Saturday, November 26, 2011

Scrapbook is not a verb: How to Use Evernote for Student Portfolios

Welcome! Please visit the updated version of this post at 

So, the thing is... this is NOT a "how-to" blog. I've never really been comfortable with the idea of using my blog to explain my tools, tips, routines, rituals, in great detail. It always somehow feels like bragging. Don't ask me how TWEETING about some new trick (something I do all. the. time.) doesn't feel like bragging, but it just doesn't. Maybe because Twitter is a conversation, so sharing something there feels more like TALKING? And writing a blog post seems more like hanging a poster saying "Look at me, I am so awesome?" Does that even make sense? Writing a "how to" here seems so much like saying "Behold the brilliance that is me!" Ick. I also tend to not like most "how-to" teacher blogs, for the very same reason. Of course, if you are reading this, and you write a "how-to" teacher blog, I don't mean YOU. YOUR BLOG, I LOVE.

Ok, great, I am not even up to the how-to part, and I have already probably offended half of you. So, let's just pull out all the stops here: BEHOLD THE BRILLIANCE THAT IS ME, while I tell you all about How I Use Evernote for Student Portfolios, and You Can, Too.

Back-story: This School has portfolio-based assessment as part of our 3-year strategic plan, and we decided that this year was The Year that every teacher at every grade level would include portfolios in our assessment strategy.

More back-story: Up until now, the kindergarten teachers at my school have always done scrapbooks for the students, containing art projects, work samples and photos. I have always been HORRENDOUSLY TERRIBLE at doing these, because I am one of those people who doesn't think that scrapbook has any business being a verb, and I just feel like, if parents want a nice souvenir scrapbook of kindergarten, they are WELCOME to make one. At home. On their time. Because making a cute scrapbook for each kid is 110% NOT FUN FOR ME. (See? Now I have also offended the scrapbookers out there, haven't I?) Oh, my glee, why do you people even put up with me?

Ok, so: we needed portfolios, I wanted a way out of scrapbooks (not a verb, not a verb, not a verb). Even before we decided this was Portfolio Year, I had begun playing around with Evernote. Evernote is an app, downloadable for free, to computers, tablets, and most Smart-type-phones. I installed it on my Macbook, and my Android phone, and, when my school gave me an iPad to play with over the summer, I put it on there, too. (Quick disclaimer: I have the paid, premium version of Evernote, and have been using for long enough that I am no  longer sure which features are in the free version, and which are only available with a paid account. Basically, if you are considering using it for student portfolios, you need the paid version because you need the extended memory and (believe me) you WANT the capacity to add video clips. If more than one teacher at your school is going to use it, the best value is to set up a sponsored, group account, for education.)

Evernote is such a broad-based app that it is hard to describe it in a general way. Basically, it allows you to create digital notebooks for any topic that interests you. Within each notebook, you can add notes that may be:
  • text (typed right into the app on whatever device you choose)
  • photos 
  • audio clips
  • web clips (there is a web-clipper tool that allows you to insert a link or an entire webpage into an Evernote notebook)
You can also add attachments to your notes, of nearly any file type: Word, Excel, PDF, Powerpoint, video. Notebooks can be shared with other users, so, for example, specialist teachers can add their own notes, photos, work samples to student files. More on that later.

So, I first started using it to document my own teaching, because I am fantastically gifted at teaching an amazing lesson by the seat of my pants, and then being unable to replicate it the following year. I created Evernote notebooks for each unit/theme, and as we did different activities, I:
  • took photos of completed projects/crafts/writing activities, etc
  • took photos of bulletin board displays or whiteboard setups that worked (or didn't)
  • used my phone to text notes into Evernote notebooks about how to change/modify/improve/adapt an activity or lesson in the future.
The reason Evernote was so great for this was that I could walk around the classroom with my phone, open the app, go into the "Butterflies" notebook, take a picture, text a caption, and then IT AUTOMATICALLY SYNCED TO ALL MY OTHER DEVICES. There is no "take a photo, e-mail it to self, save the photo attachment, create a new note, re-attach the photo." The photo and/or text are automatically filed in the right place, and (assuming wifi is present), almost INSTANTLY available on every device to which you have installed the app. Nearly a year into using the app, this still seems like magic to me.

Access anywhere.

The leap from there to student portfolios was a short one. At the beginning of this year, I created an Evernote notebook for each student in my class. Throughout the day, I walk around with my iPad (I much prefer the iPad to the phone, but I suspect that is because the keyboard on my Android phone is downright hateful), and take notes in the kids' notebooks. For art projects, I make sure to take a photo of the process as well as the product. For journal writing, I take a photo of the journal page, and then add audio of the child reading what he/she has written (audio recordings can be added directly to notes, within the Evernote app). I take notes about activities students particularly enjoy, pics of completed lego/sandbox/playdough creations, notes on social skills or behaviour patterns. I also take "souvenir" photos of special occasions: first day of school, birthdays, lost teeth, Halloween, etc. Everything is filed in each child's notebook. Evernote also allows you to copy a note to several different notebooks, so if a group of children complete a project, that project can appear in each child's individual notebook. Student work can also be added by scanning it as a PDF, and then attaching the PDF to an Evernote note, but I find the photo technique is faster and cleaner.

About once a week, I go into Evernote on my laptop, and "clean up" each child's notebook. I make sure the notes are clear and appropriate for parents to see, add captions to photos, delete notes that are not pertinent, and correct anything that is mis-filed (this is easy to do, just drag-and-drop). I also add tags to all my notes. Tags allow me to pull up (for example) all journal work for a particular student, or for all students.  I'm still working out the finer points of my tagging system, but I try to tag by: subject area (math, literacy, language, etc), developmental domain (gross motor, fine motor, social skills, etc), and type of content (photo, journal, audio, etc).

Last week, I had my first round of parent-teacher interviews. In the interview, I showed each parent their child's notebook, and explained that over the weekend, I would e-mail them an invitation to view their child's portfolio at home (I also encouraged them to look at the portfolio WITH their child, and am really hoping they will do so). Parents can choose to download the app, or to log in to Evernote online (this is true for me as well: if ever I was away from ALL of my devices, but needed to update a notebook, all I need is a computer with internet access, and I can log in to to to access all my notes. See? MAGIC!). My plan is to share the notebooks with parents for about 2 weeks, and then "unshare" them, so that I can continue to add new content without worrying about parents seeing typos or mis-files, or temporary notes that only make sense to me.

The next step in all of this is to bring our specialists on board. All my students have classes with our Phys Ed and Music specialists, and some of them also work with our Early Intervention teacher. With a paid Evernote account, I can share students' notebooks with those teachers, and grant them access to add content. There is also the possibility of granting access to the Speech Therapist and Occupational Therapist who work with some of my students. If (please, God, PLEASE) we were to decide to go to all-digital portfolios next year, for all grade levels (and to do so using Evernote), I could also transfer ownership of my students' notebooks over to their first grade teachers. (At least, I'm pretty sure I could. I haven't tested that out yet, but it makes sense that it would be possible.) (To clarify, Evernote is being piloted this year by me, and 2 of the first grade teachers. Other teachers are doing hard-copy portfolios, in a variety of formats.)

Evernote is not perfect. I wish that I could add video notes as easily as photo and audio. (Hey, Evernote people, if you're reading this: how about the ability to record video notes DIRECTLY from within the app, rather than having to record with a camera, download, and then attach to a note? THAT WOULD BE AWESOME!). I wish that I could create a "batch" of notes, all with the same title and tags, and then file them into appropriate students' notebooks. Example: when the children wrote Thanksgiving journal entries, I took a photo of each journal, and then had to title and tag each note individually. It would have been great to be able to create a batch of "Thanksgiving Journal" notes, all tagged with "writing" "language" "journals" "audio." (And if you are reading this, and know a way to do this, YOU HAVE A MORAL OBLIGATION TO SHARE IT IN THE COMMENTS!) I am cautious about my students' privacy, and their Evernote portfolios identify them by first name only. Their last names, birthdates, personal information, do not ever appear, nor does the name of our school.

Altogether, I love the system I have created. I love that I can access my students' portfolios from anywhere, without having to lug around a huge stack of paper. I love that I can photograph and file a whole day's worth of activities in less than 10 minutes. I love that group projects get to be included in EVERY child's portfolio, even if the project is big, messy, or three-dimensional. As a French immersion teacher, I love that the audio note feature allows me to document my students' budding language skills, and play it back over and over to assess their pronunciation. As a kindergarten teacher, I love that it allows to me use and document assessment tasks that are play-based and age appropriate (rather than being limited to paper-and-pencil activities and/or standardised tests.) I love that going through a child's portfolio has the potential to educate parents about not only their own child, but also about what and how and why I teach.

I love that Evernote allows me to create Kindergarten Portfolios that are both a lovely souvenir AND a record of growth and progress.

And most of all, I love that it allows me to do all of this WITHOUT using scrapbook as a verb.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Quite some time ago now, the Toronto Star published this article: How a Kindergarten Class Uses Twitter to Learn About the World, about my use of Twitter in my classroom.  It was tweeted and re-tweeted for a few weeks after it came out. Most of the response was overwhelmingly positive (I did a lot of blushing), but some of it was critical. Much of the criticism was along the lines of the Projects By Jen post I responded to in my own very first post about Twitter in kindergarten. This is a kind of criticism I can respect, as it comes from a place of honest reflection, and leaves room for ongoing dialogue.

One tweet, though, rankled, because it included an accusation of recklessness. I followed up with the tweeter (@ginrob_PT), and after some back-and-forth, he offered to write a blog post explaining why he thought my use of Twitter with my young students was dangerous. His post can be found here: Should Kindergarteners be Using Twitter?

I wanted to know what he had to say. I was honestly worried that he was going to present some incontrovertible evidence that tweeting with kindergarten was profoundly threatening to my students. I had already prepared myself to share the link to his post with my administrators, and to engage in a discussion that might lead to the discontinuation of our kindergarten twitter accounts. I was willing to cancel the entire Kindergarten Around the World project, which would have involved disappointing some 60 teachers all over the globe. THAT is how seriously I take my students' safety.

Seeing his post on the screen, I was relieved. There was not an argument there that I have not encountered before.  The criticisms raised were not new, not scary, not earth-shattering. Furthermore, they were not even particularly TRUE. Indeed, I found (and still find) it hard to read his post without feeling like there was some deliberate misunderstanding of what Twitter use in kindergarten actually LOOKS like. That said, as this year's round of Kindergarten Around the World begins to take flight, it seems timely for me to share my rebuttal.


Argument #1: the "Terms of Use" argument.
It's true. Twitter's previous terms of use state that users had to be over 13. Their new terms of use require that users be able to "form a binding contract with Twitter and are not a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction. You may use the Services only in compliance with these Terms and all applicable local, state, national, and international laws, rules and regulations." These new terms of use are considerably more ambiguous than that previous "13 and older" policy; however, even if they are interpreted as conservatively as possible, and taken to mean that only adults over the age of 18 can access Twitter... my situation with kindergarten is not in violation of those terms.

I created our class account. It is linked to my e-mail address. I approve every single one of our followers, and I choose who we follow. I type every tweet we send, and I read every tweet we receive (in advance of sharing it with the children). My students are not operating a twitter account when we tweet with our friends, any more than they are driving the car when they ride in the backseat, strapped into their car seats (to be clear, they do get considerable input into which roads we follow. More on this car metaphor later). They are not being let loose on the Great Wide Internet. The account was created and is completely managed by, me, a 30-something adult. If what I am doing is violating the terms of use, than so are parents who create twitter accounts to record the cute things their young children say, and pet owners who create accounts as if their golden retriever or Siamese cat were tweeting the minute details of life in their household.

Argument #2: the "You don't really UNDERSTAND what you are DOING" argument.

This whole argument is condescending, and based on assumptions about me as a teacher and a person. Mr. Tucker never entered into dialogue with me about why/how/when I decided to use Twitter with  my students. He made no effort to get to know me as an educator or a user of social media. If you know me, if you get to know me, it becomes (I hope) very clear, very quickly, that I am a deliberate, intentional, and thoughtful, teacher and social media consumer. I do not dive into tools/toys/ideas/techniques simply because they are New! And! Shiny!, or because I talked to someone who was doing it. The decision to create a Twitter account for my class was made slowly, thoughtfully, deliberately, with much conversation with my administrators, my colleagues, my PLN, and my students' parents.  My colleagues tease me constantly about my first response to any issue: "Let me do some research."

And so, while I will not subject the entire Interwebz to the details of my process, let me just say this: I did the research, I did the reflection, I thought carefully about how/why/when to fit Twitter into our classroom culture and routines. My entire approach to teaching is tied to developmental appropriateness (backed by my graduate degree in child development), so Mr. Tucker's argument that the Twitter environment cannot be cognitively understood by 5-year-olds does not hold water with me. My students understand Twitter as a giant bulletin board, where we post notes to our friends, and they post notes back to us. They know that what we post can be seen by ALL of our friends, and that what we post therefore needs to be kind, respectful, friendly, and safe. (This, honestly, is a better understanding than most adults have of Twitter, in my experience.) We talk about internet safety and digital citizenship, and I know that they "get" it, because they go home and tell their parents how "we have to choose our words carefully so everyone understands us, and we don't have a lot of words, so we have to say what really matters most." That seems pretty clear evidence of comprehension, to me.

My reasons for using Twitter in my classroom have never included the "eventual participation" argument referenced by Mr. Tucker. That said, I think it is sadly misleading (and deliberately melodramatic) to lump social media in with drinking or sexual activity. While there is NO appropriate way for kindergarten children to participate in either one of those activities, there are many appropriate ways for young children to reap benefit from careful, thoughtful, integration of social media into the educational environment. The third activity mentioned by Mr. Tucker as something "children will eventually do" is driving, and to that comparison, I will simply say this: an argument that children should not be exposed to Twitter until they are of an appropriate age to operate it independently is analogous to saying that children should not be allowed to ride in cars as passengers until they are old enough to drive. To continue that particular analogy, it would seem to me that children who ride in cars operated by careful thoughtful drivers, and who engage in conversations about road signs, traffic laws, and safe driving habits, are better equipped to become safe drivers, themselves.

In re-reading Mr. Tucker's post, and this response, for the umpteenth time before clicking "publish," what comes to me is this: Mr. Tucker opened his criticism with a tweet accusing me of recklessness,  and his post, while perhaps more diplomatic than his original tweet, remains essentially that: an accusation. It is one thing to say: "I have done the research and reflection, and I came to a different conclusion than this person." It is entirely different to say: "Because I do not agree with this person's decision, she clearly did NOT research and reflect." The first builds a bridge to a  shared space for deeper understanding. The second builds a wall.

It is my sincere hope that this blog is, and will always be, more about bridges than walls. Respectful conversation makes us all better. Your thoughts and comments are welcome and encouraged, as always.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A long time coming.

This post has been in progress for a long time. I  have chipped away at it, a sentence here, a word there, for months. Re-reading it now, I am worried it sounds like a rant, like I am angry. And yet, not a single word of this came from a place of anger. It has all come from a place of pride, a reminder to myself to respect the work I do every single day. As early childhood professionals, we must take ourselves more seriously, before we ask parents, administrators, ed reformers, and the general public to do so. We must honour ourselves and the work that we do. We must respect our own miracles.
I teach kindergarten.  I am not cute, although my students sometimes are. I do not wear denim jumpers or Winnie the Pooh Christmas sweaters (although I mean no disrespect to my colleagues who do). I am NICE, but not in the way that means "superficially pleasant" I am NICE in the way that means GOOD, positive, kind, and genuine. I say please and thank you to adults and children alike. I keep to the right in the hallway, hold the door for the person behind me, and use an inside voice, because those are the habits I want my students to have.

I am highly educated. I have a Bachelor's degree in Education, and a Master's Degree in Child Development. My master's is a "REAL" Ivory-Tower-Academia, 2.5 yrs of full-time studies, Master's, complete with quantitative research, statistical analysis, a 100-page thesis, and publications. I got straight As in phD-level statistics classes. I collaborated on a chapter published in a highly-regarded academic book on school-readiness. I know HOW to assess children's skills, and I know that my own observations tell me more than formal assessments (note that i will not dignify the word "testing" by including it here). I read original, peer-reviewed, published research.I push my school to participate in research, and I sit with my colleagues and administrators as we pore over the results. Because I put my whole life on hold for 2.5 years of full-time studies, I have nothing but admiration for colleagues who do graduate degrees while continuing to work. I am pretty sure their path is rockier than mine was.

I know things. I know that playdough is the best way to cleanup spilled glitter. I know that a pint of water added to a sandbox changes everything. I know that some kids print better with golf pencils than with those giant kindergarten pencils. I know how to get tempera paint off a white uniform shirt while a sobbing child frets about "what mommy will say." I know that some kids need tough love and some kids need sweet love and some kids need both at the same time. I know how to give both at the same time.

I love my students. I am in the business of childcare, and I have no illusions about that. I. Care. For. Children. all day, every day. I hold hands and wipe noses and dry tears. I hand out bandaids. I kiss boo boos. I open snacks and tie shoes and zip coats. I desperately wish someone would design mittens that children can put on ALL BY THEMSELVES. I touch children constantly, because I believe too many people are afraid to touch other people's kids in a loving way. I ruffle hair and stroke cheeks and rub backs. I gather children up in my lap and let them cry all over my clean sweater.

I do not work alone. I honour their families even when I don't really understand them. I know that parents are my most powerful allies, and I believe that most parents are doing their absolute very best with the knowledge they have. I collaborate with colleagues I adore and respect and sometimes we argue and agree to disagree, but we go on respecting each other.

I am a smartass. I do sharp and true impersonations of my students and my colleagues. I laugh when kids say inappropriate things. I occasionally lapse into sarcasm that flies far over most 5-year-olds heads. I drop the occasional F-bomb with colleagues. I make a lot of jokes about drinking at work. I do NOT drink at work. Ever. Not even on field trips.

I do hard things. Before winter break in any given year, I have explained cancer, fire drills, famine, homelessness, war, and lockdown procedures to 4 and 5 year olds. After winter break, I tackle racism, environmentalism, international relations, democracy, and natural disasters.  Over apple slices and cheese strings, I moderate respectful debates over the existence of God, ghosts, monsters, heaven, elves, Santa, and the Tooth Fairy.

I make miracles every day.
What do you do?