Extreme Classroom Makeover: Student Writing Portfolios

I have been using writing portfolios to assess my students’ writing in December and June for as long as I’ve been teaching. Portfolios are wonderful for so many reasons: they invite students to compile a body of work, encourage revision, show growth over time, and so forth. But sometimes they feel a little stale, a little boring, a little manilla-foldery.

Even when I switched from printed portfolios stacked in folders to Google Drive portfolios complete with hyperlinks and images, they left something to be desired. Many of them were thrown-together, lackluster, blah.

Over the past two years I’ve been searching for ways to make students’ writing portfolios more exciting, authentic and meaningful. As usual, when I confront a problem in my writing classroom, I ask myself, “What do real writers do? What do portfolios in the wild look like?” Well… real writers don’t have portfolios. Not really, anyway. In my research, the closest thing I’ve found to portfolios are author websites and author readings, and each of these “formative assessments” contains several components that can be adapted for writing portfolios.

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Let’s take a closer look at some of these new possibilities.

Author Bios:

Young adult novelist Jason Reynolds’ author biography sort of went viral in our #MovingWriters tribe a few days ago when Megan tweeted it out.

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I instantly added it to my Awesome Author Bios folder — a collection of rich, funny, touching author biographies to inspire and guide my students’ own bios.

Tricia shared that she uses author bios in place of MLA Headers…I just love this! What a wonderful way to let students truly autograph their work! What if we swapped out portfolio cover sheets for author bios?

Click here to read a few of the awesome author bio mentor texts I’ve used in the past.


Author Comments:

While author commentary is less common,  it does exist, and it’s an excellent way for students to think more deeply about the origins of a piece of writing, or how it has evolved over time. You can find author commentary in the appendix of an anthology or collection by multiple authors. You can also find it at author readings — it’s the stuff authors say before they read their poetry or an excerpt of their latest novel out loud.

Click here for some of the mentor texts I shared with students last year to help them craft more meaningful responses for each of the pieces in their writing portfolio.

Cover & Query Letters:

A typical component of the traditional writing portfolio is a one-to-two page reflection in which the writer looks at the broad strokes of her portfolio: strengths, weaknesses, patterns, and overall growth. This is an important exercise. We want our students to revise and take stock of individual pieces, but we also want them to gain a sense of the breath and depth of their oeuvre.

However, the one-pagers my students produced in the past have been pretty generic and vague; some of the ideas in their final letters were even recycled from their midterm reflections because they didn’t know how to write reflectively about their work.

Enter the query letter, a more in-depth version of the cover letter that real writers write. Query letters contain an author bio, and a synopsis of the work being submitted, all wrapped up in a confident tone that will entice the literary agent to read on; the query letter is a kind of “soft argument” where the writer tries to convince the reader through word choice and carefully selected details that her work is worth reading.

What if we swapped out the boring and generic one-page reflective letter for the more thoughtful and interesting query letter — with you, their teacher, as the literary agent? Or better yet: have your students seek publication in a real journal or e-zine and submit a copy of their query letter to you as part of their portfolio. Your students will be inspired and guided by loads of mentor texts from this Writer’s Digest series “Successful Queries.”

Praise & Blurbs:

Traditional writing portfolios are assessed by the writer’s teacher – you.  But in the wild, the most important feedback a writer gets is from the critics, especially those associated with the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other similar publications. Short versions of these reviews are often published on the back or inside cover of a book in the form of a concise, praiseworthy blurb.

Here are a few super-short blurbs for Kwame Alexander’s newest novel, Solo:

“A contemporary hero’s journey, brilliantly told.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A rhythmic, impassioned ode to family, identity, and the history of rock and roll.” —Booklist, starred review

“Many readers will identify with Blade’s struggle to find his place in a family where he feels like an outsider.” —Publishers Weekly

“The authentic character development and tone will strike a chord with young adults.” —School Library Journal

What if we invited students to seek other readers’ feedback – their classmates’, their parents’, other teachers’? Students could study blurbs on the backsides of their favorite books, swap portfolios, and practice writing brief commendations about one another’s work.  In the final portfolio, students would include a “blurb sheet” containing all of the teeny tiny “reviews” they received from parents, friends, and classmates.

Imagine how the experience of reading other people’s blurbs might change the way we read the students’ portfolios…

Imagine how the experience of reading other non-teacher-people’s blurbs might change the way the students read and presented their own portfolios!

Author Websites: The Big Tada

To end, I’m going to get a bit dreamy and imagine a portfolio assignment in which students have to create their own author websites. Check out Kwame’s or Jason Reynolds’  or Laurie Halse Anderson’s for some super sweet mentor texts. In addition to author bios and praise, these websites include:

  • “Look inside” features (excerpts from their novels and books)
  • Instagram photographs with fans
  • Just-for-fun music playlists
  • Writing advice
  • Delightful, tongue-in-cheek FAQs
  • Youtube videos

Imagine how the invitation to create an author website might elevate the task of creating a portfolio. Instead of gathering their pieces and doing some reflective writing about it for us, you would be inviting them to do so much more: create and showcase an oeuvre, all jazzed up with images and headlines and links, and ready-to-be-shared with their budding online fanbase.

– Allison

How do you make writing portfolios meaningful to your students? In what other ways might we reimagine this somewhat dated format of assessing student work? I’d love to hear your ideas @allisonmarchett or movingwriters@gmail.com.


  1. Allison, this is so helpful. We are at the old stage above and it is exactly as you describe in your post. Can you share a link to a student’s portfolio with us? Thank you again for all of your sharing your journey.

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