Dyan Branstetter | May 2018

Make Every Minute Count

It’s the last day of school in an elementary classroom: Clean Out Day. Students dump the folders from their desks and load up their book bags. Sometimes, they need an extra bag to haul all of the clutter that has been accumulating from the school year. Top it all off with a final report card, some excited or teary hugs and a final good-bye, and summer vacation begins! Does this sound familiar?

But it continues – the student arrives home, and parents, overwhelmed by the load, either stash it away to sift through at a later time. Or they dump it all in the trash in an effort to stay organized. As a parent, I have lofty goals of meticulously going through my children’s loot to find treasures to tuck away in their scrapbooks. This is a daunting task. The last thing most elementary students want to do during summer is to go through a huge amount of old work with their parents when they would prefer to be at the pool.

A Better Way

While summer break is an exciting time, what a shame that a year’s worth of learning ends in such an abrupt, unorganized way. We can’t really blame anyone for this purging of clutter. However, with a bit of time and thoughtfulness prior to the last day, teachers can help students curate their work. Then, students will leave with a beautiful portfolio that samples their work from throughout the year. Not only is it a great way for students to reflect on how much they’ve grown, but it makes the parents’ job easier too.

There’s no tired like end-of-the-year “teacher tired”

No matter how well you plan, the end of the year is a challenge. Everyone is done. You do not need to add the work of sifting through student work from the entire year for an entire class to create something to send home with your students. Your time is much better spent planning and preparing engaging classroom experiences to counteract the pull of summer vacation. With some explicit instructions and expectations, handing the task of portfolio creation to the students gives them a meaningful activity to culminate their year.

Using a Student Created Portfolio to Empower Students

Portfolio creation allows students to be content curators of their own work. John Spencer, author of the fantastic book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning, says “If we want students to be critical thinkers, we need to teach them to become curators.” While he is referring to the curation of digital resources and content, this can also be applied to the student-led selection of portfolio items.

Tip for Teachers:

Curation of portfolios is easier if you have been planning with the end in mind. While it is not impossible to do this at the end of the year, the process is easier if you start guiding students to think about curation in September. Tuck this article away for next fall. Or build in some extra time now so that students aren’t overwhelmed by looking back through work from the entire year.

Creating the End of Year Student Portfolio:

First, decide what type of portfolio students will create. It could be as simple as a folder that contains work from the year. However, there are many simple options for digital portfolio, too. Whatever you choose, adding a caption with a rationale for the item’s inclusion in the portfolio is imperative. This gives some students the needed accountability for this curation task. It also provides students with a guided way to reflect and practice their communication skills. This is the captioning poster that I use with a Seesaw portfolio (see below), however, the tips can be applied to any type you choose to use.

Here are a few digital options:

Google Drive:

Students can pull special digital files together using Google Sites, Slides, or Drive. If students have a mixture of digital work and hard copy work, have students take photos of their hard copies to be included in the digital portfolio.


Seesaw is also a great app to use for portfolios. I use this as a learning tool throughout the year. At portfolio time, I create a new folder with Seesaw labeled “portfolio”. This way, students can save as much as they want throughout the year. Later, they go through the calendar of items they have posted and curate certain ones into that folder. Connected parents can easily download the student portfolio as a pdf file.

Book Creator App:

Students can use the app Book Creator to add portfolio items in a polished, end of year digital book. This book can be printed, saved as a pdf file to share with parents, or can be added to iBooks on an IOS device.

How to begin:

Explain the purpose of portfolio creation to students. As a class, create guidelines for saving work. Coming up with a student-generated list of questions help kids decide to toss or keep a piece of work. This gives students an organized way to evaluate what goes into their portfolio. If you have been saving student work since the beginning of the year, spread out the task of passing out and determining portfolio items over the course of a few days. If you haven’t been saving work, have students go through their work from the current marking period and create their portfolio based on their end of the year work.

How this works in my 3rd grade classroom:

Our class has a mixture of digital and paper student work. The hard copies go home in a folder for parent perusal on a biweekly basis throughout the year. Each time the folders come back, students file their MVW (Most Valuable Work) in a growing file. At the end of the year, students sift their their MVW folder to select items for their portfolio. They take pictures of these files and include them in a digital portfolio with their digital items.

Integrating the Arts Through Cover Design

I like for students to pull their work together in a polished way. Whether digital or in a paper folder, I have students design a personalized cover using the Illuminated Initials EducationCloset unit. (Find this ready-made, minimal prep unit here.) After the initial instruction for the cover, students can flexibly go back and forth between the task of cover creation and selecting and captioning work for their portfolio. This helps to break up the task of gathering and providing rationales for work. It also allows the students to creatively take ownership and pride in their portfolio. Flexibility and choice in the task allow students to work for longer periods of time to build their portfolio without losing stamina.

This year, as you share the final good-byes with your students, send them off with an organized book bag. It will be filled with just the right amount of memories to celebrate their accomplishments as a learner. Students will leave confidently after reveling in their growth. And, their parents will thank you for eliminating the task of weeding through (or trashing!) the typical end-of-year haul.

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.