before. Some parts surprised me and some parts led me to believe that there is something inside of me worth searching for and worth continuing beyond [the] classroom.” —Excerpt from Symone’s final portfolio

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • 9-12 High School

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