Show What You Know: From PBL to Digital Portfolios

One student’s enthusiasm can open new doors to teaching and learning.

My son’s birthday party this year was at one of those bounce house places with children hopped up on orange soda and birthday cake. In the midst of the chaos, one of the workers approached me—not with the news of some disaster, as I immediately feared, but with a smile and a huge hug. “Mrs. Chandler!”

Teachers who live in the community where they work experience this all the time—hugs and greetings from past and present students. However, this was different. This time the student was Austin.

I had Austin in seventh and eighth grade almost a decade ago. He was the unreachable brilliant one who would ace a test but never seemed to be listening and certainly didn’t bother with homework. He never cared to impress me or anyone else—that is, until I assigned my first project-based learning activity.

We were wrapping up two years together and needed to shake things up, so I announced, “You are going to present to our class a ‘How-To’ of anything you’d like. You can teach us to make brownies. You can teach us to juggle. You can inspire us to try something new! You must create a PowerPoint to go with your presentation.”

Of course there was a barrage of questions, which I expected. But I was not prepared for Austin to raise his hand. He never raised his hand. When I called on him, he asked, “Can I build a website?” I was so taken aback that the honest answer came out: “Well, I guess you can. But I don’t have a clue about that.”

Shining Star

On presentation day, using our brand new whiteboard, my students showed us how to do all sorts of things utilizing PowerPoint presentations with too much animation and too many sound effects. At times the presentations were overwhelming. This was new to all of us, so I took it all in stride.

When Austin’s turn came, I asked, “Are you ready?” which was unfortunately what I used to say to students whom I thought had not done the project.

Austin approached my computer and quickly typed in a website address. His website—which he created—was designed to teach us how to play the game Minecraft, which no one had heard of yet. To say that we were in awe is an understatement. I watched my students sit up a little more and lean in, amazed by what an eighth grade student—a decidedly non-academic student—knew and could do.

Given the chance to do something he knew and loved, Austin (or AJ as his nametag now read) opened my eyes to the possibility of digital learning before I knew there was a name for it.

Learning Together

Every year after that, when we launched into the project-based activity, I shared Austin’s website as an example, saying, “You can always give something like this a try.” Student interest in “going digital” was slow at first. A few students created a website and others did Prezis instead of PowerPoints. Then these digital projects really caught on and everyone wanted to do them. Unfortunately, I really didn’t know enough about digital presentations to help them.

I knew that had to change, so I taught myself how to use Prezi, and Haiku Deck, Canva, and other presentation tools, and was able to guide my students who wanted to use them for their presentations.

Then I tackled the website-building project. Thanks to the ease of Wix (a free website builder that is quite intuitive) I was able to create a pretty decent class website, which I used to communicate with parents and students. The more I used it the more comfortable I was with the idea of incorporating a website into a project.

“Austin, you will be so proud of me!” I gushed. “Guess what my kiddos did for their final projects this year? Built a website. I mean, we only used Wix, not programming or coding or whatever you call it, but you inspired this. Remember your Minecraft project?”

AJ did remember, and he told me he was “a full-on computer geek” in college. “Websites are a great start for eighth graders,” he went on. “Like a portfolio, you know, like art students. You need to get them into this stuff. It’s the next language.”

And, there you have it. Once again, a student showed me the way. It was in that noisy moment that I decided my students in the fall must have a digital portfolio because if nothing else, isn’t it my job as an ELA teacher to make sure they are able to communicate—with a “new language” nonetheless?

Going Digital

Based on my website lessons learned, I’m launching my yearlong Digital Portfolio Website assignment for my new eighth graders this year. In these first few weeks I’m helping students set up an e-mail account (which most don’t have) and a Wix account, and teaching them some basic aesthetics of web design. Now that I have a little more confidence in this digital realm, I am happy to share my “cheatsheet”:

  • Less is more. Too many pictures and/or too much text is distracting.
  • Use a color scheme and be consistente.
  • Cut and paste from Wix into Word for spell check.
  • (A major downfall of Wix is the lack of spell check.)
  • Use animations and music sparingly, and don’t loop it. Once is appealing; more than once is annoying.
  • People read in an “F” pattern, so avoid placing important text or information in the bottom right-hand corner.
  • Drop-down menus are great. We are going to have pages for Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, Creating, and Innovating. Students will decide as we move through the year where to post their assignments.
  • Videos are a great way to capture a learning experience. I’ll record and send to my students to add to their webpage.

The website becomes the tool by which to tell their “learning story.” We’ll end our year by reflecting and setting new goals for high school.

Lessons Learned

I survived my first website assignment. Here are my primary lessons learned (with many more to come, I am sure!):


  • They were so engaged that it was hard to pull them away.
  • Mini-lessons work well. The old “I do, we do, you do” works great.
  • They actually asked for more time to present their websites because some made videos that they wanted to include.
  • They had a super quick learning curve, as they quickly surpassed my Wix skills.
  • The high school teachers I know are excited that they are coming to them with this type of tech savvy.
  • Students are more than willing to help each other.


  • You can’t assume they know anything about web design. Remember how I mentioned too many animations and sound effects? It is even messier when they start experimenting with web-builder tools.
  • There’s a balance between the “have at it” approach and direct instruction, and this balance is different for every class.
  • Finding the technology and technology time they needed was a full-time job. I was careful to never assume they had technology at home.

Speaking the Language

As I get beginning-of-the-school-year butterflies thinking about 100 eighth graders creating websites, replete with the positives and pitfalls, I’m forcing myself to remember AJ’s observation: “It’s the new language.”

I’ve heard that the best way to learn a new language is immersion, so here we go…