Summative Portfolios-Chapter 2 “Awe” #SOL2023

I don’t think it’s coincidental that I stumbled across and began the book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Kaltner. Witnessing the possible in students, seeing the transformations, and celebrating the learning this semester allowed me to experience my own recent small moments of awe.

This book review by Edward Posnett of The Guardian begins with his astute observation: “I find it hard to think of a word that is as unmoored from its root as “awesome”. He’s right, and I have now resolved to restrict my use of this throwaway term often used for everything from a synonym for “okay” to an acknowledgement of agreement. In his book, Keltner, a University of California psychologist, tells the story of awe from a historical, social, and biological perspective. He argues that awe helps us develop happiness and feel a part of something larger than ourselves. I’m not quite done the book, but the descriptions of awe in prisons, at the death of his brother, and in momentary interactions with the natural world, meant that I began seeing the everyday differently.

This week during summative portfolio presentations, I experienced a sense of awe through witnessing student growth. Here are some awesome summative portfolios which were shared with me (and with permission to share with you).

This massive camera construction contained evidence of reading with literary lenses, an understanding of the focus on narrative, informational, analytical, and a film strip of writing that actually works!

Another student created a magazine full of evidence which introduces prospective students to the course. He maintained a focus on third person with clear and consistent tone and presented this in a professionally prepared media text.

This portfolio was presented as a children’s story complete with working parts and hand painted images.

And finally, there was a vinyl album with liner notes used to contain evidence of writing throughout the semester.

These moments of shared learning felt transcendent in small but meaningful ways — everyday moments of awe.


Summative Portfolios-Chapter 1 “Trust” #SOL2023

Today was the first day of portfolio conferences with students. They have been working on reflecting, curating, and editing evidence of their reading and writing skills this semester which they will present in a media text through an oral conference or recording. We’d spent time talking about the ways that the forms of writing or communicating shape the content – they realized that an auditory text communicates using different content than a visual text and that all communication is really just a form of code.

I’d offered suggestions of forms to contain their learning (you can find the assignment here if you’re interested) – a treasure chest, a cereal box, a map, a website, a recipe book – whatever form it would be, they needed to use the codes and conventions of the form and design it with an audience in mind. Some were genuinely excited about the opportunities to annotate the lyrics of their favourite songs as a demonstration of reading skills. Others rolled out six foot lengths of craft paper for treasure maps and I could feel excitement in the room as requests for scissors and glue followed questions about layout or editing. They knew what they had learned and most just needed affirmation that their creative ideas for presentation would work.

We’re at the end of five months of learning together so this celebration of evidence is just what we all needed right now. Yet, I’m also reflecting and realizing what I’ve learned: I’ve needed to trust in the process, to persevere with the centering of student choice, and the letting go of traditional ways (even in a 100 year old building where generations of families expect to share conversations with their children about the same book that they had studied 50 years earlier). Most importantly, I’ve needed to trust the students.

And, I’m so glad I did.

One very quiet student shared his recipe book with me. He said that he had prepared notes and rehearsed. Blotchy spots on his neck contrasted his cool demeanour.

I noticed the complexity of thinking while he gave me a tour explaining the codes of the form and the content that he had created. We were both excited about his learning and the celebration of it – he could articulate the changes in his approach to reading and writing with honesty and clarity.

Another toured me through his website portfolio explicitly demonstrating the progress that he made over the semester.

What surprized me most about each conference was the enthusiasm in the sharing. The ten minutes that I had planned quickly turned into fifteen and they had so much to say, so much to share about their own learning, about themselves – they had transformed and I was a witness.

I wish that I had taken photos of the children’s book, the life sized map, the full colour printed magazine, the treasure chest (a cedar box created by his grandfather which usually houses other treasures from home). And then I realized that this story can have many chapters and there are more portfolios to follow. For today, I will trust that this is enough.

Responding to a Prompt – Act 2 #SOL2023

“Take close care of your inner stories. They create your outer life. Reality isn’t your biggest threat. Your inner stories about reality are. People say I have trouble sleeping. What they really mean is I have trouble storying.

Dr. Jaiya John Fragrance After Rain

Sitting in the small local coffee shop waiting for her to arrive, a warm contentedness stirred me, prompting me to add up the elements interacting in that blissful moment. Time to rest plus restedness, fresh ground coffee plus vanilla and cream overtones, clanking cups and conversational voices, sunlight, wooden tables, glistening espresso machines, large windows and movement in and out the door, up and down at the tables, cups and saucers and voices.

“I love this coffee shop”, I thought. “It’s where community gathers and bonds in the sharing of stories.”

The barista smiled recognizing me from the past two days of consecutive visits. I ordered something different this time, “Americano — just black, please”, sat down and made space for two at the rustic wooden bistro-style table. Seconds later, she breezed through the door and we slipped easily into stories of her first year at Dalhousie, the Foundations Program — she’d applied and been accepted to an elite architecture program at UBC along with other offers for admission, then decided on a gap year serving at a tea house somewhere in the mountains near Banff. After declining the offers to study out west, she accepted the unexpected out east.

“Tell me about your first semester.”

She spoke while fumbling a fresh slice of banana bread sipping her tea and speaking in choppy intervals. I filled the space of a moment, just briefly, so she could eat and drink before another story spilled over. The previous signs of stress in conversation, the red blotchy marks on her neck and forehead, didn’t appear; I breathed relief to see her so calm despite the stories of stress and anxiety in adapting to the world of academia.

“Our midterm was a fifteen minute oral exam. No notes. Just a conversation with the Dean and a prof who took notes and occasionally prompted me. I nearly didn’t go. I didn’t sleep all the night before and nearly threw up beforehand. And, then, I just decided to go and get it over with. It wasn’t that bad afterall.”

We talked more and I took mental notes preparing to share the logistics of this form of evaluation with my current group of grade 12 students. She was returning for the second half of the year and we tried to plan a virtual meet with my class, then realized the time difference, and that we couldn’t make it work.

“Next semester. Let’s make a plan for your grade 12s next semester.”

These stories of learning exist at the center of my world right now. The past must be a place that we visit to gather the stories of our learning, and avoid the dangers of nostalgia. I have worked diligently this year to avoid looking back with a sense of loss for what could have been, or should have been; instead, seeing where I’ve been and how I am continuing to learn. I haven’t always succeeded.

But back to the “stories of learning” – the English teachers in my department decided that we would opt for student portfolios of learning instead of an exam this year. We planned with the students and I took the stories from past students and wove them into the class conversation like a local coffee shop where we relaxed in conversation.

Responding to a Prompt #SOL2023

I read the word “memory”

and lift my chin,

unease spilling and spreading inside.

I pause, wondering at this cracking open.

I look again, at this prompt asking me to “find a memory”,

to go back

and to write.

But, excavating the recesses of experience

feels fraught, as if I may discover

some time smoothed over,

a moment missed in comprehension,

which only now finds shards slung and dodged –

splinters just below the skin,

shims invisible in daylight.

This house startles me, cries for renewal in creaks from her hundred year old frame.

Then, I wonder – what stories live in these wooden beams and bracing?

Her memories hold it all;

then and now in this moment,

and this old body brings me back.

“If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much that you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.”

— Clarissa Pinkola Estés