The first day of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Annual Conference and Exhibit Show kicked off Saturday, April 1, with a full schedule of sessions, exhibitor workshops, and other special features. The day’s meetings and conversations included the conference theme, “Constructing the Future, Challenging the Past: Excellence in Learning, Teaching, and Leadership.”

Conference attendees were sure to find that session presenters took the conference theme to heart and provided not only a way to look to the future but also a way to evaluate and learn from past work, said Mary Ellen Freeley, ASCD president, during the opening general session.

Mel Levine, a pediatrician and co-founder of the nonprofit organization All Kinds of Minds, gave the opening session speech. Levine’s work includes developing a framework for understanding why children struggle in schools and recognizing variations in the way children learn. His talk focused in part on neurodevelopment, and how the brain develops, grows, and learns certain things.

Levine said that focusing on how children acquire certain skills, rather than focusing on those skills alone, could prove very important in understanding the different ways in which children learn and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

“I’d like to focus & on the particular brain functions that are needed to acquire skills and the functions that get strengthened by the application of those skills,” said Levine, comparing the idea to that of focusing on the muscles needed for a specific sport rather than the sport itself.

Before the session began, the audience received a chart that gave an explanation of neurodevelopmental terms and also provided a visual representation of what Levine and his colleagues consider to be “the undergirding of learning success.”

“By making use of our knowledge of these functions, and by keeping them updated, I think we’re able to develop a more systematic approach to understanding learning,” Levine said.

“We now have the ability to identify and even localize essential brain processes that are needed for optimal learning and productivity to be realized,” he said.

In an interview with eSchool News after his talk, Levine said that technology can have a positive influence on learning, especially on those children whose learning styles make things such as graphs most effective during teaching.

Saturday’s technology-minded sessions included “Media Literacy in Curriculum Design fro 21st Century Learning,” “Integrating Technology into Reading and Math Instruction,” and “Digital Portfolios: An Engine for Reflection.”

During the session about digital portfolios, presenters David Niguidula of Ideas Consulting and Betty Calise of Rhode Island’s Barrington School District discussed what needs to go into student digital portfolios and answered many frequently asked questions about digital portfolios.

Niguidula said when thinking about digital portfolios, no matter what the grade level, educators should ask several essential questions including what they know and how to show what they know.

“We can use technology to get a richer picture of student abilities,” he said. “A portfolio can contain a set of work that shows a student’s accomplishments and celebrates a student’s individuality.”

A good way for educators to approach these digital portfolios is to determine what expectations teachers have of students–what they want students to know and be able to do; choose portfolio entries, select which works will be included, decide who will review the portfolio and who will assess its work, and determine, through the school structure, how to make the digital portfolios happen and to figure out where to use technology.

Sometimes creating digital student portfolios begins with the idea of collecting work, but it also allows teachers and students to see an overview of all the skills the student has gained and all the different things the student can do.

Using the Barrington School District as an example, Niguidula and Calise, the district’s assistant superintendent, played video clips for the audience and demonstrated how those clips could be included in a digital portfolio and used in parent-teacher conferences.

One clip showed a struggling beginning reader during the school’s first quarter. When parents see a video like this, Calise said, they can better understand a teacher’s written remarks on their child’s progress. That same student, filmed during the school’s third quarter, showed a marked improvement in reading skills. Putting these two clips in a digital portfolio shows what the child has accomplished and what skills they acquired during the school year.

The session did not focus as much on how to create digital portfolios as it did on answering the essential questions associated with digital portfolio and how those portfolios can be successfully implemented and used.

“Take what you do in the classroom and put that data into a useful form,” Niguidula said.