One of the more onerous tasks as an English teacher in Bhutan is managing students’ portfolio writing. It is one of the few grades that students receive, which is not exam based but it is difficult to utilize the portfolio writing to improve students’ writing skills. I have struggled with finding a way to make it more useful and better able to bring out the best in students.
After several trial and error efforts at improvement last year finally, I struck upon the idea of insisting that the pieces a portfolio should contain be a balance of original, teacher corrected and copied writing. Why these 3?
Original writing often seems to be poetry and as such by students at least, it is seen as a quick and easy way to fill a folder with writing without applying a great deal of thought or effort. I have tried to overcome this by requiring a balance of each of the 3 types of writing mentioned above and also by assigning supplementary pieces, which relate to our class texts and suggesting that students attempt them as a part of their portfolio writing. In this way they are practising writing skills that will be useful to them in their academic pursuits but they continue to have a choice about which ones they will attempt if any so it is not totally prescriptive.
I specifically tell students never in their assessment, written assignments or exams will they be asked to write poetry so they need to question whether this skill is valuable to them. I too, wrote poetry as an adolescent and I know that many genuinely enjoy writing it. That is admirable but is it equally admirable to include it in a school required portfolio? Perhaps a personal collection is a better endpoint for that kind of writing. My opinion may simply result from the fact I may have read too much adolescent angst in the form of poetry!
Including assigned class work that has already been corrected in the portfolio collection on the other hand, ensues that the time and effort I put into thoroughly checking their work is not wasted. Universally students are primarily concerned only with the grades they receive and I hope that my insistence on them rewriting and making a perfect copy of corrected work to include in their portfolios, makes them focus on their own strengths and weakness as writers, while also giving them a sense of pride in the final result. I hope that in this way they are able to get a clearer picture of what needs improvement and I usually offer suggestions about how to improve those aspects of their writing in the comments at the end of the corrected pieces. My heart sinks when I see them read the score and then toss the paper in the rubbish bin in the classroom, so this strategy also attempts to stop that practice. This alternative approach works side by side with editing and redrafting on the original piece. I have diligently tried to stop students from making endless drafts: a process, which requires them to copy their own mistakes again and again, reinforcing their errors. I therefore hope making a copy of the corrected piece gets them to focus on the accurate forms and ensures even if their original score was low they now know the correct answer: thankfully something they are obsessed with.
As for copying the writing of other students, authors they have read or even my own writing used as examples; stop them if you can! I have tried to turn this into an advantage by encouraging them to always correctly record the sources of the material they copy and to use quotation marks accurately when they “steal” from other writers. These referencing skills are ones that will be useful to them when they attempt research papers of their own in class XII and beyond in tertiary education if they continue studying beyond high school. Example pieces of high quality can be valuable in teaching style, structure and form, but mindlessly copying to avoid thinking and writing for oneself is unacceptable. Plagiarism is now a word that every student I have taught is familiar with. Still it is hard “to teach an old dog new tricks.”
The last time I collected portfolios it took 3 full weeks utilizing every non-teaching period at school, to wade through the mountains of words that 98 class XI students can produce. Those aiming to become journalists ignore the instruction to balance the content and produce 20 or so original pieces believing that that instruction cannot apply to them because writing is their passion! That means it takes more than an hour to check just one student’s work. Others thinking I will not read every line, in every piece cunningly begin with an original introduction and then copy the rest of the essay from another student! Still others regurgitate what was obviously assigned and corrected by an English teacher at some point in the past. A precious few stun you by doing exactly as you have asked at an incredibly high standard.
Just occasionally a piece of writing strikes your fancy and you wonder if the whole concept of portfolios remains in place just so you can be surprised and delighted by something that you would never have asked them to write.
When I return the portfolios to the class, I spend a lesson on common errors and ask them to record which of those errors they can see in their own writing with examples of correct usage. Ideally this becomes the common error checklist at the back of their exercise books and they then take the next step to use it to edit their own drafts the next time they write. Optimist to the end, am I.
No matter what way you look at it portfolios are problematic and I wish an alternative method of assessing students’ writing would be adopted sooner rather than later.
The following is an original piece submitted in the portfolio of Cheki Wangdi Class XI Science, 2012. I have reproduced and made slight grammatical alterations to it with his permission.
Ode to my English Teacher
Inspiring were and are the words she speaks,
Without any selfishness or bias she teaches,
With incredible effort and devotion,
She seeks to make the students witty.
I feel heartfelt gratitude for her dedication,
Because of which I prefer participation.
Responsibilities shouldered by her
Are beyond one’s imagination.
Entrance of her into the class evokes all kinds of feelings:
Of eagerness, hunger, and the foremost one, willingness:
To learn, discover the new – unknown fresh lessons,
About which she would teach us with generosity.
Our beloved English Teacher,
Is a living soul with amazing ideas,
Which we describe as a stroke of genius.
We acknowledge you for your teaching
And unwavering dedication to your profession.