Saturday, November 26, 2011

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

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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.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. You're enthusiasm is infectious. I can wait to get started oh my on portfolio project for my special needs students!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing. I have embarked on a similar Evernote journey, starting with the creation of math portfolios for each of the third and fourth graders I teach. I did upgrade to the premium account because of space issues and for the video component . Is there any way you can share one of your student's portfolios without compromising confidentiality ? I would love to see how you have set them up.. Thanks again.


  3. Wonderfully done! Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise. what lucky, lucky parents & students to have you for their teacher! @lfrehlich

  4. Brilliant! I've yet to explore evernote, but this was truly inspiring...I'm off to try it out! Thanks!

  5. I LOVE the way you write. Ahem, brilliance is for sharing, so don't be shy.

    Also, this is exactly the sort of portfolio that I was wanting to create in the future, so you just gave me a huge head start- thank you. I'm SO sick of double-recording things.

    'Scrapbook' never has been and never will be a VERB!!!

  6. I've been using Evernote bit by bit since our #kinderchat about it. I love how quickly I can type in a note about a student and retrieve it later.

    I think your idea about documenting your lessons and projects using Evernote is brilliant.
    As for the bragging, I totally understand. I love sharing my experiences on my blog but am so embarrassed if someone I really know reads it- it feels like it should be anonymous and I am the farthest thing from bragging about myself but that is what it feels like, and it is so nice to hear a fellow blogger feels the same way.

  7. Wow! These portfolios sound wonderful. As a parent, I would love for my child's teacher to be able to share something like that with me. I might start playing around with evernote right now so that when I go back to the classroom in a few years, I'll be ready! Just one question, do parents have to have an account set up with evernote to view the files? Oh, and I'm a "how to" blogger. And sometimes I "scrapbook", but I still like your blog post :)

    I JUST and I mean JUST (Friday) started keeping notes this way in my first grade classroom. My hesitation in starting is that I am using my MacBookPro. I was afraid it would be too intrusive when conferring with little ones. I was pleasantly surprised when they didn't even blink and when I began to quickly explain they looked at me as if I was intruding on THEIR speaking time with carless non-sense! LOL
    I am wondering…
    Are parents able to keep these EN portfolio's at the end of the year?
    I currently have a class notebook and notebooks for each child inside the class notebook. Is this a good way to organize this or are their advantages to the way your way?
    Tagging is something I am learning to do in my blog and in EN your tips are helpful!

  9. This sounds really phenomenal! And btw, I am one of those how-to teachers, but hey--to each his own, right? I love that you decided to jump and tell about this one, because I've just started using Evernote and it totally gives me hope that what I was thinking I wanted to do could happen for real. I love that your whole school is on board with this, too. I am going to share this with my principal--she'd love it, too!

  10. Wow, as the aforementioned principal, I am indeed pumped. I am not a fan or portfolios whether as a teacher, parent or administrator. They have just evolved into binders of STUFF. I have enough binders of STUFF in my life, I don't need anymore! Give me something (preferably) digital with reflective notes attached and I am yours! Wouldn't it be really cool if the reflective notes/comments were from the kid? Lots of possibilities here! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Hello this is Ron from Everonote. I came across your post and wanted to drop by and say thanks for sharing it with your readers. It's great to hear how you are using Evernote with your students. I'd really like to hear more about the ways you are using it and gather some feedback. if you have the chance drop me an email and we can connect. rtoledo @ evernote .com . Thanks

  12. This is brilliant!! I'm a high school English teacher, and it blows my mind thinking what could be possible if the students start to generate Evernote portfolios for their writing. Their ability to track their improvement like this is going to have a monumental impact on their work. I'm pumped!

  13. I've dabbled in Evernote but suspect I haven't found its true potential quite yet; thank you for inspiring me to keep using it!

  14. Okay, it's very late in this conversation, but what if you want your students to create the portfolio for "Student Led Conferences?" (Believe me, I am all over the ideas above!) BUT there are administrators out there who are so resistant to the idea of digital portfolios that it scares me! Please share some ways a teacher can plead their case for what you have described. Love evernote! and Thank you for this great blog entry!

  15. I have started using Evernote with my Kindergarten students this quarter-I just have to train myself to do it more often. I need to learn more about the education school version (and get my school to pay for it!). I love your idea of documenting your lessons!!! Well, I will have to start now, I guess!! Thanks!
    Oh, and you are not bragging! You are helping us learn new things! You are teaching!!!

  16. I don't think you're bragging. I think you're giving a ridiculously useful description of something that works for you. I hate scrapbooking because I'm just not good at it. But I AM good with computers.