How do you curate student work--or help them do it themselves?
This is something I've done differently for every year I've been a teacher. I've tried various ways to do portfolios throughout the years, but I just never found a way that really worked for me without being too much of dictator: Your portfolio MUST include these 5,000 items! I slip into dictator mode real easy. So I stopped doing that.
For the past two years, I've put the choice entirely into my students' hands. Here's the thing: as writing teachers, we don't assign enough writing. Most of us (myself included) focus on the BIG paper/essay/whatever and attach a BIG grade when we hand it back. The frustrations with this are endless: a ton of papers all due (and therefore all need to be graded at once), same assignment = piles of the same paper rewritten at various levels of success, not to mention that writers are rarely motivated by writing that doesn't give them enough freedom. This was leading to major burnout, so last year I went away from it. Yes, in class my students learn how to do the same genres of writing and the basics of their content, but I don't collect these papers. Most of them I never even read, except quick glances over their shoulders while walking through the aisles. I'm exposing them to all kinds of writing, but I'm not forcing a panic-inducing grade on all of it.
My students have one "Weekly Writing" due every Friday. Any genre, any topic, as long as they show variety for both on a week-to-week basis. Weekly writings are not graded for errors, and my response to them is minimal (usually non-verbal) so they can get back in the authors' hands immediately and add to their folders of collected work. Students can turn in the papers we've worked on in class if they are completed, but they don't have to (most don't- they choose to write something new). The balance between in-class writing and weekly writings mean that my kids are constantly creating a ton of rough draft writing. Every two weeks they take one through personal revision, every three to four weeks they bring something to the table for peer response. This gives them a huge bank of already-started pieces to refine.
Each trimester, I require one final-level paper of the student's choice. There are some restrictions: for example, if a student wants to do poetry, it needs to be a collection rather than a single poem. But the only major caveat is that it has to be what the author considers her best work, and she has to be able to explain why. Students write a "Dear Reader" letter to me stating their purpose for the piece, their particular strengths/why they chose it, areas of struggle, and questions for me regarding the particular work. These finals are the high-stakes writing in my class. Students get a letter back where I focus on what I perceived as their strengths, areas to work on, and answer their questions. These letters have quickly turned into a student favorite, something many of them put in their folders for parent conferences.
I've found that students are more careful when they have this freedom of choice. When they know I'm going to dig deep into something they've chosen as best, most of them invest more energy into the process. And since it's a topic and genre they choose, it allows me to see a) huge variety (minimal grading boredom!), and b) stuff they're actually proud of instead of something from a checklist. In order to see variety, each trimester final has to be in a different genre on a different topic. This goes a long way toward creating writers who are their own best evaluators. This goes hand-in-hand with reflection on learning; you have to reflect on the work you've done and the progress you've made in order to decide what you think is the best writing you have. Some decide they don't have anything amazing enough and create something entirely new. Some schedule a writing conference with me to ask advice between a few different pieces (I'm a fan of pro/con lists for tough decisions, so we do that together). Many of them start thinking about their next finals on the first day of the new trimester.
I'm happier with this process than anything I've tried in the past, and I know I've seen growth in my students because they're writing more, but not constantly being "punished" with a harsh grade. Freedom of choice goes a long way with earning trust from teenagers, and most of them take advantage by stepping up their game.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.