Defense of Learning: Portfolios- Day One

Today was the first day of the oral Defense of Learning portfolio presentations.  I had to teach first period and I didn't get quite as many mentors/adults in to sit with groups, however in the end it was ok.  Day one was a success.  

Students came in dressed to impress, some in suits and ties others in dress pants and button downs.  It was clear that they meant business.  All I had given them going into today was the groups they would be presenting in.  They all had to be ready to go.  For the most part, they were.  Only a few students did not have hard copy of their portfolio-- the document that I collected at the end of the period.  All did however have their presentations ready and 14 students presented to panels of peers and adults today, justifying the grade and level of mastery they believe they have demonstrated for the semester.

In groups of 5, they sat around, some choosing to stand in front of their group and began.  Each student had 10 minutes to present their defense and then had an additional 5 minutes of questioning from the panel about their defense.  At the end of the 15 minutes, presenters stepped into the hallway to wait while the panel engaged in discussion of the effectiveness of their defense, looking at the presentation as well as the hard copy portfolio.

As a teacher, moments like this are always a risk.  Trying something new, being the first in my school to toss out numerical grades all together and ask students to rely on feedback alone to evolve and learn.  Risk aside, it is also exciting.  I know that they are growing but to learn it through reflection and analysis has proven to be far more effective than any feedback I could have written on a report card.  Today was an exceptional example of student ownership of learning.  

My principal, Seung was able to come in for part of the presentations today.  As a former English teacher himself, he has a clear understanding of the work and of the steps to move students at this level.  Shortly after his visit he sent out the following emil to the staff: 


Today I had the privilege of observing students in the AP Language and Composition presenting their Defense of Learning about their performance of the Mastery Skills they are expected to work on in the class. 

I listened to Colin and Mamadou give their presentation to their peers and articulate their rationale of their level of performance and was privy to Vanaija, Bujar, and Nicholas discussing and evaluating Mamadou's presentation. Needless to say, I was so impressed with the student-led, student driven conversations and discussions that cognitively challenged and engaged every student in the class.... 

This is why we moved to Mastery-based learning and a wonderful example of what students can do when given the opportunity to take control of their learning. 

Congratulations to Meredith and her class on such an impressive display of intellectual discourse. 

It is true.  Last year and throughout the summer when I began to dig deep into Mastery learning, I came to believe that there are no half-measures when it comes to learning this way.  I know that this choice with my AP class, while challenging and far from perfect is on its way.  Tomorrow will be day two of presentations and then I will conference with students on Thursday and Friday to determine final semester grades.  When we come back after the Regents week I will debrief with students to determine what worked, what didn't and how we can make it better for second semester.


  1. Sharing learning with others and receiving purposeful, actionable feedback is so critical to personal development. I was at a middle school in Brooklyn this week that does round tables at the end of units and student lead conferencing during parent teacher conferences. The premise, process and content of the conversations were so rich and meaningful. I'm so glad to hear you made this happen at AFSE :)


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