Inspire Student (and Teacher) Growth with the Portfolio Process

By Amanda Galbraith, visual art teacher in Bartlett City Schools

“I can’t” is a phrase students often say when they encounter a challenge. Many of us who believe in growth mindset respond with the encouragement “Let’s take a look at what you are getting right” as we work with them on getting through the challenge.

Amanda Galbraith and young artist Ashley DeGuzman display award-winning art (Photo by John Collins)

However, as comfortable as we are with using a growth mindset with our students, we often neglect to apply it to ourselves. Either we think we have enough experience to have it right by now, or we are overwhelmed with all the expectations we place on ourselves or we feel others place on us, or we just haven’t found the right tool to help us reflect on the idea of growth in our teaching.

Using the portfolio process has given me, a teacher in non-tested subject, a new perspective on documenting the relationship between student growth and the growth in my teaching. As a member of the Fine Arts Growth Measures Committee, I was fortunate to work on the design and implementation of the Portfolio of Student Growth in the Arts, which was the first model approved by the state as comparable to the growth model used by tested subjects. Although much of my motivation for developing this model came from the desire to earn an individual growth score, using the model has taught me several things about my teaching and my students’ learning.

Authentic student work is really important.

It might seem like an obvious statement, but the portfolio process has taught me a lot about the importance of student work, and I now look at student success differently. A common refrain in education is, “The one doing the work is the one doing the learning.” Before using the portfolio I (with good intentions) did a lot of the work to make sure my student artists experienced success. However, as a result of using the portfolio, I realize that I often relied on my view of success without consideration to how successful the student artist felt as a result of completing their work. The portfolio process has challenged me to consider how my student artists view success. The quality of the work my student artists have created has improved as a result of shifting my focus to consider how they view success. It is really rewarding to see the growth of students over time in the way the portfolio documents.

Instructional time must be protected and used as efficiently as possible.

A few years ago as we were discussing the portfolio, a colleague opened my eyes to the actual amount of time I get to spend with my student artists over the course of a year of instruction. I was astounded as she explained it equals out to about 27 hours per year. That discussion placed a new level of importance on seeking out strategies for using time more efficiently. Students must have time to participate in the assessments and engage with the content in order to demonstrate their growth. Backward planning, or beginning with the end in mind, has proven to be an effective tool for making the most of the time I have to work with my students. Thinking about how they will demonstrate mastery in the point B assessment following instruction has helped me to design point A assessments that more effectively document where student artists are in their journey toward mastery. Student artists are able to complete authentic work tasks for the point A assessment, practice, and then the point B assessment allows them choices in how they demonstrate their progress as well as ownership of their learning.

Becoming a reflective practitioner takes work and is best done with others.

The portfolio process is not easy. It takes effort and time to think reflectively about teaching and learning. The portfolio has given teachers in non-tested subjects a platform for documenting the work that students do that previously did not exist. I have had many rich conversations both in professional development sessions as well as informal settings about student learning with my colleagues as a result of using the portfolio process.

Even if teaching with a growth mindset was initially unfamiliar or uncomfortable, many educators find that collecting and discussing student work is a natural process, and they gain confidence thinking about growth as a result of focusing the data collection and discussion on student work. The portfolio is designed to work with the classroom observations that are conducted by administrators. Documenting student work meets several of the goals of both the classroom observation and professionalism rubrics, and portfolio collections provide data to discuss during post conferences.

As more teachers use portfolio models, many opportunities for deep thinking about student learning will emerge. These conversations will likely be held between administrators, teachers, and the students themselves. One of my second grade student artists, reflecting on what she had learned over a unit of study, remarked “When I was six, I used to draw stick people. Then when I was seven, I could draw people, but now that I am eight, I can draw people that look like something, and it looks like something beautiful.” The portfolio process documents student growth in a new way, and offers beautiful possibilities for the future for both students and teachers.


Portrait of Mrs. Galbraith by a student

Amanda Galbraith has enjoyed teaching elementary visual art for over 15 years and currently serves in this role at Ellendale Elementary School in Bartlett City.


To learn more about student growth portfolio models, please see the department’s latest report here.