Using Mini Portfolios to Assess What Actually Matters in Writing

For the last two — almost three — years I’ve been in survival mode. Pandemic stress + endless COVID-school shifts + serious health issues in my family have left me treading water. And, to be honest, when you’re drowning, you’re not pondering innovative ways of getting to the shore; you are grasping for survival in any you can. Often, it’s not pretty.

In survival mode, I have defaulted to what is easy in my teaching. What I know works. What is simple and flexible. And while it has gotten me through and worked well enough, it hasn’t left me particularly excited about the work of my classroom.

A very famous (and now semi-controversial) teacher once said that we need to “have the courage to outgrow our best teaching.” I love that. For me, that always-getting-better-constantly-evolving nature of great teaching is what has kept me in this job for 18 years.

I decided that I needed to make a conscious choice this school year to get back to learning as a teacher and push the boundaries of my best teaching. I need to return to asking myself every day, “How can I do better? How can I do more?”

Assessing What Matters in Writing

Grading writing is the worst. Not reading and giving feedback, though that’s laborious. But it always feels to me like associating any number with a piece of writing sucks all of the oxygen out of the room. A lower number is disheartening and never accounts for the work that was poured into the piece. A higher number seems to say, “Okay, you’ve learned all you can learn here,” which is almost never true. And no number can actually account for a writer’s journey or growth.

I have tried a lot of different approaches to grading student writing (including not grading the writing of high school seniors at a previous school where I could get away with that). At each turn, I find myself backing away from evaluating students’ final products because, ultimately, I don’t think that’s what matters. Here’s why:

  • Spotlighting process spotlights how a student is learning to become a writer.
  • A final piece of writing is just a reflection of the process (or lack thereof) that led to that final piece. So all of the trials and errors and victories and ahas that happened on that journey are far more interesting than the paragraphs that resulted.
  • If students don’t find an individual writing process, they will not be able to write independently and successfully when they leave our classes. I want to help students value that process even more than the product.
  • When we only evaluate and assess writing products, we send the message that the journey to that product is irrelevant.

Enter Mini-Portfolios

This year, for each piece of writing we create, instead of just turning in a “best draft” at the end of the unit, my students are turning in a mini writing portfolio that will tell the story of how a piece of writing came to be.

This portfolio includes:

  • A reflective letter to the reader
  • A selection of artifacts from throughout the writing process
  • The final piece of writing

Since my students already have digital portfolios through Google Sites, we are using that as our platform. (Bonus: it’s easily shareable with parents!) You could use any platform you’d like OR just use good old paper like it’s 2004.

A screenshot from my model mini portfolio.

To help students through this process, I modeled it with my own writing. And then I gave them these instructions:

You can make a copy of your own to edit as you wish!

Let’s talk about that rubric.

The bottom line is that at this present moment in my current school, I need to put numeric grades in a grade book. I’m still using the single-point rubric style, which I’ve been loving for the last few years. But what I’m liking about this rubric so far is that equal weight is given to a student’s final writing product, their writing process, and their reflection. Sure, they still need to use mini-lessons. They still need to use mentor texts. They still need to put forth effort on that “best draft”. But they actually need to put forth more effort in the metacognition about how that piece of writing came into existence and how their writing practices and habits helped that process along.

And once students get into the habit of creating these mini-portfolios, that level of metacognition will begin to happen during the writing process, not just after it. Knowing a mini portfolio is the end result, students will begin thinking, “I wonder how this notebook work is helping me?” or “How is this peer feedback changing the way I think about my writing?”, or “What do I need to focus on as I revise?”.

How I’m Outgrowing My Best Writing Instruction

There’s still a nervous part of me that wonders, “What if they stop trying or caring about their final writing products because I’ve shifted the focus?”

But I know that our time, our teaching, and, ultimately, our gradebooks reveal what we value. If my students are going to spend weeks of classtime walking through the writing process, and I say that process is valuable, I need to also value it in the way that I assess their work and give them feedback. I have to continually resist the urge to try to control student work and manipulate student effort with grades.

While I spent a lot of time and talk on “the writing process” before, my students are spending a ton of time actively thinking and wirting about the writing process now.

Looking for more ideas for blending reading + writing work in your classroom in a way that feels authentic rather than frenzied? Join us for a webinar on October 6!

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  1. This is amazing. I’m also implementing a Google Sites portfolio. Would you feel comfortable sharing the link to the student guide document that you have screen shot in this post?

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