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Educators Making Portfolios.

First Results from the National School Reform Faculty

What if educators presented portfolio evidence of their own learning and growth? What if they tried to show in concrete ways how that growth affects student learning? Doing so, many are coming to believe, might shed new light on some of the most intractable questions in the current debate about school change.

THE CIVIL War newspaper was a great idea, Pedro Bermudez knew, to try with his social studies classes at Turner Technical Arts High School in Miami. He had picked it up a couple of years before from a New York colleague at a workshop on assessment, and as he tried out the unit - getting students to research, write, edit, and produce factual and opinion pieces about the Civil War - he recognized its potential for bringing together rigorous content knowledge and the practical workplace skills that Turner Tech emphasizes.

Over two years, as he and a colleague adapted the unit into a yearlong interdisciplinary course, he sometimes showed his students' work to a small group of teachers who met regularly at Turner Tech. Though his fellows came from different fields, they had worked out common ideas about good teaching and, Bermudez says, "served as sounding boards to support and challenge one another."

But with a teaching load of more than 170 students, he worried, could he really manage to evoke the level of thoughtfulness and degree of career preparation for which he aimed? If outsiders took a look at the evidence his dream course produced, just how well would it stand up?

In January 1998 Bermudez got his chance to find out. On a snowy Boston weekend, he gathered with 100 other educators who are members of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform's National School Reform Faculty to present a large binder that displayed assignments, actual student work, and reflections on the course's evolution and to ask for his colleagues' thoughtful appraisal of his progress. Using a carefully orchestrated feedback protocol, a small group of peers (many of whom Bermudez did not know) reviewed the context and the details of his work and offered him both warm support and tough critiques.

He left not only with new confidence, energy, and ideas, Bermudez says, but with a conviction that showing his work to outsiders for feedback had stimulated important growth in his teaching practice. And he saw new potential in the work of his collegial group back home. "If you did this regularly with the people you work with," he says, "the responsibility could shift away from administrators evaluating teachers and toward colleagues holding each other accountable."

The Portfolio as an Improvement Tool

How do teachers show - or even know - how well they are doing? Faced with staggering teaching loads and students more diverse than at any time in history, how do they chart improvement in their own classroom skills as well as their students' progress? How can they measure their own content knowledge or the subtle development of fine professional instincts? In this time of sanctions and salary incentives, of tests upon imposed tests, these questions are haunting thoughtful educators like Bermudez who care about how well they work with the students at the center of their lives.

Teachers have recently sought an answer in the very arena they know best - the classroom - where, for the last decade and more, innovative teachers of everything from writing to mathematics have been asking students to assemble evidence of their work in portfolios as a more authentic way to measure it against standards. What if, these educators have asked, we too presented portfolio evidence of our own learning and growth? What if we tried to show in concrete ways how that growth affects student learning? Doing so, many are coming to believe, might shed new light on some of the most intractable questions in the current debate about school change.

Reflective scrutiny of the work of educators in portfolio form, for instance, might reveal something about how best to improve teacher practice, from the earliest to the latest points in their careers. Teachers making portfolios might also start to turn an impossible array of externally imposed standards into more powerful, personal measures that they would generate from their own work and carry in their heads every day. Finally, schoolpeople and the public might develop a common understanding, rooted solidly in local communities, of what success looks like as a school travels the long path toward its transformation into a culture of excellence for all.

An Audience of 'Critical Friends'

In 1995 a task force of the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) challenged the 800 participants in its first 80 "critical friends groups" to pursue those very goals. The critical friends groups (CFGs) are made up of teachers and administrators who meet regularly with a trained "coach" to improve their practice, increase student learning, and hold one another mutually accountable for their professional work. Under the aegis of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the NSRF has put its chief efforts since 1994 into creating and supporting such groups as a major strategy for systemic, whole-school reform.1

During the two years from 1995 to 1997, NSRF leaders suggested, each CFG should arrive at standards for adult and student learning. Then, using the portfolio format many teachers already knew from their own classroom assessments, members of the group would be asked to present, examine, and reflect on their own work in the context of those standards.

Aside from the stipulation that each portfolio should be grounded in its own CFG's standards for excellent teaching and learning, these practitioners received little guidance about how their portfolios should look. Members of the NSRF do share a common language - they speak of "looking collaboratively at student work," of becoming "reflective practitioners," of turning schools into "learning communities." But the NSRF initiative rests on the belief that schoolpeople must construct their own learning from a cycle of experience and reflection, not from some outside expert telling them how to do their work better.

And precisely because they emerged from such a cycle - individual, local, idiosyncratic - the first 100 portfolios were as various as the individuals and groups involved when, in January and February 1998, their makers gathered in Boston and Los Angeles to present to one another their evidence of professional growth.

In that sense the NSRF endeavor exemplifies a grand experiment in "standards without standardization" at the teacher level - unlike, for example, the more prescriptive portfolio initiative of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and also unlike some districts' impulse to use portfolios as a means of evaluating and rewarding teachers. It aims to build a platform for collaborative, ongoing reflection and learning among teachers in school sites and among networks. And it does so not through a linear process ending in judgment or certification, but in a recursive fashion that is intended to yield both personal and school-level insights and to suggest "next steps" in a teacher's or faculty's professional development.

What did these first NSRF portfolios contain, and how did their makers go about deciding that and assembling them? Who constitutes their audiences, and what roles should those audiences play in responding to the portfolios? How can others - whether insiders or outsiders - assess a portfolio's thoughtfulness and rigor or its usefulness in improving teacher practice and student learning? What importance do teacher portfolios carry as a strategy for large-scale, systemic reform of schools and districts?

As members of the NSRF continue to collect, present, and reflect on their work together, they offer the beginnings of a theoretical framework for teacher portfolios and some practical guidelines for their construction and presentation. And they are beginning to ask new questions about the purposes, processes, and potential of this promising strategy for school reform.

What Constitutes a Teacher Portfolio?

The first teachers and principals who trundled their portfolios in briefcases and milk crates to NSRF conference sites in Boston and Los Angeles did so largely with their hearts in their mouths. Though many had test-flown their materials with their CFGs back home, this audience was less familiar - including not only NSRF colleagues from around the country but also interested outsiders from districts curious about this new accountability technique. What would they want to see? What would be "good enough" to show? Eager to make a positive impression, many presenters overprepared, working straight through the preceding vacation on portfolios that burst at the seams with goal statements and curriculum units, student work and teacher reflections, artifacts of every description.

In the "gallery" where the Boston participants' precious bundles stood on display for others to browse through, a videotape played continuously through its loop, showing an art teacher coaching students in the glass-blowing studio he had built at the school. On the wall a principal projected a "digital portfolio" that took visitors with a click of the mouse through a web-like array of hyper-choices. At round tables throughout the room, file boxes bulged with papers too inviting to resist and too lengthy to digest. Four-inch-thick binders with plastic pages sheathed photographs, artwork, and writing that entranced passers-by who sat down for a quick look. A closely typed analysis of data from two years of student writing assessments looked like a doctoral dissertation in its daunting rigor. No one had time to take it all in; everyone wanted to try.

If a typical portfolio did exist among all of these, it would be hard to find. Yet common elements did emerge: a connection to the CFG's goals and standards; evidence of both teacher work and student work; a central purpose, question, or focus; a clear desire to show professional growth. And while some portfolios came across as individual job-search tools or award ceremony displays, others presented heartfelt, even anguished explorations of unanswerable dilemmas. Their personalities stood out like faces in a school auditorium, distinct and unique.

That range materialized, NSRF leaders say, precisely because portfolios are not the ultimate aim for members of a CFG; rather, they are a tool that frames the group's real purpose, which is improving the work of teachers and students. "One could think of the CFG as a work group and the portfolios as its exhibitions," suggests Gene Thompson-Grove, who co-directs the NSRF.

Ideally, the portfolio exists "not to show me what a good teacher you are," asserts Teri Schrader, a teacher who has coached CFGs in two different schools, "but to talk about how you're thinking about your work." It provides an opening, she believes, for "a real question that you carry around with you all day. Maybe it's a deep suspicion that half of your kids don't understand one word you're saying, or maybe it's a deep fear that you're afraid of kids. Or maybe it's a question like 'How can we assess kids not just for skills and content, but for moral and ethical development?'"

Any of those questions makes "a year's worth of work for a teacher to play with," notes Schrader, who has helped institute "process-folios" - renamed to emphasize their ongoing nature as a structure for both professional development and career advancement - in the school where she is now a lead teacher. And though personal reflection is "a given," the portfolio is not "soft words around soft work," she notes. "I want teachers to wrestle with important questions in their disciplines," she says. "It's a way to become more, not less, precise."

Presenting a 'Slice' of the Work

Partly because these portfolios did reflect such personal priorities, the manner of their presentation and critique took on particular importance. How could their authors prompt an audience to examine the evidence carefully and give useful and sensitive feedback?

The NSRF answer, again, drew on techniques first developed for the close scrutiny of student work in collaborative groups. Rather than asking the audience to look at the whole portfolio "cake," presenters were to offer only a "slice" of it - excerpting either a single section or a vertical segment taking bits from several sections - for critique in a two-hour session. Framed by a focusing question and a brief cover letter, this excerpt could provide documentation of the educator's development and offer insight into his or her current practice.

Further, the presentation would follow a carefully structured process of response, facilitated by someone trained in such discussions. First, members established norms for the coming conversations, which they knew could turn sour in a split second if they did not guard against inadvertent disrespect. Then they agreed on discussion "protocols" designed to create a sense of emotional safety for the presenter, at the same time encouraging new perspectives and probing critique. Though such constraints make many group members uncomfortable at first, these protocols have become a staple of NSRF practice in recent years as educators have used them to look together at students' and their own work. In the first portfolio critique sessions, participants and presenters alike credited the process with teaching them more than they expected to learn.

One of the protocols dictates that, at a certain point in the process, the presenter remain silent, listening and taking notes, while the group discusses his or her work. "Much of what we learn about our work through the protocols happens when we're eavesdropping on others thinking about the work," notes Colorado teacher and CFG coach Stevi Quate. Listening to people "making sense out of what already makes sense - or at least once seemed to make sense to us," she says, has even more value than hearing their final remarks.

"Something happens to me while I am playing fly on the wall," agrees California teacher Kathy Juarez. "I have the rare opportunity to hear people talking seriously about my questions - and I know I will get to think out loud about some of the issues they raise." Another teacher, Shaun Armour, says the protocol he chose forced him to "bite my tongue and listen" intensively to the feedback participants offered. "I have the ability to skew or change someone's opinion as we talk," he notes.

Enlightenment, Not Evaluation

In part, the protocols added useful rigor to a review whose intent was enlightenment, not evaluation. These discussions, some outside observers noted, had the air of professional meetings - in which, say, a group of doctors, lawyers, or architects puzzle over a case together - or of independent graduate seminars, in which teachers can explore their deepest concerns and interests. As each group pushed toward a deeper reading of the evidence, the learning extended beyond addressing the portfolio's framing question to sharpening the inquiry skills of every participant.

But that very developmental emphasis does bare the portfolio maker's vulnerabilities, which some professionals will consider doing only with a group of trusted colleagues. And as policy makers and administrators around the country eye the professional portfolio as a means of evaluating teachers and principals, many of these pioneers in the process worried openly about the effects that could have.

For most, the voluntary nature of this portfolio made it far more meaningful than if it merely fulfilled a school system requirement. "My job was not in jeopardy if I didn't do it," says Rhode Island teacher Carolyn Skaggs. If it had been, she adds, "I probably would have gotten very good at churning out stuff. This was really just for me."

In Kentucky, which enforces its standards-based Education Reform Act with high-stakes measures for students, teachers, and schools, Erin Schneider's group of critical friends drew on the state's emerging list of teaching standards in preparing their professional portfolios. The experience might come in handy, they realized, if Kentucky used portfolios to evaluate and reward teachers in years to come. Still, the personal nature of this project was "a relief," Schneider says, after the high-stakes, evaluative context to which she and her colleagues had become accustomed. "I pushed myself a lot to make the portfolio worthwhile, but I didn't need someone giving me a grade on it. Our state accountability is so specific and tight and frustrating. It takes over everybody's mindset." If teachers could instead use NSRF-style portfolios to demonstrate learning and growth in the key areas of Kentucky education reform, she observes, "it would balance that out, instead of having charts or evaluation forms that only tell what you don't do. We could be pushing ourselves in a less threatening, less degrading way."

For Chris Louth, a veteran teacher at a high school in New York's Hudson River Valley, the portfolios represented a way to achieve consistency in the way members of her CFG - its principal audience, in her view - work with one another. "A lot of people in the group are very experienced professionals," she says, "and none of us were particularly interested in getting national certification." Instead, the group uses portfolios in conjunction with peer coaching "to inform our work together as we look at student work and at our own practice." Even setting "standards" for their portfolios, as if they were to evaluate one another, made this group uncomfortable, she observes; members simply prepare their portfolios according to simple guidelines, then use the same methods to discuss them that they regularly use in looking together at student work.

"The more you legislate, the less likely you are to get very deep reflection," Louth asserts. "From all my work with students, I see what happens when you're jumping through somebody else's hoops." She fears that the state board of education will sap the power of professional portfolios, in fact, by trying to use them as an accountability mechanism. "I would hate to see a creative, analytic act that really pushed my thinking become just one more annoying, meaningless requirement layered on," she says. "No one has made any real strides in freeing up teacher time in really effective ways, either to show evidence of student learning or to think about their next steps. And it's going to get reduced to 'What's the least possible I can get away with here?'"

Still, many of these educators said that they would welcome the chance for colleagues or others in the school community to assess their portfolios. "I've worked too darn hard on this not to have it evaluated," says Chicago teacher Peggy Murphy, who would like to see "hard-nosed, rubric-based peer evaluation" of NSRF portfolios based on common criteria or such questions as "How does my practice affect student learning?" If people shared the same framing question from the start, Murphy asserts, they could compare the quality of various portfolios and could emerge from presentations with a real sense of mutual accountability, not just a pat on the back.

As a principal in Ithaca, New York, Dave Lehman says he is now "more convinced than ever that a professional portfolio is the way to go" in his own evaluation by district supervisors. "It provides a much more authentic, more complete picture on which I could be evaluated," he says. Moreover, he suggests, when different kinds of people in a school community all present portfolios, an "emerging connectedness" results. In a "state of the school" presentation to the community, Lehman used portfolios as an accountability tool, along with the usual overheads and written documentation. At tables around the outer walls of the gym, teachers and students presented their work in progress in various forms, from written to digital or video portfolios. "We were all modeling for one another," he says.

If the developmental emphasis of the NSRF'S portfolio process prompts such an array of responses, the more evaluative end of the teacher portfolio spectrum also has its problems, according to those who have tried both methods. As a middle school teacher in Queens in 1994, for example, Susan Howard-Bubacz came just shy of the necessary score for certification when she prepared a portfolio for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards during its early field tests. Much more strictly controlled than the NSRF portfolio process, that program required an hourlong videotape of her actual teaching and a prescribed number of portfolio pieces to serve as evidence that she met the National Board's standards. In addition, candidates endured a rigorous two-day testing period including interviews and on-demand handwritten essays.

Though the National Board's high-stakes approach proved "hard to swallow," Howard-Bubacz says, it did have its advantages. For one thing, strict length limits forced her to scrutinize each portfolio artifact for its quality and effectiveness, averting the unwieldy aspects of the NSRF portfolio she later prepared as a CFG coach. She also praises the National Board's videotape requirement, saying that it helped her grow as a teacher. "But I would worry about using a process like that as a formal teacher evaluation," she says. "It would be very easy to hold back a wonderful teacher who didn't have the sophisticated skills it takes to compile a persuasive portfolio." In New York, the teacher union supports the right of tenured teachers to choose portfolios as an alternative to conventional evaluation, but Howard-Bubacz has seen few colleagues make that choice.

And though the National Board does ask teachers to use a collegial process as they prepare portfolios, Howard-Bubacz says she only learned what that meant after she went through the NSRF training to coach her current CFG. "Sure, I took my Board portfolio to my teaching buddies and asked their opinion," she said. "And maybe they would point out a punctuation error in paragraph three. But we didn't know how to really apply the rubric to the work together, or to do the kind of hard collaborative work that the CFG is about."

Can Teacher Portfolios Help Change Schools?

Most of the 100 educators who participated in these first marathon sessions of sharing their NSRF portfolios say that they went home with a sense of personal satisfaction, sometimes even exhilaration, from what they had learned. "Teaching is a strange profession," observes Eric Buchen, who teaches music in Torrance, California. "We don't necessarily build a tangible thing." The portfolio, he suggests, gives teachers "a tangible summation of what you are, what you do, and why you do it. It forces me to constantly and consistently look at what I'm doing, making sure that what I'm doing is good - for students and for me - and to improve. You can't stay stagnant." He realized, for one thing, "how much reading I do and how that's benefited my teaching - and it made me want to do more."

Can such an experience matter on a larger scale, both in the classroom and in the system as a whole? Perhaps not, if it remains purely a personal record of professional development. But if the portfolio emerges from the shared work of a vital critical friends group, as many did, it seems to carry that potential. For example, as Buchen relates, "The observations we did through our CFG were in my portfolio." So were his changing lesson plans - a "work in progress" shaped by the comments of group members and by books and articles read through the CFG. His own selection of materials to include was not driven largely by the standards at which the group arrived, he admits. But the interactions within the group itself - "meeting, talking with one another, supporting one another, proving to ourselves that what we were doing was valuable or valid" - did have a powerful effect.

After almost 30 years of teaching, Shaun Armour found that his involvement in a CFG at his Colorado high school "breathed new life" into his practice, and he was eager to use the portfolio process as a source of new insights. "With five or six years left in my teaching career, I still need to set goals, to do something tomorrow that is different and better than what I did yesterday," he says. "We lose a lot of quality people in education because they don't see the opportunities for growth in our profession."

Portfolios would also be a good way to engage local community audiences, Armour believes. "At least in our part of the country, educators are not very popular right now with the media," he says. "We are being criticized by people who don't understand what we're doing. They fight us without knowing what we're all about."

Addie Hutchison, the chairman of a New Hampshire school board who lent her outside perspective to the NSRF portfolio conference, also came away wishing that more people in positions like hers could see teachers presenting their work this way. When she hires or promotes a teacher or administrator, she says, "I want people who know what they're doing and are always looking at how to take it another step, to keep it alive, to make it better."

"Clearly, portfolios could provide our district with a very effective staff development tool contributing to teacher reflection and growth," says Virginia McElyea, the assistant superintendent for high schools in Phoenix, Arizona, and another "outside colleague" who sat in on the NSRF portfolio presentations. Her district is also exploring how portfolios might be used, in combination with mentoring, as a performance-based means of evaluating teachers new to the profession.

NSRF leaders clearly hope that, whatever the uses of professional portfolios, they will be seen not as an end in themselves but as an ongoing tool in a practice that includes routine opportunities for thoughtful reflective dialogue throughout the school community. Rather than complicating teachers' lives, they imagine, portfolios could simplify them by training attention on the learning for which all teaching activities should aim.

And though the pioneers who presented their portfolios sometimes tied themselves up in knots as they worried over their debuts, most ended up like Pedro Bermudez on his way back to Miami, with renewed faith in the power of a collaborative professional practice.

That teacherly sense of enhanced efficacy may prove to be exactly the right means to boost student achievement. A clear and consistent theme in recent educational research literature has been the relationship between teachers' reported sense of efficacy - or their ability to work successfully with their students - and positive student outcomes. So as the NSRF continues to grow, its leaders are keeping close tabs on whether preparing and presenting a professional portfolio - especially in the context of a supportive working group of colleagues - can affect these teachers' crucial sense of their ability to achieve good results.

On line both in the cafeteria and over the Internet, schoolpeople who have tried the process are already creating a data bank affirming that portfolios can have such a positive effect. "What about the simple idea that each one of us is trying to improve his or her practice just a little?" asks Philadelphia principal Michael Patron in an e-mail exchange among NSRF members. "We pick one or two questions that are important to us and search for better answers. This process is one of groping, trial and error, and mistakes. We document our struggles so that we know what actually worked and so that we can appreciate how far we have come. We share our documentation so that others can learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes. We make this process as public as possible to create a public, professional discussion about quality in the teaching profession. We all go away having learned something that will make us better teachers."

1. More information on the nature and purposes of Critical Friends Groups and the NSRF is available through the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Box 1985, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, or on the Web at www.aisr.brown.edu.

KATHLEEN CUSHMAN writes about issues of school reform in Horace (for the Coalition of Essential Schools), Challenge Journal (for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform), and other national publications. She lives in Harvard, Mass.

Assembling the Portfolio

Drawing on her experiences preparing two professional portfolios, Susan Howard-Bubacz of New York City's Community School District 10 came up with the following suggestions.

1. Begin with a goal or standard describing an aspect of good teaching that you have become aware of from your discussions with colleagues. Write out the steps you will take toward reaching it.

2. Think about benchmarks. What will serve as evidence of your progress toward the goal or standard?

3. Collect artifacts. As you work, document your efforts. Save teaching notes, lesson plans, student work, journal entries, photos, videotapes, letters, written recommendations, awards, and memos. This collection is your working portfolio.

4. Refer back to your original goal or standard regularly. Check your progress and make changes when appropriate.

5. Sort, catalogue, and reflect on your artifacts. Write a description of each item and explain how it gives evidence of your progress or process. Reflect on your progress: What was successful? What challenges came up?

6. Write an introduction to your portfolio. Describe the setting and your rationale for the project. Discuss concerns you held at the outset and outline the goal or standard you hoped to achieve.

7. Write some reflections about the process. Think about the work's impact on you, on your students, and on your school culture.

8. Assemble your portfolio. Create a table of contents.

9. Present your portfolio to colleagues for feedback.

How (Really) to Assemble Your Portfolio

One Teacher's Private Diary

This Thanksgiving weekend is my self-imposed deadline of putting together my professional portfolio. (Hmm . . . are there "amateur portfolios"?) No problem - I have a carton of "stuff"; all I have to do is assemble it into a coherent narrative, hole-punch everything, write an intro and a conclusion, and be done with it. I am a writer; I have never missed a deadline; I work well under pressure; this is pressure. I will succeed. Perhaps my process could help my colleagues who are not writers. I will document it to serve as a model for others in my Critical Friends Group.

1. First, empty every desk drawer and file folder into a cardboard box.

2. Empty box on dining room table and make plans to eat out on Thanksgiving.

3. Talk a lot about how busy you will be assembling your portfolio on Thanksgiving weekend. You will impress your friends with your diligence.

4. Friday morning. Set alarm, get up early; watch the "Today Show" to get caught up on world news and holiday shopping tips. Get dressed and make bed while watching "Regis and Kathy Lee." Straighten living room while watching "Rosie O'Donnell." Okay, that's it; get thee to the dining room.

5. Go through "stuff." It has now become "data." There is no logic to the piles. Take a break.

6. Make an angel food cake - the first cake you've made in about two years.

7. Sort "data" into meaningful piles. Make popcorn. Watch "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful." Fortunately, "As the World Turns" has been canceled because of football. Hole-punch data.

8. Arrange data chronologically. Make notes: How will this data meet your stated needs? Dial Jen's number; hang up. This is a holiday weekend; do not bother your coach with your concerns.

9. Go to Wal-Mart to buy socks on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year, even though you pride yourself on never setting foot in Wal-Mart. Convince yourself that you need a binder to hold your portfolio. Buy three binders in assorted sizes. Do not notice until you get home that none of them works properly.

10. Rent movie, Big Night. Get wrapping paper, one color for each member of your family, and wrap all Christmas presents while watching film.

11. Make soup from the carcass of the turkey you made on Wednesday to compensate for the fact that you were going out to dinner on Thanksgiving. Make homemade fudge frosting for angel food cake. Throw in a couple of loads of laundry.

12. Tell husband that you are exhausted from doing your portfolio all day.

Peggy Silva, Souhegan High

School, Amherst, N.H.
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Author:Cushman, Kathleen
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Date:Jun 1, 1999
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