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The Gift of Portfolio Defense: A Parent's Perspective

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By Monica Alatorre, Senior Manager of Development and Communications at Envision Education

In my work at Envision Education, I write all the time about our Portfolio Defense model of education. I describe how transformative it is, how it gives students so much more than academics, how it invites students to new horizons. I wholeheartedly believe in its power and efficacy, and am genuinely excited to share this remarkable teaching and learning system with audiences of educators, funders, and thought leaders.

But until I had one of my own children attend an Envision school and witnessed his 12th grade defense presentation, my rallying cry for portfolio defense was professional, not personal.

All of that changed one May afternoon in a downtown Oakland classroom. My husband and I watched as our son Samuel delivered a 90-minute presentation on his high school education and why he was ready for graduation and college. As he walked us through his four years of high school, we grew more and more amazed at the range of topics he discussed. In his collection of academic artifacts were items related to his (dreaded) math classes, his Digital Media Arts course, his beloved Shakespeare. He explained in depth how he constructed his essay on the rise of Nazism, and he explored how the events of World War II led to the creation of the State of Israel and how those events reverberate today. Standing before us was a young man who could describe both the depth and breadth of what he had learned in high school, and why it mattered.

Even more importantly, he described himself as a learner, articulating his own philosophy of education. He talked about what he was like at the beginning of high school - lazy, unmotivated (his words), lacking persistence. As he reflected on his strengths and areas of growth, we marveled at his ability to understand himself in the context of his schooling. Here was a young person capable of academic discourse, self-reflection, and setting goals for the future. And we were lucky enough to have a front row seat.

As parents, typically we send our kids off to school in the morning and make sure they do their homework in the evening. We check Powerschool, attend conferences, and reward good grades. We feel the swell of pride when they cross the graduation stage in cap and gown, even as we would be hard-pressed to say what they actually accomplished beyond passing exams and classes.

It's far too rare for us as parents to truly know how our children are impacted by their teachers and classes. The gift of portfolio defense, for families, is that we do know: we get to hear directly from our children what and how much they've learned, and how they have changed as a result. We get to watch--usually in awe--as our children engage in rigorous discussions about academic content, responding to probing questions from the defense panel. This was the gift we received that May afternoon: we got to listen as Samuel talked about who he is, what matters to him, and how he is planning for his future.

Samuel started high school at a private college prep school where we had extensive personal ties.  The community overlapped with our social circle, and we knew many of the teachers. The fact that he struggled there, even after multiple 'second' chances, was devastating for all of us; deciding halfway through to move him to Envision Academy in Oakland was a tremendously difficult decision. He didn't want to make the change, and he was, to put it mildly, resistant. But slowly, he discovered (and we along with him) a different kind of education, one that transformed him from a passive and disinterested receiver of information into someone who now sees opportunity in new places, makes connections between academics and the real life issues that matter to him, and finds meaningful ways to pursue his education and contribute to his world.

As parents, we want our kids to do well in school. We also want them to be inspired and motivated, learn how to navigate the world, and go forward into college and career with confidence and a strong sense of self. For Sam's first two years high school, this is not the path he was going down, and college was far from certain. Today, he is enrolled in college and growing even more into an engaged student and citizen. His college professors have thanked him for his contributions to class discussions and praised him for his thoughtful essays. Without a doubt, he is where he is today because of Envision's Portfolio Defense system, the amazing teachers and administrators who supported him, and his own hard work.                                           

I've written countless times in proposals and articles about how Portfolio Defense gives students the full range of academic, cognitive, and social-emotional skills they need to learn and grow.  Today, I am proud to say that Portfolio Defense gave those things to one student in particular: my son.

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The full picture of Portfolio Defense--what happens in classrooms year after and year, leading up to the 12th grade defense--could never fit into one blog post. For more information on Portfolio Defense, please contact me, Sam's mom, at Envision Education: [email protected]

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