Six months ago, I did not expect to hear preschoolers holding conversations about their accomplishments, nor did I expect to hear them discuss growth, plans, and goals.
Elizabeth, Jenny, and Jonathan sort through photos, drawings, paintings, and writings, each looking for just the right piece to bring to a portfolio sharing session. They relish the photographs of themselves engaged in activities ranging from field trips to wearing silly hats at dramatic play. As they shuffle through their portfolios, they talk about the good times they had and express delight and surprise at what they find.
Jonathan: Remember when we went to the horse barn?
Elizabeth: Yeah, when we got to the place where there were cows, one licked me and got my whole shirt wet!
Jonathan: And it smelled really bad there, too.
Jenny: I wish we could have rided the horses.
Elizabeth: Remember when we did this acorn counting?
Jonathan: I had to glue my acorns on a lot of times. They keep falling off ...
Listening to these children was like listening to old-timers reminiscing about the "good old days." The students were invested personally in their portfolios, choosing what would go in them; Jenny, for example, often explained that she selected an artifact because "I don't want to lose it." As we discussed the portfolio as a place to keep things, Jenny added, "Yes, you can always look and see your drawings and stuff. Then you know what you can do."
Six months ago, I did not expect to hear preschoolers holding conversations about their accomplishments, nor did I expect to hear them discuss growth, plans, and goals. I was surprised to see such young children take charge of their own evaluations.
Review of Literature
A review of the literature about portfolios identifies reflection as the critical factor. Contemporary research describes portfolios as authentic, collaborative, ongoing, multidimensional, evaluative tools in which reflection on the artifacts (contents) is central (Graves, 1994; Riel, 1990; Valencia, McGinley, & Pearson, 1990; Wolf, 1989). Zessoules and Gardner (1991) define reflection as a "commitment to the habit of looking back to forge ahead." Since reflection involves looking forward, I wondered whether this crucial element of reflection was possible and, if so, how it is manifested in the preschool child. In teachers' lounges, hallways, classrooms, and universities where portfolios are discussed, we often hear, "Portfolios are a great idea, especially for older students, but young children aren't capable of meaningful reflective response. The portfolios take too much time." Now, I wonder whether we have underestimated young children.
The Pizza Box Portfolio
In the fall of 1996, my preschool daughter, Elizabeth, chattered excitedly all the way home in the car about the portfolio she had decorated in school that day. She had painted a pizza box her teacher had obtained from a local restaurant. Elizabeth told me she would use her portfolio to hold "special stuff," which would show what she was learning. While Elizabeth enthusiastically embraced the idea of collecting her work, I wondered whether this collection would simply be a box of stuff, rather than a reflective learning tool. Would the portfolio provide a place for her to reflect? Would reflecting on and talking about her portfolio open up the range of possibilities she might choose for her learning? What was the nature of a preschool child's reflection?
With all these questions in mind, I began to interview Elizabeth about her portfolio every few weeks. As my interest developed, I expanded my study to include Elizabeth's teacher, other children in her class, and the children's parents. What I found is the focus of this article. My primary goal was to discover what preschoolers say and do when they reflect on their portfolios.
My Researcher Role
Stacey Jordan, the preschool teacher, invited each child in the multiage preschool to create his/her own portfolio, and during October, November, and December 19961 interviewed and observed Elizabeth as she talked about hers. Beginning in January 1997, I observed in the preschool one day each week--interviewing the other preschoolers about their portfolios, observing the teacher interacting and conferring with students, and facilitating small-group portfolio sharing sessions. One child dubbed me the "pizza box mom," and the children often greeted me with the question, "So you want to see my pizza box?" I interviewed, recorded observations, transcribed, and later analyzed the data for patterns and common themes. The interviews centered around the question, "What is this (artifact) and why do you want to keep it in your portfolio?"
I also interviewed Stacey Jordan about her experiences with portfolios and why she values them in her classroom. made additional observations of the preschool environment, paying special attention to those conditions that seemed to foster and encourage reflection.
The Wright Start Preschool in Exeter, New Hampshire, is a special place where preschoolers (ages 2 years, 9 months to 6 years) join with high school students and caring teachers in an environment where everyone is considered to be both a teacher and a learner. Part of a vocational program offered through the Seacoast School of Technology, the preschool allows high school students to study child development and early childhood education, alternating classroom activities with apprentice work. The high school and preschool teachers work together, and everyone learns from each other.
Each day, Stacey Jordan was joined by six preservice student teachers. This arrangement helped ensure a very high teacher-child ratio. There was always an available lap or ear for the preschoolers. Current research stresses the importance of such frequent, high-quality teacher-child interactions. "Teachers who are sensitive to children's needs and who encourage, engage, and-verbally communicate with them appear to be nurturing more optimal cognitive, language, and socioemotional development" (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog, 1997). The almost 2:1 ratio in this preschool allowed for optimal teacher-child interactions.
The children's day began with circle time, followed by creative play at centers, including: dramatic play, woodworking, manipulatives, sand/water table, art, puppet theater, and library corner. The students' daily responsibilities included choosing the centers to visit, feeding class pets, and arranging the calendar. During the school day, preschoolers often were asked to make decisions and choices. For example, while each child's first center was assigned, for the remainder of center time they could choose where they would go and what they would do. Teachers and high schoolers sought to enhance each child's awareness about their options, whether the decisions were as simple as whether or not to have granola on their yogurt snack or as complex as how to settle disputes.
Each day, I heard Stacey ask students to choose whether to put a completed project in their portfolio or to take it home. She also asked them to explain the reasons for their decisions. This choice and awareness-building contributed to each child's ability to reflect and plan. Stacey told me, "It's so important for me to respect the child's choice. It's a direct reflection on everything that happens in this classroom. I try not to dictate or tell children what they must do." Stacey said that she is sometimes criticized for running her program in this way, but she believes that, "From the time they enter kindergarten through grade 12 they'll be faced with far too many decisions that are made for them--they need to make decisions on their own."
This is not to say that the preschoolers were left entirely to their own devices. They were nudged when appropriate and encouraged to try new things and expand their abilities. It does mean, however, that the children were respected and viewed as capable decision-makers. This environment, coupled with the view of everyone as teachers and learners, provided the firm foundation that made reflective portfolios possible.
In her book Children's Minds (1978), Margaret Donaldson wrote about reflection in terms of Piaget's findings: One point that emerges clearly is that awareness typically develops when something gives us pause, and when consequently, instead of just acting, we stop to consider the possibilities of acting which are before us. The claim is that we heighten our awareness of what is actual by considering what is possible. We are conscious of what we do to the extent that we are conscious also of what we do not do--of what we might have done. The notion of choice is central. (p. 97)
Consequently, Stacey made it a point to offer many possibilities for the children so that they, in turn, could make choices.
It's Special ...
In the initial interviews with my daughter, Elizabeth often simply commented that she put the artifact in her portfolio because it was special--the criteria suggested by her teacher. When further pressed to say why it was special she found it difficult to articulate. Typically, she would add, "It's special because I like it." While this response shows she valued the artifact, it is not clear why she valued it. Later, when I began my interviews of Elizabeth's classmates, I found that her peers made similarly vague responses. After interviewing six children weekly for a month, this list represents common responses to the question, "Why is this in your portfolio?"
* It's special.
* I like it.
* I don't remember.
* I made it.
* I don't want to lose it.
I wondered if these responses confirmed suspicions that young children cannot make meaningful responses, and that portfolios take too much time. I continued to wonder if the portfolio would allow for the encouragement and development of reflective practice.
The First Time ...
After a few months, I noticed that Elizabeth's responses began to change. She showed me a photograph of herself standing proudly behind a block structure she built at school. I asked Elizabeth to tell me about the photo:
Elizabeth: It's a picture of me with my animal zoo. Stacey took a picture for me so I could remember it in my portfolio. I made all kinds of shelter for the animals and food dishes, too.
Amy: Why did you want to remember this in your portfolio?
Elizabeth: Um ... because it's the best block structure I ever did in school. I did it all by myself.
Amy: What makes it the best block structure you ever did in school?
Elizabeth: Well, actually, it's the best block structure I ever did. I made homes for all the animals. I even made stairs and bridges. It looks like Como Zoo. I never made Como Zoo before.
Amy: What is the most special thing about your building?
Elizabeth: It looks real and I did it myself.
Amy: So you will put this photo in your portfolio?
Amy: Do you think you'll make more block structures like this one?
Elizabeth: Um, I don't know yet. I might make a pet store next time and put different animals in it.
Her response that the photo would be included in her portfolio because "it looks real and I did it myself" is clearly different from "I like it."
Similarly, as Lyndsey reflected on a photograph of herself standing next to a cider press, she said she wanted the photo in her portfolio because "I really liked that day. I never made apple cider before. See me turning the crank?" The preschool children used the portfolio as a place to value learning new things. It was important for them to recognize these attempts as special.
As another example, Maxx said he included a photo from a field trip showing him brushing a horse because "it was fun." Later, he added that the photo was important because it showed "the first time I brushed a horse." These preschoolers were just beginning to sense the importance of doing something for the first time, and their responses became more expansive. When they had time to talk about their portfolios with me, with their classmates, and with their teacher, their reflections changed. The more we talked, shared, and observed each other (i.e., the more we practiced reflection), the more meaningful the responses became. Age did not seem to be an obstacle to reflection; rather, experience with making decisions and articulating thoughts about their learning seemed to be critical.
As the year progressed, the preschoolers' responses began to evolve. In answering the question, "Why do you want this in your portfolio?" the children began to start their statements with "because." Such responses represented a turning point for preschoolers in their ability to talk about their learning. For example, Elizabeth's portfolio included a clay penguin sculpture that she had made, a photograph of her during the sculpting process, and a penguin book she wrote. Her reason for including these items was, "Because I learned all about Emperor penguins. I know a lot about them." She was showing what she learned, valued, and remembered. Wilcox (1993) writes about this shift in thinking, which she encountered while working as a researcher on the Manchester Portfolio Project: "When learners begin describing their action or accomplishments in statements of causality, it represents a huge step in the evaluative process. After students begin talking about themselves as agents, their reflections quickly become more complex and more meaningful" (p.23).
Hard Work ...
As the students reflected on their learning, they began to value pieces that were not necessarily their best work, but that they had worked hard to create. Erika, when describing a crayon rubbing she made, related that it was in her portfolio "because it was tricky to do and I worked really hard on it." Elizabeth had cut photocopies of rainbows and colored them in. She said, "These are in my portfolio because I worked hard ... I cut them out with scissors and colored them by myself. Cutting small shapes is hard to do. I did it myself. Do you see that I cut 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 of them? You gotta know that's hard work!"
I Did It Myself ...
Elizabeth also valued her efforts to be independent, as illustrated by her comments about a story picture that included drawings and writing: "I want this in my portfolio because I drew all the pictures myself and the teachers didn't write the words, I did." Her classmates also relished the artifacts they felt were their own. Their sense of accomplishment was clearly evident by their inclusion of artifacts they had created independently.
Preschoolers Share Portfolios
As I observed these preschoolers, I also wanted to explore the value of children sharing their portfolios with each other. I wondered whether they would listen to each other, and change the way they viewed their portfolios. Would it open up possibilities students had not thought about? As a member of a research seminar in which all of the participants kept portfolios and regularly shared and updated them, I learned much from the other participants. I discovered new ways to arrange and categorize my artifacts, considered adding artifacts similar to those of the others, or was sparked to think of something I would not have thought of on my own. I hoped this would be the case for these preschool children as well.
Once again, time and practice seemed to be very important. The first few times I held sharing sessions, it was a struggle to set the ground rules. Each child was eager to share and found it hard to wait for a turn. The most effective way to keep the children's attention on the person sharing was to set aside about five minutes for each participant in the small group (consisting of 3 or 4 students) to look over the contents of his or her portfolio and select one piece to share. Then the portfolios were moved to the side, and each student took turns telling about the artifacts and why they were chosen for the portfolio.
Initially, I asked most of the follow-up questions. As we continued to meet, however, the students began to take over more and more of the responsibility for keeping the discussion going. As the children took on the roles of teacher, learner, and questioner, their confidence grew and they assumed control over an important aspect of their learning and development. Their questions often reflected an interest in how the artifact was made, whether they had made such an object before, and why they liked it. Students also commented on the piece itself, saying whether or not they liked it, if they thought it looked hard to do, or whether they had made one as well.
Connie: I have a picture to show you. This is Stacey, this is a house, this is our school, this is a sun.
Elizabeth: You're a good drawer. The sun looks really good with all the rays coming out of it.
Jenny: Did you write your name? Does that say Connie where the " c" is ?
Connie: Yeah, how did you guess?
Jenny: I could tell by the "C."
Elizabeth: C.O.N.N.I.E. That's Connie, right?
With each sharing session, the students became, more and more, the leaders of the discussions.
Out of these sharing sessions emerged the planning and goal-setting aspects of the portfolio. When students saw what classmates had done, they were able to say, "I want to show that in my portfolio too" or "I don't have any paintings in my portfolio. Next time I go to art, I'm going to make a painting." The range of possible artifacts from which to choose increased as students acquired ideas from others. "Sharing portfolios provides students with expanded language for talking about their learning. When learners hear a more advanced self-evaluator share portfolios it provides them with models for growth" (Wilcox, p. 34).
During a conversation about her portfolio, Elizabeth showed me a sample of her cutting. Her attempt at a curving line was very jagged. I asked why she was keeping it in her portfolio and she said, "Because my cutting looks not so good." She wanted to replace it at a later time with a better sample. She was setting a goal for herself and had a plan for her learning!
Sharing portfolios with classmates provided practice in reflection, expanded the range of artifacts the children included in their portfolios, and sparked children's ideas for planning and goal-setting.
A somewhat unexpected benefit of the portfolios in this preschool classroom was the way in which the portfolios encouraged parent participation. The portfolios, prominently displayed at the manipulatives center, often served as an icebreaker for parents who visited the classroom. They could "do" something besides observe their child. Furthermore, if a child was having difficulty separating from a parent, or wanted some special attention, the portfolio provided an avenue for one-to-one conferencing, as well as a focus on all the things the child could do. As a researcher in the classroom, I often saw parents talking informally to their children about their work, using the portfolio as a guide. One father, after looking through the portfolio with his son, commented, "I didn't know you could do so much. I learned so much about you." The child replied, "Yep, it's all in here. It's all me." Stacey believes that portfolios make parent/teacher conferences more effective, because parents have the opportunity to view the portfolio on a continual basis; consequently, parents bring a more informed perspective to the conference. For those parents who do not visit the preschool regularly, the portfolio provides instructive, concrete artifacts to discuss at conferences.
As I review the many transcripts and observation notes before me, I am struck by all that these preschoolers have taught me. Clearly, reflective portfolios are possible in the preschool classroom. Specifically, these answers surfaced as I researched, "What do preschoolers say and do when looking at their portfolios?" and "Are reflective portfolios possible for preschool children?"
* Preschool children who are given time and who practice reflection will provide meaningful, reflective responses.
* Preschoolers who share their portfolios will teach each other and help one another expand their reflective abilities.
* Decision making in the classroom encourages and enhances reflective thought.
* Reflective portfolios provide a "meeting place" for parent, teacher, and child to be informed about the preschooler's learning.
Are reflective portfolios worth the time and effort? I listened to the confident, enthusiastic voices of preschoolers taking control of their learning, and I can only answer with a resounding "Yes!" As a wise preschooler said of his portfolio, "It's all in here. It's all me."
Donaldson, M. (1978). Children's minds. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Graves, D. (1994). Portfolio portraits. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Kontos, S., & Wilcox-Herzog, A. (1997). Teachers' interactions with children: Why are they so important? Young Children, 52, 4-12.
Rief, L. (1990). Finding the value in evaluation: Self-assessment in a middle school classroom. Educational Leadership, 47, 24-29.
Valencia, S., McGinley, W., & Pearson, C. (1990). Assessing reading and writing: Building a more complete picture for middle school assessment. (Technical Report No. 500). Urbana, IL: Center for the Study of Reading at Illinois University, Urbana.
Wilcox, C. (1993). Portfolios: Finding a focus. In J. Pantano (Ed.), Papers in literacy (pp. 1-28). Durham, NH: Writing Lab, University of New Hampshire.
Zessoules, R., & Gardner, H. (1991). Authentic assessment: Beyond the buzzword and into the classroom. In V. Perrone (Ed.), Expanding student assessment (pp. 142-163). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and be, Curriculum Development.