In 2008, the state of Rhode Island required all high schools to show evidence of students’ proficiency across all subjects in order for students to graduate. My district decided that a senior project would be the vehicle used to demonstrate this proficiency. Senior projects are an opportunity for students to self-select a topic and use their senior year to explore this topic through research, an applied learning product, and a final presentation.
When we first started the project, our school required ongoing documentation of the project over the course of the year. We asked students to collect papers showing their progress and interaction with an expert in the field through paperwork. The papers were filled out, signed, and housed in a binder. However, in 2015, we realized that this process has little value to students.
We began to wonder: How might we make the shift to a more authentic learning experience for students to share their projects with a more global audience? How could students better represent their learning and exploration throughout the year?
Our solution: We decided to replace paper with a digital platform for creation rather than collection.
Since 2015, every senior in our district has the opportunity to build their own website to showcase their learning. When we started, students were introduced to Wix, Weebly, and Google Sites as free website builders. Now, two years later, students are feeding content into their sites through social media tools like Instagram and Tumblr or documenting their year through Twitter or Instagram, then curating their experiences with multimodal tools such as Storify.
Building Critical Skills
Through these experiences, our students have not only deepened their understanding of new topics but also developed important skills in analysis, visual literacy, responsibility, and reflection.
- Analysis. By deconstructing preexisting websites and previous student work, our students have developed a deeper understanding of how to organize, structure, and create their own original work. Also, as students explore the range of free digital tools, they spend time analyzing and choosing formats that best convey their message aligned to their purpose.
- Visual literacy. Much like a written piece must convey the right message and tone, website production encourages students to think more strategically about image selection, color choice, content placement, and alignment with or without text. These multidimensional representations of content help to document students’ proficiency with visual literacy skills. (see Common Core in Action: 10 Visual Literacy Strategies)
- Reflection. While we encourage students to make their websites a “one-stop shop” for information about specific topics, creating these sites also fosters reflection. As students build their sites, they have multiple opportunities to reflect on new knowledge gained and how they have grown throughout the process.
One senior described the process: “I loved making the website and I think it is a great visual for every senior project... I think this is a fantastic way to leave a positive and educational mark on the Internet compared to the negative things students put on the Internet nowadays.”
Student-created websites are not only visually appealing but informative as well. We encourage students to think about how they can “go deeper” by embedding instructional YouTube videos, hyperlinking text to articles or community resources, and blogging. In turn, their senior projects become an important source of information for others. If an outsider wants to learn what one student thought about writing a children’s book, the student’s project website provides all of the resources. If someone else wanted to learn how best to start a vegan diet, another student’s website provides information about that.
Finally, the stamina students need to build and then continually add to, edit, and enhance their sites provides real-world applications and life skills that are often overlooked in the world of standards, testing, and grade-level expectations.
Impact and implications
Creating a website as an alternative to a portfolio is not groundbreaking. However, we have found that our students now have the ability to use portfolios to help them think critically about their experience with a self-selected topic over the course of the year and how to represent their thinking in both traditional and visual texts. Students become real authors and begin to understand how to remix content to tell their unique story of growth and learning. Because this tool is web-based, student authors also have the ability to share their work with the greater global community for feedback and to build credibility. While this is used with seniors in my setting, students at all levels can create their own websites for projects or portfolios to showcase their work with the world. I encourage you to try something similar with your own students!
Amanda Murphy is the Senior Project Coordinator and a social studies teacher at Westerly High School, Westerly, RI. Amanda received a Graduate Certificate in Digital Literacy through the University of Rhode Island in 2015, and she is a FuseRI Fellow with the Highlander Institute. Connect with Amanda on Twitter.
This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).