Portfolio perspectives: From BCHS to MSU

Just over eight years ago, I nearly didn’t graduate from high school because of a portfolio. This is a slight exaggeration, the kind that is fun to tell at parties to get a laugh or some attention (another favorite of mine is the time my summer internship could have potentially gotten me arrested for providing support to terrorists) but that doesn’t really hold up under closer inspection. There is some truth to the story, though. At the time, high school seniors in Kentucky were required to submit a portfolio of writing that they had put together over the past four years. One of the pieces that was required in the portfolio was a personal narrative, and I had no particular desire to write a personal narrative. As you can read here (and if you promise not to judge me by my high school self’s writing, I’ll afford you the same courtesy), my solution was to take a meta-route and write a personal narrative about writing a personal narrative. I thought this was terribly clever at the time, and even though I now cringe at some of the particulars of the piece, I’m still pretty proud of myself for coming up with the idea.

However, this caused a few problems down the road. One of the requirements of my AP English IV class was that I had to get a certain score on my senior writing portfolio or else I couldn’t pass the class. Failing the class would not only be bad news for my GPA but also for my plans to attend BYU in the fall since Kentucky required four years of high school English to graduate. My English teacher had supported my unorthodoxy, but she wasn’t the person who evaluated our portfolios. She later pulled me aside and told me that the first person to look at my portfolio either didn’t appreciate or couldn’t wrap his head around my personal narrative and had thus scored my portfolio below the necessary threshold. Fortunately, my teacher came to my rescue and had my portfolio assigned to a more appreciative evaluator. At the time, this just added to my belief that the writing portfolio was a ridiculous requirement that hadn’t been worth our time.

This story is kind of funny to me now that I’m preparing a book chapter on teaching portfolios. Nearly a decade ago, I was confident that portfolios were a waste of time and put some serious effort into being flippant and subversive in my own portfolio. Now, I’m endorsing their use by presenting research-based “best practices” for how to design a course that uses teaching portfolios, and I’ve already written other pieces for classes and conferences to the same effect. On top of being an amusing anecdote, though, I think this says something about the power of research and education. As a senior at Boone County High School, I didn’t understand the purpose or the theoretical advantages of portfolios. No one had explained them to me or tried to bring me on board with portfolios; from what I can remember, many of my teachers never felt like anyone had tried to bring them on board either. Now that I’ve spent time reading the literature, though, I can see what the powers-that-be in the Kentucky Department of Education had in mind. In fact, with some improvements and changes, I would most likely be in favor of some kind of senior portfolio in Kentucky schools (though I believe this requirement has since disappeared.

Grad school is supposed to change someone’s perspective through this kind of research and writing, and I’m glad I got a chance to do so in this particular case.

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