Learner Profile: An interview with Margaret Simon

The following is an excerpt from “Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work” by Matt Renwick (ASCD, 2017). You can purchase a copy of the book here. 

Margaret Simon is a gifted and talented teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana. She works with many students in several schools, specifically related to English Language Arts. Margaret is a strong proponent for student blogging and has highlighted many benefits she has found in her work:

  • Opens the doors of the classroom to the world.
  • Gives the students an authentic voice.
  • Writing becomes an everyday activity.
  • Comments feed and nourish bloggers.
  • Automatic portfolios and student mentor texts at your fingertips.

Why did you introduce digital portfolio assessment in your classroom?

I first introduced digital portfolios because I teach the same students year to year. It is an academic pull out from their classroom. Through Kidblog, our process portfolio tool of choice, I can follow students’ progress from when they enter the program until they exit the school (6th grade). Often, I am assigned students without any information regarding their writing abilities. That is why we use Kidblog. Once, when I went to ask a teacher for a writing sample for one student, the teacher mentioned that they never really go to the writing part. This was disappointing for me to hear. Yet it did not deter me from getting this student started in regular writing habits. When I started working with this student, it was like a door was opened. She started blogging at least once a day.

In what way(s) were the effects of implementing digital portfolios in school unique or unusual?

Blogging is a focus for the program; it’s individualized for that student; all of the students from the other schools I work with are blogging together. They have readers who comment on their work as a real audience, peers at different grade levels and abilities. Gifted and talented students sometimes lack opportunities to connect with peers at their current cognitive level. To model this process, I blog as well (www.reflectionsontheteche.wordpress.com). I also facilitate deep connections between her students and other educators and writers. For example, I have a student in 6th grade, had her since 1st grade. She is a very good poet who lost her mother too soon. I wrote about her mother’s death in 4th grade. Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, a poet, saw this post and connected with the student via email. They communicated with each other quite a bit, exchanging poetry. Amy ended up sending the student some of her published books.

How would you describe the characteristics of the products from the digital portfolio work and of the educators who were involved?

This sense of audience is a big driver in motivating students to frequently write online and make their process as writer visible. We’ve had other authors, such as Sharon Creech, Kate Messner and Cynthia Lord, visit kids’ blogs. I’ve sent out their posts with the author included on Twitter to get their attention, authors who I feel would be good connections. These connections with an authentic audience have benefited me directly. The relationship that developed between Amy Ludwig VanDerwater and my student has enhanced my practice. For example, Amy was working on an educational resource about poetry. She asked me for samples of my student’s work to highlight. In addition, I often feature my students’ work on my blog so they have a wider audience. With this approach, the line between school and real world is often blurry.

Each Tuesday, my students engage in Slice of Life. This initiative comes from the blog Two Writing Teachers (www.twowritingteachers.org). Each week, students are challenged to write about what’s going on in their lives. It is an exchange of stories from and between classrooms. Students connect with peers through Kidblog that are also doing the Slice of Life challenge. With permissions in place, kids can see a stream of other peer bloggers also participating in this activity. They are expected to leave constructive comments on other students’ blog from all across the U.S.

What resources were used to support the use of digital portfolios?

Regarding resources, my students do not have 1:1 access to computers. Instead, they have a rotation system of who gets a computer on certain days. For celebrating student work, they have Promethean boards to project a piece of student’s writing, notice what’s good and needs work, and use the student’s writing as a model. Once it is on the student’s blog, I does not have nearly as many papers. Print resources are also a mainstay in my practice, including titles from Amy Buckner, Ralph Fletcher, Georgia Heard, Katherine Bomer, plus all of the connections available through online connections. In addition, I use Voxer a lot (a walkie-talkie-like app). This is really nice, as I live in a smaller community, so I get the opportunity to communicate within teaching network via social media such as Twitter and Voxer.

What specific outcomes do you attribute to the use of digital portfolios?

Not every student in our gifted and talented program is a natural writer. Motivation and persistence are not uncommon challenges. For a while, documenting word count has been something I was resistant to when getting started. However, the previous year (during the Slice of Life challenge), another gifted teacher’s students were producing amazing work. ‘How do you get these kids to write so much?’ I asked. She shared that she tracked word count. Now I require a word count minimum of 250 words. Students have met my expectations and then some. They will compete with themselves, pushing themselves to write as much as they can. One student who was writing barely 100 words is now writing 400 words at a time. The word count forces them to elaborate on their writing and dig deeper into their work.

In your opinion, what other factors contributed to the achievement of these outcomes?

One of the best outcomes of making blogging through the Slice of Life initiative and other blogging opportunities is my students no longer fear writing. It’s comfortable for them. I require three blog posts a week: Slice of Life, Wonder Wednesday, and a reader’s response. Just that practice, that daily writing, is critical. I have to remind my students that blogging is writing, just like paper and pencil. Some of my students, especially boys, have a harder time coming back to handwriting after blogging for a while. With gifted students, and really all students, their opinion is not a trivial matter in their minds. When they participate in writing digitally for an audience, their thoughts are important. What they share makes a difference. It’s empowering to them. Writing online goes beyond just what we are teaching them. It builds them up as a person.

What problems did you encounter when developing or introducing digital portfolios?

Just like with the other teachers using digital tools to maintain progress and process portfolios, these initiatives do not come without their issues. For Margaret, the main problem is access. “My students would not always have access at home. That is why I usually do not require them to complete a blog post beyond school. When I do expect some work from home, a few can come up with excuses. Some of my students without a home wireless connection will find ways to access the Internet, such as the public library. The conditions are changing, just not very quickly.” Another issue is Margaret has found that her students’ parents are also not attuned into this new way of writing yet. “They think, ‘Oh, my kids are on the computers and they are just playing games and stuff.”’They haven’t gotten quite there yet in understanding that when they write online is something important. The parents are sometimes not letting them on. They get nervous about letting them on the Internet or having a phone.” Parent education and guiding students to advocate for their needs are proven methods for legitimizing these practices.

What else do you think a teacher or school should know before implementing digital portfolios?

Teachers should not be afraid of the technology and allowing students to have access to that technology. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the safety of blogging. Kidblog is a very safe space for students to write online. No hacking or inappropriate comments. Some teachers are hesitant to give students that freedom. However, we have to provide for them the opportunities to take risks in a safe environment.

That is something that I have learned in this process. For example, an older student blogged about some friendship troubles she was having. Another student read this and shared it with peers. This led to the class having a heart-to-heart conversation about the situation. In reflection, there was a lot of learning that can came from this experience. We can provide that safety net so students can apply their skills and learn from their errors.

About the Author
Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Prior to this position, Matt was a teacher and school administrator in Wisconsin Rapids. He is the author of Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (2014) and the ASCD Arias book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (2016). Renwick posts frequently on his collaborative blog for literacy leaders, Reading by Example, and tweets at @ReadByExample. He also writes for Discovery Education and Lead Literacy. For more information about Renwick's work, visit his website.

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