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Utilizing Digital Portfolios (Ep. 325)

In today’s episode, Tim welcomes on new guest and future NOW Conference presenter Sejal Vaywala to talk about how she uses digital portfolios in her classroom. Listen as they discuss the best sites for creating portfolios, the benefits for students and teachers, and how to keep kids on track with reflections and submissions throughout the year.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Transcript

Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University. And I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Now, I am welcoming a new guest on the podcast today, and I am eager to talk to her. Sejal Vaywala is a secondary art teacher from Virginia, and she does a lot in her classroom with digital portfolios. So, today, we’re going to dive into that topic and talk about the what, when, why and how of creating digital portfolios with your students, which I think is an incredibly worthwhile endeavor for both students and teachers alike. I hope our discussion today covers some of the reasons why.

Sejal will also be talking about this topic and showing you a lot more at the NOW Conference at the end of this month. Now, her presentation will be part of the main event on Thursday, July 28th. As I keep telling you, every week, it feels like, if you want to be part of the conference, check out all the information that you can find, everything that you need on the AOEU website. But while you are waiting for the conference to come around, and I think this discussion might pique your interest in portfolios, and get you thinking about how you can use them in your classroom.

All right, Sejal Vaywala is here with me. Sejal, how are you?

Sejal: I’m doing great. How are you?

Tim: Very well. I’m looking forward to talking all about digital portfolios. But before we start there, can we begin with just an introduction? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about your teaching?

Sejal: Yes, absolutely. So, first of all, thanks for having me on here. I have taught art for 10 years and I started my career teaching art at a middle school, but for most of my career, I’ve taught high school at this really small school in Richmond, Virginia. I’m the only high school studio art teacher at the school. So, that means I have many of the same students year after year from all grades in mixed classes. So, I love to take a student-centered choice-based approach, which is one of the reasons why I got into portfolios in the first place. They give a deeper picture into the students art practice just beyond their finished products. So, I’m looking forward to sharing all about those digital portfolios today.

Tim: Oh, awesome. I feel like we could have a whole different conversation to a whole different podcast on what it’s like to be the only art teacher at a secondary school. I did that for a few years and there are definitely some challenges. But like you said, there are a lot of rewards, too, being able to work with the same kids for multiple years and watching them grow. It’s a wonderful thing. But, anyway, we can save that for another time. We are here to talk about portfolios. So, I guess I’ll begin with just the most simple question. What do you love about digital portfolios? Why are you so passionate about digital portfolios?

Sejal: Oh my gosh. There’s so many reasons. I know there’s a time limit, so I’ll try to keep it to the main ones. So, they’re, first of all, a means for more authentic assessment of the student learning and performance beyond the numerical grade. As a teacher, I’m able to understand them and their process. So, their thoughts and their growth, all of that, so much better on a regular basis. This is as I’m reading their blog reflections, which they post on their portfolios, which they do regularly. This is also when I see their completed work and their artist statements on there. So, that’s one reason I would say. As the students post on there, they are able to understand their process better as well. So, they are able to gain better awareness about things such as their goals moving forward, what they’re doing well, what they could improve on, ways they can improve, et cetera, et cetera.

One of the best part is that you get to see all of their work, their growth, their progress over time in one place that doesn’t take up any room. So, there also developing presentation skills, they learn to organize and store their work. You can be a better advocate for your art program by sharing these with the community, with administrators, families, and school members. I know I do that all the time and just get a lot of just compliments on those. One last reason for now, so there’s more and more colleges and jobs and internships that are recommending portfolios now. So, if the students have a portfolio, especially at the high school level, it gives them the edge. I have a student who was applying for engineering school and she included in her art portfolio and her interviewer basically told her that her portfolio made her stand out above other applicants.

Tim: They have. Awesome.

Sejal: Yeah. So, she wasn’t even applying in art and her portfolio helped her get accepted. So, there’s just so many benefits to doing them beyond their own learning as well.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. I want to talk a little bit about logistics and how you put them together and all that kind of stuff. But before we get to that, I would love to know just how you first got started with digital portfolios. Just thinking back, what was the impetus that made you want to have your kids start creating those portfolios?

Sejal: Yeah, sure. So, it all started when I was looking for a much more well-rounded way to assess the students, the ways that students would be able to share their process and not just their product. So, I was looking for a place where they could regularly reflect, like a blog, where they shared what they’ve been working on, thinking about learning in class. Then, at the same time, I saw that there was also a need for students to learn presentation skills. So, just to be able to properly showcase the work they’ve done over the year, taking quality pictures, editing them, learning that they need to crop out the background, little things like that before posting them, writing an artist statement to better explain what their work is about and all of that. So, presentation skills like that.

I’d seen that the students just had a tendency to just tuck their work in their cubbies when they were done and just jump to the next thing without properly reflecting on what they did and communicating about their work. So, at first, I had them reflect and write artist statements and post their work, but it was all in separate places. The reflections, they turned it on Google Docs and finished artworks on a slide show that they turned in. That was frankly just hard to keep track of. So, I started to use websites like Weebly at first and then now Google Sites. These work well, because we were able to put both their blog posts and final artwork on there. So, their blog posts from the year are on one of the web pages on their site and then their art gallery is on a different page within the same site.

So, it’s just so much easier to keep track of all of their artwork in one place, while the students also learned presentation and organization and web design technology skills as they build their site. So, it took me some trial and error to get there, but website portfolios are my thing, they work best for me. And they’re just now so ingrained in our classroom culture. So, when they finish their work, they know to post it on there with an artist statement and they are working on something interesting, they know to take a process picture, so later on they can add it in their reflection blogs. So, it’s just a habit now. And I can’t imagine not using them anymore.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. I love what you said about just having everything together in one place, because I feel like a lot of times teachers think, “Oh, we should be doing process photos and talking about process and we should be doing reflections and we should have our final artworks and talk about those.” But it’s very tough to keep it organized, very tough to keep it all in one place. So, I really like the idea of how you tie that all together. And I think that’s a worthwhile goal for teachers and a good reason to put these together. Now, you also mentioned Wix, you mentioned Google Sites. Are those your favorites? Can you recommend for teachers? Are those, in your opinion, the best sites to use for digital portfolios? Can you maybe talk a little bit about the benefits and drawbacks of some of the various sites you’ve used?

Sejal: Yeah, sure. So, I find, at least, for me, at the high school level, my favorite sites are Google Sites and Weebly and Wix, because those are some of the best sites, in my opinion, to build websites on. You have a lot of freedom. Then building them, the students have a lot of freedom. But here are my personal opinions on [inaudible 00:10:59] there’s, of course, tons of them out there. But these are the ones that I think teachers, it might be easier for teachers to use in a classroom. So, first of all, Google Sites, I like it because my school does use the G Suite. I know my school recommended that I use that, even though I used Weebly before. Google Sites does not have a built-in blog option, but we can still use it to create a blog post quite easily, which I’ll show at the conference.

It’s good for the absolute beginner for websites. I think it’s easy to add images on there and you can add images on there from your Google Drive too, which makes it easy to use for everybody who has the G Suite. So, definitely a good one to start with. Then there’s Weebly. I know at my last school, that’s what I ended up using the most. I find that it’s easy to create a great looking site without too much technical knowledge. They do have a built-in blog option as part of their free plan. It’s great for a teacher site, too. So, I know I had a personal Weebly site where I actually shared happenings in my classrooms just at student work. So, I like that, but that could once again be a whole other podcast. So, I won’t talk too much about that.

I find that Wix is also another great option for some of the similar reasons as Weebly. It’s another way to create a great looking, yet free and easy site. I like to say. You can actually drag and drop backgrounds from a library of images and videos that they provide. I’ve started to use one myself. I know I’m working on a personal website, but it’s easy to make it look really nice and professional without any hassle. So, those three are my top three. But I think there’s some other ones that also work really well for other level teachers, like elementary school teachers.

I know Artsonia is something that a lot of elementary school teachers that I know use. I think Artsonia is good because students can add images on there and parents can purchase mugs and T-shirts and magnets and all other kinds of items with their kids’ work on it. It’s good for a completed work. Maybe not so much for the reflection blogs. So, if that’s what you’re going for, then that might be a good option. Then another one that I’ve seen a lot of elementary school teachers use is Seesaw. Because you can post all kinds of things on their photos, video clips, audio clips, drawings, and teachers can assign activities on there. There’s a whole library of activities that they can actually choose from and assign just from the Seesaw website, it’s geared towards elementary-age kids, like I mentioned. So, another great option for that level.

Then there’s others like Padlet, I’ve used before. I tend to use it now more for collaboration. So, it’s good for that, because many students can add a work to the same Padlet page. But you could also make a quick portfolio, if you would like. I know one year, in 2020, when we had just all moved remote. I had all my AP students create quick end-of-the-year Padlet sites with their AP portfolio. And I shared them at the school community. It was great. It was quick. It was easy. So, those are great for that. You can, once again, add multiple web pages, it will all be on that one Padlet page.

Then there’s one last one I wanted to talk about, which is good, which I’ve seen is good. I know the middle school teacher that I work with, she used that for all of her eighth graders. So, the Adobe Express for Education, which is formerly Adobe Spark, that’s a great one. Students can easily sign up for free with the school email, create a page, add their work and writing from the year. It’s a really beginner-friendly, user-friendly, has visually appealing themes to choose from. It’s easy to add images, text, videos, and more. Once again, they would be limited to the page that they’re designing, unless they’re creating a whole other site on there, a whole other page. So, yeah, those are some great and easy-to-use options for teachers. There’s some more sophisticated ones, but I prefer these for quick and get them done kind of websites.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. No, that’s a lot of good suggestions and a good rundown. So, thank you for that. Then, a cool thing that I’ll just add about the conference really quickly is we’re doing your portfolio’s presentation during the main event on Thursday. Then the next day, on Friday, with the asynchronous learning day, where everybody can just come in and learn at their own pace, we actually have Artsonia talking about elementary portfolios. So, sort of as a nice counterpart to what you’re doing. So, it was cool to hear you shout them out. And I think that’ll be a good tie in, a good companion piece to your presentation.

So, I wanted to ask you, I guess, about the logistics, because you’ve talked through a lot of the different things that you have your kids do, but I’d love to help teachers envision how they might be able to put things together in their own classrooms. So, can you just give us a quick summary, I guess, of what you’ve talked about here, as far as how portfolios are set up, what they look like and all the things that you have kids put into the portfolios as they’re assembling them?

Sejal: Sure. Yeah. So, with our Google Sites, we built them early in the year, I’m talking the first or second week of school, usually when their schedules are finalized and I know who’s definitely going to be in the class that’s going to be built on. At that time, I first walk them through the initial steps of the creating the new Google Site. So, naming it, creating a homepage with a picture and about me section, adjusting the themes and background images, some of the basic stuff, which they usually pick up faster than me. But they also create two main pages on their site right at the beginning, when they’re setting them up. So, they create a reflection blog page. I mentioned a little bit about that, but that’s the page where they do regular reflections at a set time. I can talk a little bit more about that later.

But they do them regularly wherever they are in the art process. We have set aside time to do those either depending on your school situation, you could do them at week, every other week, depending on how frequently you see the students. There’s a finished artwork section, that’s a different page. So, that’s where only when they finish their artwork, they add to that page. So, that’s where they do their artist statements that explain their artwork and they put polished photos, really well-cropped and presentable photos of their artwork. But the reflection blog is just giving the people a glimpse into their daily art practice. So, those are the two main pages that we start with in the beginning of the year. So, we made the pages, we just create the pages, then we’re setting them up. But at that point, they’re not adding anything to it, that’ll be later on.

So, they publish it, which they have to remember to do every time they make a change and they’ll have to be reminded, especially in the beginning, but then they’ll get used to it. So, then I have them turn in their URL in the comments of a Google Classroom assignment. So, I have everybody’s in that class, in one place, and I can go back to that assignment every time I’m checking that they’re doing their entries. So, that’s one way you can keep them organized. You could also have them just simply add theirs on a Google Doc, if you prefer it that way. I would just recommend organizing each classes separately, just so that will just make it easier to track them later on class by class.

So, I do these steps with each class in those first couple weeks just to set up the portfolios. They can, of course, add more pages if they want. So, if they later want to add a CV page, especially for the high school teachers or just older high school students that might want to add that, if they want to create a whole other page for a different kind of art. I know I had a student who took a photography class outside of the school and she wanted to have a whole other page for her photography that she did in that class. So, if there’s anything like that, they can create a new page. But those are some of the basic things that I include on the portfolios. Of course, it’s going to be different for every teacher and their situation, but I found that this works best for me.

Tim: Okay. That’s awesome. Now, let me ask you, though, because you mentioned about having kids post regularly, you mentioned about needing to give them reminders, because I think this is right along the lines of what a lot of teachers are worried about. So, let me ask you, how do you keep students on track and make sure that they’re submitting what they need to in that portfolio? How do you do that on a regular basis?

Sejal: Yeah. Yeah. So, the reflection blog posts are something that we all do at a set time regularly as I mentioned a little bit. But I would just set a specific time to do them, whether you’re doing them every week, every couple weeks. I know my school has an eight day rotation, so we just do them at the last day of the rotation. So, that’s day eight of the rotation is that when we do portfolios. What happens on those days is they come in, they pull up their site on their computers, but it is possible to do it on other devices too, with the Google Sites. So, whatever devices they have, they do that and they take 10 to 15 minutes to do that reflection blog post.

They can write about what they have been doing. They can choose from a list of questions I provide them. They can take pictures of their process and upload them along with, of course, their writing. I tell them that as soon as they’re done, they have to publish their post. Once they do that, they can continue on whatever they have been working on, their art projects. So, I know that can be a lot of reflections to read at a time, but I make it a point to go through them while they’re submitting them in the beginning and during that same period. So, I’m reading them as they’re quietly doing their reflections, because at that time, that’s something that we do quietly. I sometimes wish I could do that every day, because they come in and when they write them, they’re so [inaudible 00:24:27], but when they’re doing them, that’s a perfect time to just go through the ones that are coming in early.

So, I do that, check them while they’re doing them. Any that they don’t get through at the start of class, I’m usually able to just do that in the windows of time that I’m not helping students. Usually, in that same period. So, it’s definitely possible to do all of that without adding an extra chunk of grading to your schedule. As for the finished work, I make it a required step to upload their artwork and art statement for that piece as soon as they finish each piece. So, they’re doing that throughout the year as well, not just at the end of the year.

Although, I do know some teachers who like to just have them work on portfolios at the end and it works well for them. So, just to think about what you prefer when you’re choosing how they’re going to post on there. But they do that as they’re finishing each artwork and that is how they officially turn in their work to me, just there, by having that on their art portfolio. I do not grade it until it is on the portfolio. So, their piece is not considered completed until it’s on the portfolio. That helps me keep track of their work and make sure it’s just all on there when they complete it. Yeah.

Tim: All right. That is great. No, I appreciate the rundown there and I just want to ask you one last really quick question. I feel like I’m convinced that this is something that most teachers should be doing, but can you just give us one last sales pitch? Can you convince everybody listening just how digital portfolios have made your life easier as a teacher?

Sejal: Yeah. Yeah. So, just imagine having one place that captures and shows a detailed version of each student’s yearlong worth of artwork, their blog posts and all types of learning. So, that’s their growth, their mistakes, their experimentation, their just breakthroughs and all of that in one place that does not take up any room. So, I’m just going to keep emphasizing that, because it’s just so much better to have it all in one place. It’s also a place that you can easily go back to for reference. Or if you ever want to share examples with other students and families, administrators, other members of the school community, all their work is documented in one place. That’s what online portfolios are.

It might take some time on the front-end to get them all set up in the beginning and used to using them. But after their first few posts, they’ll get used to it and you’ll start seeing a difference. So, in the long run, they will save you so much more time, because you’ll be able just to more easily find and keep track of each of your students’ work from anywhere with internet. So, you are teaching them important skills while making life easier for you. It’s a win-win. And once you do it, you’ll just be wondering why you didn’t do it before. That’s what happens to me.

Tim: Nice. I love it. Thank you so much. I appreciate all the advice, the rundown on different sites, suggestions on how to keep kids working. I really feel like you’re giving everybody the tools they need to put this together. Then, for those that are interested, they can really check out all the details at your presentation at the conference, which I know we’re looking forward to. So, Sejal, thank you so much. I appreciate the conversation and, like I said, all of your words of wisdom when it comes to digital portfolios.

Sejal: Wonderful. Thank you for having me again.

Tim: I appreciate Sejal sharing all of that information. She is great to listen to because she has so much experience and has been doing these portfolios for so long. We always talk about how we want kids to reflect on their work and document their process and see how they progress and put things together with a comprehensive portfolio at the end. It’s obvious that digital portfolios can help us with so many of those goals. As she said during the conversation, it might be a little bit of work on the front-end, it might be a difficult beginning, and there might be a learning curve for you and for your students. But in the end, all of that is worth it, because you can do so many things with those digital portfolios.

Now, I also mentioned while we were talking that we have two different presentations at the conference dealing with digital portfolios. So, Sejal’s, which you just heard a lot about, will be part of the main event on Thursday, July 28th. Then if you are interested in the elementary perspective, Danielle Matousek from Artsonia will have a presentation available on Friday during the asynchronous day of learning about how you can have your students create portfolios at the elementary level, with Artsonia and all of the other opportunities that are available through Artsonia.

And as I always tell you, I told you at the beginning of the show, and for the last month, you can find all of the information you need about the conference on the AOEU website. It’s going to be an incredible three days of learning, art making and connecting. I really hope we see you there. Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening as always and we’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.

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