Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lost in the Documentation Abyss

By Stephanie Shouldis

After spending the past five years as an Intervention Specialist, I’ve come to one realization. Those who teach early childhood education, do so because they have a true love for children. Those who teach special education, do so because they have a passion for paperwork. There have been times when I have felt like I was spending more time documenting than I was teaching students. The most frustrating part for me was that nothing every happened with the documentation, no one ever looked at it. I would file it in a three ring binder, and then put it in a filing cabinet to collect dust. A former special education director told me to keep it for seven years in case the school was audited. I had to question that practice. Is that why I am collecting documentation, in case we are audited? Shouldn’t documentation guide our teaching and IEP writing? I needed to find a way to make my documentation authentic, guide my practice and be available for parents in a way that they could understand.

While browsing through comments on Twitter, I noticed a large amount of people tweeting about the site At first I was intrigued, but dismissed it thinking that it would not be an authentic fit within my classroom. Then as I was reading Fair Isn’t Always Equal (Wormeli) the author explains the use of portfolios to collect records, accomplishments or reveal areas of needed growth within the student’s work. Finally, I found a use for the tool that was so intriguing to me. I decided to create ePortfolios, using LiveBinders, for the use of documenting student’s progress on their IEP goals and objectives.

During the last half of the 2010-2011 school year, I piloted this ePortfolio idea for my own use. I created a binder for each student’s current IEP. Within the binder I created a tab for each student’s goals and objectives. For any evidence of growth or area of weakness, I would upload my documentation into a new subtab, under that particular goal or objective. Now I was able to access documentation for any of my students, no matter where I was, as long as I had a computer with an internet connection. In the past, I would take notes for everything. For example, student’s reading fluency or noted areas of weakness within their process of completing math problems. I don’t know about you, but that takes too much time, and takes away from actually teaching. Now that I am using an ePortfolio, I am able to upload a recording of the student actually reading, me conferring with the student or a SMARTboard recording of a student actually completing a math problem. This has saved me so much time, when documenting, and increased my one-on-one time spent with students.

After I discovered how much time an ePortfolio has saved me, in the world of documentation, I decided to use this as a transparent tool for parents and general education teachers. I started at a new district for the 2011-2012 school year, and explained my idea to the administration. They loved my idea, and asked me to pilot this program for the district. However, they were concerned about the confidentiality part of the IEP. I assured them that I restricted each ePortfolio as private, and only people with the access key could view the ePortfolio. Since this was a new idea, within the district, we decided that it would be best for me to send a letter to the parents explaining my use of the website. Here is an excerpt from the letter that I sent home to the parents, explaining our confidentiality concerns.

I wanted to provide you with some background information about the internet site that I am piloting for the school district. As per federal law, all IEP information is confidential. I want to make you aware that the information that I am placing into this internet site is not housed within our school’s technology department. The internet site where I will be housing your child’s information is Live Binders posts the following as their stated security policy:

"We have implemented reasonable measures to help protect your Personal Data from loss, misuse, or unauthorized access or disclosure. Unfortunately, however, no data transmission over the Internet can be guaranteed to be 100% secure. As a result, while we strive to protect your Personal Information, we cannot guarantee its security."

I then asked parents to approve my use of LiveBinders as a form of IEP documentation. 100% of the parents responded that they were okay with the use of the website. The administration, general education teacher, paraprofessionals and parents were provided with an access key for the IEP ePortfolios, for each student, with whom they directly work. This has become an amazingly transparent tool in terms of documentation. No more binders collecting dust, while waiting for that audit that may never happen. The lines of communication between all people on the IEP team have gone from that of a basic rotary phone to a Skype video conference call, all because of the ePortfolio system.

Finally, I have found a form of documentation that has helped me go from overwhelmed and under productive, in the area of documentation, to highly organized and thoroughly engaged. I still am doing the same amount of documentation, if not more. However, there is a purpose behind why I am documenting, besides waiting for that mysterious audit. General education teachers can use this information to guide their teaching, even if we do not have a common planning time. Parents can use this information to follow their child’s progress and hold authentic discussions with their child about their progress. The IEP team can use this information to guide the decision as to what the best goals, objectives and services may be for the child. For once, I am excited about the IEP meetings that will be held in the spring. I can’t wait to pull up the ePortfolio, and be able to discuss the progress that the child has made, and everyone is on the same page because the entire IEP team has had access to this information, literally at any time, within the past school year.


Wormeli, Rick. Portfolios. Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. Portland: Stenhouse, 2006. 43-44. Print

Stephanie Shouldis is an Intervention Specialist at Cassingham Elementary, an International Baccalaureate World School, in Bexley, Ohio. She graduated from Bowling Green State University in 2006 with her B.S. in Education, as an Intervention Specialist. An avid twitter user and participant in educational social media @WizardOzTeacher.


  1. Hello,

    I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. This class has taught me the importance of incorporating technology in the classroom. I am also taking an education course for exceptional children and youth. I am only a few weeks into the semester, but after reading your blog it only seems to reinforce the idea that technology/internet tools can be very useful.

    I can only imagine the hassle of taking notes on a student's special needs and teaching everyone simultaneously. Your discovery of an ePortfolio was ingenious. With the live documentation, as opposed to you scrambling to take notes, you probably have a better detailed record of the student's needs. You can even go back and review it multiple times.

    I think this tool will become useful in all classroom settings in the future. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for your comment Lana. I knew going into special education that I would be doing a great amount of documentation. I felt like documentation was a hassle, in the past, because no one ever looked at it. What good was it for me to take thorough notes, if the only thing that read them was myself and the spiders in the back of my filing cabinet? Now that I use ePortfolios, I am doing the same amount, if not more, documentation. However, I don't consider it a hassle, because there is a purpose, a form of authenticity behind doing it. I find my documentation experience similar to many student's experiences in school. They dread doing a certain task, like math or reading. However, when the teacher makes it authentic, and there is a purpose behind the work (not just busy work waiting to be audited) then the quality of the work increases.

    What area of education are you studying? It does not sound like you are in special education. Still, this would be a beneficial tool for you to implement, especially if you work with a co-teacher or have full inclusion, special needs, students in your class.

    I am in the process of making a sample IEP ePortfolio to share, so that you can see examples of my documentation.

  3. I can't wait to see a sample!! Extremely interested. I, like you spend way too much time documenting. Great article. How can I be sure to see the sample when it comes out?

  4. JL are you on twitter? I will for sure post it there. I will also include it on my blog

  5. Stephanie,
    Thanks for sharing your post. It is very timely as our #4thchat group was discussing anecdotal records. We are all looking for a way to keep records so that they are useful. I love this idea for that purpose as well.

    I think using the Livebinders with IEPs makes sense too. I love the idea that parents, regular educators, special educators, the team and administrators all have the opportunity to view those records and keep track of a student's progress.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  6. Nancy,

    Thank you so much for your response! Let me know if you decide to use an ePortfolio system for your documentation.

  7. I would love to see your sample. I am a Reading Specialist, so I do so many intervention groups, and many of my groups have students with IEP's in them. I am currently in a technology cadre, and I have to share how I am using technology in my classroom with my group. I think this would be one way to really put it all together. I already take videos of students reading, and of course I am always documenting. I feel like much of my documentation also goes to waste, so I am definitely going to take a look at creating livebinders (I have used some, but never created one of my own).

  8. Casey,
    I'm sure this is something that you have noticed as well, but when I record myself conferring with a student I feel that the next conference I have with them is even stronger. I not only listen to what the student is saying, but I also reflect on my comments, did my voice overwhelm the conference or should I have asked different questions. I hated listening to myself at first, but I know that it is only going to make me a better teacher.

  9. I am actually studying health education for a secondary school setting. I love teenagers and their dynamic personalities. I really do enjoy my class on exceptional children and youth though. And my professor is so passionate about it, which makes the class so much more worthwhile. We are halfway through the semester and sometimes I wonder why I don't pursue special education! I will admit it seems quite challenging, but also very rewarding.

    I look forward to seeing your IEP sample, too. Maybe it will help me when I complete my own IEP for class :)

  10. Lana, I am hoping to have the ePortfolio sample completed by the end of this month. I will be sure to post the link here, once it's ready.