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Portfolios: Don't Leave School Without One



The 1990s labor market can be summed up in a parody of the car advertisement: "It's not your father's (or mother's) labor market anymore". If you take all the temporary employees in Washington State and put them under one roof on any given day, they would constitute the state's largest employee group. New college graduates increasingly find they are being offered contingent or contract positions as opposed to permanent slots. Jobs, marriages, residences take on an increasingly temporary quality these days. Hardly anyone will graduate into lifetime employment with a single job title where they work at the same place for 30 years. The new labor reality boils down to this: the search for work is permanent while the job you find is generally temporary.

Therefore educators and counselors need to coach their students and clients in ways to increase their odds in our increasingly temporary world of work. As a starting point, we can look to the lessons learned by the ultimate temporary worker, the freelance employee: artists, writers, designers, performers, and consultants. They are constantly searching for work--and they take along a portfolio.

There are also several hard-edge realities which underscore the value of using a portfolio in one's career. Survey after survey shows that most applicants admit that they tell less than the unvarnished truth on a resume. Employers know this. Even if they wanted to believe the necessary-fictions found on most resumes, few employers have the time to read them. As a result larger businesses are turning over the job of resume reading to computer scanners which search for the keywords favored by the hiring authority. At the interview, the employer then faces the additional frustration knowing that he or she can do little to check out the claims of the job applicants.

Every written word, every interview claim is suspect today. We have reached what I call the "show-me" stage in the history of interviewing. Employers are desperate for "proof" or evidence from job applicants. Applicants can make it easier for the hiring authority to choose them when they show up with a portfolio full of artifacts demonstrating good work habits, complete with work samples illustrating technical prowess.



Vocational and career professionals are well attuned to the "show-me" mindset. Performance-based testing and instruction is the bread and butter of vocational education and job search training. Students are required to demonstrate talents or the ability to deliver the goods in their shops, classes, job sites, simulated work places, and mock interviews. The academic teacher has recently discovered this valuable teaching methodology, re-naming it "authentic assessment and critical thinking practices". Portfolios fit nicely into this educational milieu. As a result, many reformers in academic and vocational strands advocate the use of portfolios for both instruction and evaluation.

Now the time is ripe for the career and vocational staff to lead the way towards what I call "authentic portfolios." We need to illustrate that portfolios can be filled with far more than rough drafts of English essays and math tests. We need to ask students to fill their portfolios with samples of their "talents" and passions. Otherwise, the school-based portfolio is doomed to trivialization. On the other hand, a portfolio filled with samples of can-do skills comes with a built in audience which could include people in the college financial aid office, employment recruiting site, and small business bank loan department.

If teachers are to become excellent portfolio teachers, they will need to make their own portfolio before asking students to do the same. The benefits will be immediate as well as long term. Currently, several teacher education programs ask future teachers to prepare a portfolio as part of their general teacher preparation or student teaching assignment. Later, these grads will take their portfolios to Spring interviews.

Some districts are also requesting that applicants bring a teaching portfolios to the interview or include one with their application. Finally, there is talk about injecting portfolios into the national certification process, thereby offering an alternative to paper and pencil testing. And, a few states have gone so far as to mandate the use of portfolios in the teacher evaluation process. Regardless of the policy you live under or the place where you live and work, taking a portfolio to an interview illustrates that you understand the current wave of educational reform. Can't hurt to make one!

By preparing your own portfolio, you'll know what it is all about. As you display the product you can chime in with, "been there, done that." In fact, I always take in several mini-portfolios to show my students. One represents my personal studies in wood carving, another showcases my professional accomplishments as a teacher. I also have a retro-portfolio made from ancient artifacts culled from my high school days. This last portfolio gets careful scrutiny and a few laughs.



Teachers and counselors can help people understand the broad applications of a portfolio when we show that the items we collect need not be limited to samples from school or work. Our on-going "career" portfolio mirrors the larger meaning of the word "career." It should include samples of our hobbies, community contributions and service, self-studies, as well as formal schooling or training and paid work experiences.

In my student workbook about portfolios I ask students to brainstorm different reasons for collecting artifacts. For instance a person who enjoys travel might keep post cards or national park stamps. Later, when applying for a job involving travel or cross-cultural understanding the artifacts can be included on a page with the title: Understanding Built Though Travel. In another example, an athlete might want to keep a portfolio of team photos and records of work-out trials. Later the same material can be used when looking for work in a recreation or exercise center or to demonstrate the quality of self-discipline (necessary on any job site). To help students understand the broad range of possible portfolio content they must be presented with several examples of how one might use a portfolio for personal or professoinal growth. I use an exercised entitled: "Brainstorming About Expert, Personal, and Project Portfolios" in my student workbook on portfolios.

[For an illustrated example see the illustration on pages 10 and 11 of my book, Creating Portfolios for Success in School, Work, and Life, noted in the resource section at the end of this article.]

An "Authentic Portfolio" is one in which the student has a giant-say in the design and content. The school may request that students include certain types of samples, but it only becomes the student's portfolio when he or she is the chief architect. After all, you wouldn't try to dictate the words students write in a resume. An "Authentic Portfolio" includes samples of real talents, not necessarily all from school, and the samples should be of interest to parties outside of the classroom if the product is to have validity.



The process of building a portfolio follows a logical sequence. Using slightly different approaches I have covered these methods in both of my student workbook and adult trade book on portfolios. I use an unfolding sequence which is briefly summarized next.
  1. Collect and archive work samples or artifacts. This should be considered an on-going process. You can enhance the process by asking that students to display what has been added to their collection at the end of each week. Ask them to tell why they selected a specific piece. In other words, what does it show, why is it special? If they write this down on the back, and then sort the items, the collection turns into an easy-to-access archive. Set a goal to collect ten artifacts in five weeks, and celebrate with a pizza party!

  2. Select and sequence the content to be showcased in a "final" portfolio for an audience. The students must first identify the intended audience, and create a list of what their "reader" will want to see. This list then becomes the criteria for selecting what is appropriate to include. Artifacts can then be organized chronologically by date, by function or skill, and even by theme.

  3. Each portfolio artifact needs some additional explanation. I recommend using titles at the top of a page and a caption below the artifact. An introduction and table of contents is also useful.

  4. Final assembly must take into account various decisions. Is this to be a print or hard copy verses a computer based medium? The digital option could include a web page designed as an online portfolio or a multi-media presentation document. If one wants to use three-dimensional objects then envelopes or photos will have to be considered. For instance, a biologist was quite proud of having discovered a new species of mushroom and he wanted to include it for special effect. To do this, many logistical considerations had to be reviewed. One may choose to use text and actual objects or else to scan everything and organize the contents in a desktop publishing program.

  5. Students and prospective job seekers will benefit from coaching or rehearsing their portfolio presentation.
Remember a portfolio is not sent out in a mass mailing the way some people send out resumes. Nope--it is a product you take to the final screening event, the interview.



You may not initially have time to do a full blown portfolio project in your class or program. In this instance I'd suggest using a hybrid portfolio-resume. This product uses a single 11 by 17 inch paper folded in half. This results in a brochure-like product with four sides or four pages. One might put a resume on the front page and then use the remaining pages for photos of artifacts, letters, or work samples.

[For an illustrated example see the illustration on page 61 of my book Portfolio Power, The new way to showcase your job skills and experience (Peterson's), noted in the resource section at the end of this article.]


Unlike a resume which requires wordsmith skills, a portfolio puts you in touch with a hands-on process for show casing your talents. Assembling a portfolio requires cutting and pasting, sorting and manipulating. In this regard a portfolio may be more engaging and more accessible than the text-laden resume.

Portfolios play different roles across time. They evolve with your career development. When you are in school or engaged in re-training, you can use a portfolio to document your learning. A portfolio with evidence of prior learning on the job can even be leveraged for college credit at many two year institutions today.

When changing a career, your portfolio may assist you in finding new options. Spread your collection of artifacts upon a large table, play your favorite music and sip a delicious beverage as you stare at the contents of your work life. Then stir up the items with your hands. Try placing samples in different groups. This stimulates the act of stirring up new thoughts which may suggest new occupations. For instance, suppose you laid the photo of your white water raft trip next to the honor's English essay or column you used to write for the school newspaper. Could this suggest exploring what people do as an outdoor reporter or photographer or guide?

Once you lock onto a job target, take your portfolio to the interview. It is a powerful prop in the story telling adventure we must suffer through to land a job. Your portfolio can be used to help illustrate points. Then when you land the job be sure and take the portfolio to your job performance evaluation. You can't expect your employer to recall all that you have contributed. Take a list of committees, e-mail praising your efforts, , a safety inspection sheet, a pay stub showing the overtime or a log of compensation hours earned, pages from report mentioning your efforts, or photos and articles in a company newsletter mentioning a team or project you worked on. Remember, the supervisor who hired you may not be there to evaluate you one year later. Once on the job, the portfolio provides a thread of continuity.

My basic point is that everyone can use a portfolio to both manage their professional or career assets and to showcase their potential. The very act of organizing your career portfolio brings clarity to your career direction. The process requires reflection and analysis. When you sequence the samples in your portfolio, you begin thinking more broadly about your collection of talents. You think more deeply about who you are. As a result, you and your students will be able to enter an interview with a firmer grasp of your own talents and potential.



Creating Portfolios For Success In School Work, and Life. Martin Kimeldorf.
Free Spirit Publishing. Minneapolis, MN. 1-800-735-7323.

Portfolio Power. Martin Kimeldorf.
Peterson's Publishing Group. Princeton, NJ. 1-800-225-0261.

Get A Life and Life Work Portfolio.
National Occupational Information Coordinating Committee (NOICC)
2100 M Street NW, Suite 156; Washington, DC 20037
Telephone: (202) 653-7680

Skills Portfolio. Carrie Straub.
Crisp Publications. Menlo Park, CA. 1-800-442-7477.

Various portfolio products by Harry Drier.
Career, Education and Training Associates, Inc.,
1236 Langston Drive, Columbus, OH 43220.
email address:


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