Monday, November 2, 2009

Portfolios Demystified

Put Paper in Its Place, Part 5 (of 5)

Welcome to the final segment of the “Put Paper in Its Place” series! If you’re a homeschooler and if you’ve been reading the entire series, this last section should just help you synthesize everything. As you may already suspect, I am not an advocate of keeping every single worksheet, piece of art, or diorama produced by the little darlings. Shocking, I know. Surprisingly, neither am I an advocate for trashing everything. You’ll be pleased to know that a middle ground exists. It’s called a portfolio.

The word portfolio usually strikes fear in the heart of homeschoolers. I have to keep a what? Why would I want to keep all that stuff? But all of the shadow boxes, insect project boards, wooden villages, and authentic medieval costumes won’t fit into a binder! Yes, I have heard all these comments and more whenever the topic of portfolios comes up. Yet, I always reply that a portfolio is not only a necessary thing, but also a good thing. Let me show you how and why.

What is a portfolio, anyway? I decided to look up the word in my official Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition to see what its normal usage is. After all, it’s a unique homeschooling word, right? At least, I thought the way that homeschoolers used the word was specific to us. I almost fell off my chair when I read this definition: “a selection of a student’s work (as papers and tests) compiled over a period of time and used for assessing performance or progress.” So much for being revolutionary. Regardless, a portfolio is a collection of your child’s scholarly achievements.
(image courtesy of

How do you gather all this stuff? Do you just grab the last three pages out of your kids’ hands on June 15 and call it good? Do you wait until your high school senior tells you that his prospective college wants to see his portfolio when he visits tomorrow? No, no, no! On the other hand, you really don’t need to have the exact same number of papers for every subject perfectly typed on the computer and color coded in a set of twelve filing boxes.

A meritorious portfolio does not include every single assignment from every single subject. It includes a representation of work completed: the best writing samples, the best test scores, the best artwork, the best notebooking pages, and the best worksheet pages. It also includes pictures of 3-D projects, field trips, and other activities that can’t be condensed into a single written document. Set aside some work from every academic year. Do it as you go through the year so that it will not be an overwhelming task at whatever point you close out records for each year. I take my children’s desk binders about once a month, choose papers to go into the portfolio, and trash the rest, unless they’re needed for a later test.

The further your child gets academically, the more you may wish to weed out some of the earlier work. You may end up with only one kindergarten handwriting page and one first grade math test by the time your child graduates. That’s fine. Don’t take all of it out, though. I’ve attended homeschool graduations where a portfolio containing selections from twelve years’ worth of work was displayed. It was really neat to see the child’s scholastic progression through the years. Your child may enjoy looking back over her progress as well.

Okay, you’re collecting all of these papers and photos (of larger projects), so where do you put all of them? The best place for a portfolio is in a binder. Yes, even for you file foxes. The main reason for this is that a portfolio should be portable. (Extra bonus points if you notice that both of these words have port as the root, from the Latin word porto, which means I carry.) It’s much easier to carry a binder into a college admission counselor’s office than it is to carry a filing cabinet. You’ll definitely want a 3-inch size for this project. Feel free to let your child choose her favorite color, or buy the kind with the clear pocket on the front and have your student design her own cover.

Put subject dividers into the binder. File the papers from earliest (kindergarten or whatever grade you started homeschooling or saving papers) to the latest within each subject. Just save one out of every ten, twenty, or even thirty pages. Save more tests than regular worksheets. Save the best essays, and choose just one of those essays to show all of the child’s work—outline, rough drafts, corrections, and final draft.

I can hear you now: Why am I making a portfolio? It sounds like way too much work, and it’s not even required by my state! Do I still need to make one even if my child is not headed to college? Obviously, some states make portfolios mandatory, but aside from that, reasons abound for making one. If you choose not to give actual grades or not to fill out a report card (or its equivalent), then a portfolio becomes even more important. A portfolio gives physical evidence that little Johnny really is a genius—just as you always thought! Portfolios preserve hard work, provide evidence for skeptical grandparents or other family members and friends, help with planning for younger siblings, and record grades and/or levels earned and completed.

If you have piles and boxes of papers, start slowly. Set up the binder first so you have a place to put the papers you’re saving. Then go through one stack or box a day, perhaps while you’re watching TV at night, and eventually you will have a lovely portfolio of your child’s academic successes. I’m cringing as I write this, but I just have to reiterate that you must keep up with a project this large or it will get away from you. If you put a few papers into the portfolio every month or so, it will be no big deal, but if you procrastinate, you’ll find it more difficult to subdue the paper piles.

I hope you’ve found this series on paper to be helpful. The more I wrote, the more I realized could be written; however, this is it for now. I’ve provided you with the tips and encouragement that you need to conquer the paper monster once and for all.

** This article first appeared on the Lesson Pathways blog. **