By Jamie Stewart, Head of Program, and Katie Cheek, Classroom Teacher

It is estimated that 65% of children entering elementary school will have jobs that do not yet exist. With this in mind, at Portfolio School we approach educating and preparing children for a future of the unknown by nurturing and modeling lifelong learning, driven by personalized goals and enriched by project-based learning experiences within and beyond school walls.

To do this, we take a learner-centered approach with a dual focus that centers the learning of both students and adults in our school community. We know teachers create and model what they experience, so when we start by engaging educators in their own learning process it ultimately informs and enhances the student learning experience.

In this three-part series, peek into how we design for a learner-centered school year by engaging both educators and students as agents in their growth and learning process from goal-setting to assessment to celebrating our learning.

Part 1: Engaging EDUCATORS as Learners

Part 2: Engaging STUDENTS in Learner-Centered Experiences

Part 3: Celebrating Learning

Part 1: Engaging Educators as Learners

Modeling the learning approach and experiences we want for our learners is deeply embedded in the culture at Portfolio School. Evidence of cooperative learning abounds, sending the message that everyone—adults included—is continuously open to and in the process of both teaching and learning.

A growth cycle driven by personalized goal-setting informs each of our learning journeys. Leveraging the resources around us—the classroom, the building, the community, other places of learning, and the city—is core to how we grow what we know and can do. Educators at Portfolio engage in these processes not only to keep us interested and on our toes, but also to convey a very important message to the students: you never stop learning and you never should.

Personalized, goal-driven growth and learning

Starting over the summer, Katie, a lead elementary teacher and our staff development lead, began to build a teacher rubric that could be used as a reflection tool for teachers who are striving and working to be better at what they do. With a focus on self-care, engagement with the community, professional development, classroom community, and unit preparedness, each teacher took goals from the rubric that were personal to their growth and built upon them to serve as their goals for the school year. As our goals were set, we logged them in our Altitude Learning accounts to help keep us accountable for the things we wanted to accomplish during the 2021-2022 school year.

We then used similar themes, and the same Altitude Learning formatting, to help students set their own goals and understand that goals can range from making sure you drink enough water to making sure you use punctuation correctly. Students continue to use the Altitude Learning platform to set frequent goals as they move through units, writing assignments, mini-projects, and main projects to make sure they’re reflecting on the work they accomplished previously and setting goals that will help them work on improving those skills.

Check out 5 Ways to Drive Student Agency with Goal-Setting

Feedback and reflection aligned to goals

Katie Cheek Quote

Another big piece of this work, for both teachers and students, has been feedback. Teachers have been using their rubrics to share specific goals with educator peers and asking for feedback. Thus creating feedback loops that have allowed for reflection and intentional opportunities to learn from one another.

Moving through this exercise, a total of four times by the end of the school year, also allows us to step into the shoes of our students and remember the benefit and nervousness that comes along with feedback. It has helped make student feedback loops a positive experience that will encourage them to continually seek feedback to help them grow.

Part 2: Engaging Students in Learner-Centered Experiences

When we think about engaging learners, one of the top priorities is the ways in which we involve them in the learning process. To tackle this, we take what is commonly referred to as a learner-centered approach. At Portfolio School, we define this as:

The curriculum structures and carefully crafted experience that enable learners to hold themselves accountable for their learning.

It flips the switch, insisting that students learn how to structure their time, resources, and goals in order to not just pass a test or class, but to demonstrate to themselves, and those around them, that they know or can do something that they didn’t know or couldn’t do before—that they can pursue knowledge or the acquisition of skills without waiting for someone to present them with these things.

We encourage students to continuously ask: What am I learning? Why am I learning it? How can I use or apply what I am learning? What’s next for me?

Student-led assessments

One way we enable a learner-centered environment is through the use of student-led assessments, where students have what they need in order to productively assess their own work. In this way, students can leverage assessment as learning in order to better understand who they are, what they are capable of, and how they can push themselves. This process takes time and can sometimes feel at odds with our human tendency to seek reassurance from others. Rather than saying work is “good” and “done” we respond with, “What do you think?” and, “There is no such thing as done, just done for today.” The end goal with assessment then becomes more about celebrating and noticing growth and planning for what is next and we use other mechanisms for celebrating and congratulating students on their hard work.

Uncover the True Purpose of Assessment in this learner-centered take on assessment.

Authentic, project-based learning

Another way Portfolio School students engage is through project-based learning. Within a project-based environment, students learn concepts and acquire knowledge through the process of:

  • identifying or solving a problem,
  • building or creating an artifact,
  • and/or synthesizing and showcasing information.

Project-based learning can and does look different in different school environments. At Portfolio School, we break the school year into three curricular units. Each unit takes place over a period of three months and is typically inclusive of both a collaborative project phase and then an independent project cycle.

Explore 5 Reasons Every Learner Needs Project-Based Learning in Their Life in this blog post

The collaborative projects launch with an introduction to the unit theme and involve content-rich deep dives into science, history, geography, technology, arts, etc. Depending on the age and readiness of the individual student, the unit then moves into an exploration phase that is often heavy in skills acquisition. At this time students are researching, experimenting, and prototyping. Next, groups of students plan and then begin to build and create in order to demonstrate what they have learned. While this is happening, students also participate in daily small group instruction in reading, writing, and math. The skills acquired during these groups enable students to move deeper in the project-based work as they get older.

After reflecting on and then showcasing their work (and then reflecting again), each student moves onto an independent project, sometimes called a “passion project”. Students get to expand on recently acquired skills or knowledge by applying them to areas of special interest to them.

Some students choose to solve a problem:

How can we make our lobby more welcoming?

Some decide to make an artifact that can teach others:

What can I make that will help younger students learn about mindfulness?

Others aim to create something purely artistic in nature:

How can I make art for people who are visually impaired?

Explore more examples of schools pushing the boundaries toward authentic, real-world learning experiences in When Learning is Authentic

Aligning on competencies and milestones

A key to success with student-led assessments and project based learning is having a clear and shared understanding of the competencies and milestones that serve as a roadmap or trajectory for all learners. Our milestones are based on Common Core Standards, New York State Science and Social Studies Standards, and the ISTE Computational Thinking Competencies. We spend time each summer reviewing our internal milestones to ensure they are assessable, student-friendly (we phrase them as “I can” statements), and that they follow a logical scope of mixed-age groups of students.

We use the milestones to plan, assess student work, and communicate learning.

The milestones also provide the starting statements for rubrics that we co-create with students at the beginning of any project. Whether it is a writing assignment, a multimedia presentation, or an open-ended design thinking challenge, we want students to have a clear understanding of what success looks like. Importantly, we also want them to help us define it.


Part 3: Celebrating Learning

Portfolio Student PJ party learning celebration

Second and third graders celebrate meeting project goals with a pajama party.

As educators, we see one of the most important and exciting aspects of our jobs as promoting and maintaining the joy that is inherent in learning. That feeling of pride, accomplishment, and motivation when you learn something new (that “Aha!” moment) is exhilarating. It can be easy to forget that children and adolescents experience that feeling often. While at school it’s a student’s job to learn and grow, and a teacher’s job to provide a safe and accessible space. It makes sense then to lean into that very human quality, and one that is especially alive in young children, and to provide opportunities to collaborate and find gratification in it always.

Below are some of the moments—big and small—we have learned to carve out in order to explicitly and implicitly share the message with students: your learning is something to celebrate.

In-the-moment accomplishments

We’ve seen this done in such fun ways across school environments, but it can be challenging to create a culture of appropriate praise and to make time for it. For this reason, we’re fans of curricular examples that build celebration-driven instruction into the scope of each lesson. The foundational reading program, Read, Write, Inc., stands out as exceptional for a few reasons, this structure among them. At multiple points the teacher is encouraged to acknowledge the work of the group by giving a “hip-hip-hooray!” It is a moment to recognize that all learning, including something as seemingly small as acquiring the sound for a vowel digraph, matters and is worth acknowledging. Having taught the program for a few years, it has become second nature to mirror the same approach across content and into thematic project-based work.

This year, students in one of our small writing groups started adopting the philosophy as well. When a student in the group mastered an objective that they had been working on, they would announce it to the group at which point the other students would erupt in applause.

Goal and growth celebrations

Every few weeks, we pause to acknowledge collective and individual growth goal accomplishments. These celebrations are rarely elaborate and always meaningful.

Whether they are changing out a framed goal they have made public, demonstrating a new knowledge or skill to a group of peers, or adding a sticker to their data notebooks, taking the time to collectively acknowledge hard work and growth is imperative.

These celebrations are often planned by the students themselves. For example, our Kindergarten/1st Grade class set a “kindness” goal earlier this year. Their aim was to fill a small bucket with mini pompoms by adding a pompom each time a kindness was observed in the community. Their chosen celebration was a “make your own sandwich day”. By letting the students come up with the celebration they are working towards, they felt additional motivation to work towards the goal.

We are careful to not end all goals in a celebration. Often, achieving the goal is the prize in itself and internalizing that is a large part of the goal-setting process. That said, the occasional carrot is important and lends itself to community building.

Celebrating wins

We see school as an important place to experience winning and losing, and it’s important to create opportunities for students to practice celebrating their wins and acknowledging where they may have fallen short throughout the year.

As an example from this past school year, students in grades two through five practiced Debate as a part of their study of persuasive writing. After working in teams to prepare arguments for an assigned issue, students presented their debates in front of a live audience. While watching each other, they not only shared in their hard work, they appreciated and enjoyed the work everyone else put into their arguments. Each debate team was celebrated in the moment as they completed their final speech of the round. As is natural with debating, some groups were chosen as “winners” of their debate. When that was announced, the entire group—winners and “losers”—erupted in applause, showing that they were proud of what they accomplished and that they were happy to celebrate their peers.

We make sure that going into these situations there are clear parameters for a win. More often than not, we do this by creating a shared rubric with students. In the debate example above, the classes participating had observed a model debate and reported back with their understanding of what constituted excellent work, thus giving them ownership over what that needed to look like as they completed the same task.

Learning exhibitions

Learning exhibitions are our most public celebrations of learning. Three times a year our community comes together to formally acknowledge individual and collective achievements specifically as they are related to each student’s ability to apply and discuss what they have learned over the three months prior.

By providing an inflexible deadline, students face a plethora of “real world” challenges such as time management, flexible problem solving (what will you do if your build breaks right before showtime?), and extemporaneous thinking (how to answer questions on the spot) that are in and of themselves skills worth celebrating. At a metacognitive level, the exhibitions are structured to celebrate the learning process itself. They are a time for reflection and feedback in addition to showcasing work to proud parents.

This year, we started hosting two exhibitions each round – a public exhibition for families and community and an additional private exhibition just for students (prior to public exhibition). What started as an opportunity for practice quickly morphed into a truly lovely celebration. As proud as students are to share their work with their families, they are equally proud of showing their peers.

At the end of the day what ties these practices together and the reason we feel it’s important to do them is so that we may shepherd the message to students that the process of learning is full of joy and worth pursuing throughout one’s time in school and then beyond throughout one’s life.

How do you celebrate learning? We would love to hear more about what works at your school. You can contact us at

Final Reflection: A Learner-Centered School Year, One Step at a Time

We have found a key to this work is to take it slowly. Decide on one element—maybe it’s student-facing milestones, or perhaps co-created educator competencies—and focus on that particular element until the team begins to feel inspired by it. We also are grounded in an understanding that this work is new, can feel messy, only works when mistakes are acknowledged as an important part of the process, and everyone is comfortable being at a practicing stage for a while.

Interested in bringing learner-centered practices like these to your school or district? Get in touch with our team at Learner-Centered Collaborative.

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