This post is filled with everything you wanted to know about portfolio review samples but were afraid to ask. Or maybe you did ask. Whatever. I’ll update this page as I find other questions that people ask — but I’ll warn you this is a meaty post already. Get some tea, kick back, and enjoy.
(It’s actually 17 days until our portfolio review now — it was postponed. But I figured if I titled this one “17 Days Until…” it would get confusing.)
So now we know the law, we’ve sorted through pictures and gathered other samples and notes, made a list of the topics we studied, and summarized them into handy notes for the portfolio review meeting.
Now we need to choose samples.
New homeschoolers usually have a lot of questions about samples:
How Many Samples Do I Have to Bring?
Some people want to do the bare minimum, other people like to bring an abundant number of samples because they like to share, they like external validation, or they are worried they will fail. I have a few recommendations.
Bring 2-4 samples per kid per subject
“Is that all?” Some people will ask. Yes. That’s all. But let’s do some quick math here — I have three kids and eight subjects. 3 x 8 x 2 = 48. 3 x 8 x 4 = 96. So I’m going to bring 48-96 samples to my review. That’s a lot of time to find them, list them, and organize them. Also, if I brought any more it would be really quite heavy!
Can’t I just bring more and be safe?
Well… I hope you won’t. Not just because I value your health and I think that more samples might cause a back-related injury, but because it can make reviewers start expecting it of all of us. The county reviewers in some counties really don’t seem to know the law or the culture of homeschooling and will ask for way, way more than the law allows. The more we let them get away with it, the more they will grow to expect it. Please — think of my bad back. Or the unschoolers. Or people who have children with learning disabilities or chronic illnesses. Some kids can just churn out samples like well-oiled machines — but some people homeschool because their kids cannot.
Also, if you bring 90 samples for one subject and only two for another, the reviewer will often tend to think you’re slacking in the subject you brought less of. It’s simple human nature. They’ll compare what you brought and assume it represents the way you homeschool — if you have 90 of one and two of the other subject, they will think you spend 45 times more of you time on one subject and maybe you’re not doing enough of the other subject. I’ve seen it happen.
But I love to share and hear how awesome I am or my kid is!
Yeah, I know. That why we made that list earlier of everything you covered, so you could feel awesome. So read off that list of topics you covered to your reviewer (but don’t give them the paper!), share with grandma, make a blog post, put it all in Pintrest, give yourself an M&M for every awesome thing you and your kids did… but don’t look for validation from the public schools just to feel like you’re doing the right thing.
Maybe your reviewer will love what you did. But maybe they won’t. Why leave your self-esteem in their hands?
What Counts as a Sample?
Almost anything! Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
- Your child’s hand written note.
- Your child’s typed story.
- A picture your child drew of unicorns.
- A picture your child drew of how distillation works.
- A diagram your child made of how telescopes work.
- A picture of your kids playing baseball in the backyard.
- A pamphlet from the Air and Space Museum.
- A picture of your kids enjoying their cousin’s rock concert.
- A picture of your kids standing around in historic ruins.
- A test paper.
- A workbook.
- A puzzle book.
- A worksheet.
- A picture your child took with a camera.
- A blog post your child wrote.
- A picture of something your child built out of tangrams.
- A paper towel artistically colored with red cabbage indicator in various colors.
- A sample of non-fiction your child read.
- A list of books your child read.
- A note about a conversation you and your kids had.
- A certificate your child earned.
- A map from a state park.
- An MP3 of a song your child wrote.
- An MP3 of a poem your children collaborated on and set to creepy music.
- Notes you jotted down about what your kids asked or noticed during a history reading.
- A video of your child doing gymnastics.
- A program from a play or musical.
- Scraps of paper your children wrote on for a word game.
- Pictures of your children playing a math game. (Or a social studies game or…)
- Pictures of kids trying out instruments or learning how to play them.
- Pictures of writing, math, or drawing on a white board (good for kids with poor fine motor skills).
- Pictures of kids playing “educational” video games — and I don’t just mean the ones that are supposed to be educational…
- Pictures of a robot they made, or kids using a telescope, or kids soldering circuits or…
- A list of types of music they listened to.
- Artwork they viewed — don’t forget this includes ancient sculptures and architecture!
I think the real question is what *can’t* you bring as a sample. So far the one thing I’ve thought of and discarded was “a sweaty shirt that the kid ran around in” as a sample for PE.
What Makes a Good Sample?
Now you have to start thinking strategically. If I’m only bringing 2-4 samples, I don’t want them all to be the same. I won’t bring four spelling tests, for example.
Usually, the “core” subjects are the ones I’ll bring 3-4 samples for: math, language arts, social studies, and science. In some counties they even recognize those as the core subjects, but not in all counties. For the other subjects (art, health, PE, and music), I usually bring two samples, unless the kids insist I bring others.
For language arts, I admit that I bring more samples and choose more carefully than I used to. I mentioned earlier that I did once fail a review. Yes, it was in language arts. I’ll tell that story soon… but it did affect the samples I bring for language arts, which irritates me. I don’t like to change how I homeschool to please people who don’t know much about homeschooling, me, or my kids. But I do get stressed out by portfolio reviews and, considering all angles, adding one sample per kid is easier than dealing with the extra anxiety.
Anyway, for language arts I try to bring:
- At least one sample that shows my child’s handwriting — it might be a book they wrote, freewriting, or a spelling “test” (the kids sort of insisted on them? They’re weird.)
- At least one sample that shows their reading ability — this might be a printout of a challenging science or history reading, a list of books they read on their own, or an example of phonics lessons we’re currently doing (depending on age and ability).
- At least one sample that shows some kind of reasoning ability — they don’t just do copywork or spelling or reading, but they can form ideas of their own in their heads and somehow turn it into coherent English words.
- Often I bring one sample that shows some sort of grammar or editing ability.
- If we went to one, a pamphlet from a play or musical, historic writer’s house, etc.. Field trip!
Some of those could be combined in a sample. And sometimes I don’t manage to bring all of those. But it’s what I generally aim to look for in our samples — a wide variety of samples that display different language-related skills.
I tend towards three math samples, usually. I try to show samples from different math topics. I wouldn’t bring three samples of the same sort of subtraction problems, for example.
I attempt to have at least one sample that isn’t from a workbook or worksheet if I have them (the kids sometimes demand math worksheets, so we usually have them). A non-worksheet sample might be a picture of the kids playing chess or mastermind, or a picture of the kids using french toast as tangrams. Maybe even a math-related book they read, such as the Sir Cumference series, the Number Devil, etc.. It could be a picture of a hands-on math activity, such as measuring a circle’s circumference and diameter to show what pi means. Or a historic math method or technology we made*, such as a quipu (recording device made of knots) or a papercraft enigma machine (I still need to post about that, too!). Or even just a math puzzle from a puzzle book.
(*For subjects the kids show less passion towards, I like to combine activities with a subject they like. So a lot of our learning is about history or science, with a math or English tie-in.)
The social studies samples vary greatly depending on age. For the little ones, it could be a map or coloring page based on the reading we’re doing. My middle kid likes to make crafts, models, and art about historical times.
For my middle schooler, I once brought in a map we made in Google Maps of all the places we called on our amateur radio. As we contact someone, we look them up to see where they live — geography! I also brought in his amateur radio license as a sample that could easily cover a semester of social studies (you don’t just need to know geography, but learn many US and international laws), math, and science.
This time I’m bringing in pictures from Chichen Itza, a Mayan ruins we visited in Mexico.
We live, eat, and breathe science here at Dragon Academy. I never bring in worksheets for science. We don’t do them. I almost always bring in pictures of the kids doing science, diagrams they drew of how things work, books they read, and pamphlets (or pictures) of museums and events we visited.
The year we failed language arts (everything turned out fine! I promise!), the same reviewer passed us for science because I showed ONE picture of my garden. I don’t even think the children were in the picture and she never looked at the rest of the samples I brought. That one picture of a garden was plenty. You really never know what you’re going to get as far as reviewers go.
Music is usually two samples — one that shows them learning about music and another that shows them doing music.
Learning about music could be going to a show, listening to a type of music (jazz, bluegrass, etc), learning the sounds instruments make, music theory of some kind, etc..
Doing music is often a picture of them playing a music instrument, performing music, dancing to music, or an MP3 of the music they made.
Art is another subject where I bring two samples, one about learning art and the other about doing art.
Doing art could be either art they made or a picture of art they made (my son is into making glass art and there is no way I’m carrying that and 100 pieces of weird papers and pictures with me). It might be movies they made or pictures they took on a camera. Or drawings, pixel art, painting, chalk on the sidewalk, sculptures, dioramas, and a billion other things.
The other sample might be a pamphlet from a museum, thoughts they had while viewing famous art, artists or periods we studied, a list of art they looked at, art techniques, graphic design information, color theory lessons, etc..
PE is usually two samples — pictures or videos of the kids engaged in something physical: soccer, ballet, gymnastics, a wall climb at the renaissance fair, playing baseball in the back yard, an obstacle course they made, nature hikes, riding their bikes, playing in the pool, etc..
I think you could make a case for bringing in tickets from a game the kids watched. I know that after seeing a Real Live hockey game, the kids are more interested in watching and doing sports. Maybe an example of learning sports rules would work, too. Or learning about warming up and cooling down, how muscles and tendons and things work, how to properly lift weights, or how to design a healthy workout program… but maybe that would fall under Health, instead. Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV).
This is the question people have so often, especially for little kids. What counts as health?
When I first moved to Maryland, I couldn’t figure it out on my own, so I googled the local school’s information for parents, to see what the schools consider health, especially in the lower grade.
Things that count as health for a kindergartener in Maryland (from Montgomery County’s website):
In later grades they keep those seven basic categories, but add age-appropriate topics, such as: bullying, online safety, first aid, stress management, peer pressure, depression, illegal drugs, OTC medications, pregnancy, body image, eating disorders, information about food borne illnesses, self-esteem, conflict resolution, communicable diseases, decision-making, goal setting, health care products, verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, health resources, sexual harassment, puberty, weight management, modes of disease, respect, drug laws, nutrients, caloric intake, risk, gun safety, emergency response, telling vs tattling, family traits, the process of growing, the process of food production, senses and food, food animals, mental illnesses, addiction, dating, parenting, and so on.
So any two samples from that wide variety of health-related concepts would work fine! Scouting organizations often include plenty of health-related information, since much of what they do is about hygiene, camping, and helping in emergencies.
Some samples I’ve brought (or will bring this month) include:
- a daily food chart (how many of each food group the kids ate at each meal).
- pictures of children cooking meals for themselves.
- pages from a safety curriculum coloring book (Kidpower).
- an elementary school anxiety workbook.
- vaccination pamphlets.
- typed notes from a conversation we had about vaccinations, diseases and safety when travelling abroad.
- drawings from an art lesson about how faces look for different feelings.
- pictures of grandpa showing the oldest how to properly shoot a gun and about range safety (perfect veteran’s day activity).
- pictures of children learning how to build a fire.
- a paper where the child wrote their name, address, and phone number.
- a picture of visit to a farm and/or farm animals.
Can I use (whatever) as a sample?
If your kid did it in this time period (semester or whatever you’re being reviewed on) and it’s an example of something that has to do with this subject…. then yeah.
However, I’d aim to have different types of samples, because variety will give the impression that you did more things than if all of your samples look similar or are about only one topic.
How can I make sure the reviewers will like my samples?
You can’t make them. Some people will just be difficult. But there are things that, while not legally required, can help influence reviewers to favor you:
- Be organized (see below).
- Date the samples if you can — some people will say it is unnecessary and not part of the law. But… well, I’ll fight over a lot of things… but for me it’s just easier to put dates on my samples. The stupid thing is that the reviewers have no idea if you dated them honestly as you went or just back-dated your favorite samples the day before the review. Once again it would be so much easier to lie than to just date everything as you go. I don’t recommend lying. I’m just saying that when reviewers require things that are hard to do honestly but are easy to cheat at, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
- Bring a variety of types of samples about a variety of topics. The more varied things are, the more it shows that you did a lot of stuff over time. (Also it helps reviewers see that everything doesn’t have to be tests and worksheets).
- Make sure your samples aren’t all pamphlets. I love bringing those in, but make sure some of your samples show your kids actually doing some sort of output. It will keep the reviewers from doubting you.
Do I have to organize my samples?
Well, the law doesn’t say you have to, but it’s more persuasive if you do. You see, most of portfolio reviews are social engineering — persuading people to do what you want them to do.
You want to persuade the reviewer that you are a good homeschooler who offers through instruction to their children. What would prove this? They don’t get to see you teach your kids, they don’t get to spy on you or make you sign in every day to a learning log on their web page, and they don’t even get to see or talk to your kids if you don’t bring them (hint: don’t bring your kids).
So the way you prove it is by bringing some nice, varied samples. Dates help them see that it occurred over time… and other than that you convince them by looking competent.
I bring my samples with one folder for each child. Each folder has a divider for each subject. If I know the order that the reviewers will ask for samples (for example, Montgomery County has a standard form for reviews) I put the samples in that same order.
Then I have my overview sheet of bullet points of topics we covered in each subject and a list of each sample I’m bringing for each kid in that subject, so I can glance at my notes and easily make smart, coherent sentences with more information than the reviewer can write down in the little box on the form, showing each sample as I mention the topic.
I make sure to sound happy and excited about the wonderful things we did that year. I might share an amusing anecdote if time allows or it seems like a nice time to add one. I paint a picture with words about the lovely wholesome time we have. I share some of our favorite resources (I had a reviewer once go look up Kidpower because I gushed about it so much — which is good, because I love what they make).
Be easygoing. Be enthusiastic. Be organized.
Do I have to have tests/worksheets/whatever?
“But my county sent out a letter that said…”
“But how can I show that…”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just make my kids do a couple of tests and bring them in?”
Bring in your legitimate work. Don’t use your kid’s compliance with your requests to make it easier on you. Don’t let the reviewer push you around and demand tests if you don’t want to do them.
If you want to do them or your kids do, by all means go for it. Some kids even ask for them — I’m not saying say no to your kids because tests are evil or anything like that. Just don’t change what you’re doing for the school system. Do your thing. Show it off. Be persuasive!
There are a lot of ways to bring in portfolio review samples.
Don’t feel like you have to do what I do. I’m just laying out my own techniques and strategy so other homeschoolers can take or leave what they think will help them. I won’t be offended, I promise.
Other posts in this series: