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Preparing Students for Portfolio Defense to Build Agency

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This post is by Gia Truong, CEO of Envision Education.

In our last post, we introduced you to Robert, a bright, soon-to-be college freshman who is ready for his first year at St. Mary's College of California, thanks in large part to his Envision school: Impact Academy in Hayward, CA. We described how he graduated from high school via Envision's Portfolio Defense model, giving him the academic preparation and the agency to take ownership of his education.

The Portfolio Defense model is a comprehensive performance assessment system in which the culminating moment--graduating via the senior defense presentation--maps backwards onto a four-year program that teachers implement in every academic discipline. The system helps students (1) develop the academic competencies and the leadership skills they need and (2) increase their sense of agency and ownership that allows them to stand up and prove, to themselves and others, that they are ready for the challenges of college. You can see examples in this video:

In the Envision Education network, we help students prepare for the Portfolio Defense in three primary ways: building strong relationships; establishing a college-going culture; and engaging in project-based learning.

Strong relationships, with adults and with each other

Robert's school values strong relationships and believes they are the foundation of a rigorous education that challenges students to grow. When students have a strong sense of belonging with the school community, and when they know they can trust both teachers and other students, they flourish. They can take risks in the classroom, stretch their notion of what they are capable of academically, and develop a deep understanding of their place in the world and how they can make a difference. Strategies and structures for building strong relationships include:

  • Advisory Systems: two-year cohorts, matched with a consistent advisor, to help students develop strong academic identities;
  • Community Meetings: weekly school-wide celebrations and conversations;
  • Collaboration with peers in project-based learning: students learn how to plan and carry out projects together, building trust along the way.

This is particularly important for low-income first-generation students of color; many have been underserved by schools in the past, leading them to negative associations with school and low expectations for themselves. In schools that value strong, trusting relationships, these students feel safe to take on an identity that can be unfamiliar or even taboo for them: to be smart, capable, and driven, and to enjoy going to school.

This has been true for Robert. If you ask him what has helped him most through high school, he'll tell you his relationships with his teachers. He describes how he often stayed after school until 6 or 7pm because his teachers were there to help him, with school work and with life challenges. For Robert, his teachers have been enormously influential in his journey to become an empowered young adult.

College-going culture

From day one, Robert's school helped him and his fellow students establish college as their goal. The clear message to Robert, who had never planned on going to college, was that higher education was the norm, not the exception. This message is communicated in a variety of ways:

Frequent college visits: Beginning in ninth grade, students visit college campuses every single year. They start to picture themselves in college and imagine what's possible for their future. They are introduced to college students like them, who serve as examples of what they can choose for themselves.

Physical reminders and rituals: Everywhere you look, in hallways and classrooms, Impact Academy celebrates college-bound students. In the main hallway, every senior hangs a poster, created in their Digital Media Arts class, announcing their college destination and featuring their senior portrait; the posters hang for an entire year, until a new class of seniors has college acceptance news to share. College and university banners also adorn the walls. Every Wednesday is "College Gear Day," where students and teachers alike wear college t-shirts or sweatshirts. And at the school's College Signing Day each spring, the entire community honors the seniors and their college choices in a school-wide celebration and ceremony. These rituals surround young students when they enter in ninth grade, building in them the desire, confidence, and motivation to set college as their personal goal.

Learning in this environment for four years, witnessing seniors graduate year after year through defense, and hearing from alumni who come back for visits, helped Robert shape his own college dreams. While he did not come to Impact Academy with any plans to pursue college, he quickly realized he was in a school that would support him every step of the way. With multiple examples around him of students like him who were beating the odds, he also set that goal for himself. Today he is ready to be the first person in his family to attend and graduate from college, and he is hopeful that his degree will lift him out of the cycle of poverty in which he has grown up.

Project-based learning

In project-based learning (PBL), students gain knowledge and skills by working together to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge (definition from the Buck Institute for Education). Through PBL, Envision students engage in real-world experiences and tackle real-world issues, such as election year candidate research and debate projects, environmental impact studies and presentations, and more. Often, students select their own projects, increasing their connection to the topic. Learning this way helps students use and develop their academic skills, strengthen their cognitive skills as they make cross-disciplinary connections, and practice leadership skills such as collaboration and communication, all while they are engaged in content that matters to them and their families. Among many other benefits, PBL helps students understand content more deeply and retain what they learn for longer, which in turn helps them apply new knowledge--both content and skills--in new contexts. PBL also helps students create rich artifacts of learning that they can add to their portfolios--artifacts that showcase their growth and agency.

In every year of high school, Robert learned through projects. His freshman year Immigrant Experience project, his Global Glimpse trip to Nicaragua in 10th grade, his 11th and 12th grade internships--and repeated opportunities along the way to present and defend his learning--have all helped Robert connect to and engage in his education in deep and lasting ways.

We believe that student agency is the equity challenge of our day. Robert's story is a celebration of how building agency leads to student empowerment; we are very proud of his success and we look forward to hearing about his continuing college journey. The three strategies outlined in this post are the primary ways we at Envision Education scaffold and support our Portfolio Defense model to maximize student learning and development.

What are some other ways you and educators you know are doing the important work building agency in our students?

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