Most parents keep some form of a portfolio for their kids, whether they realize it or not. That shoebox full of art projects? The file cabinet drawer with stories, essays, and pictures? All those watercolors magneted to the refrigerator? Portfolios. All of 'em.

In essence (and in definition), a portfolio is nothing more than a sampling of work. But because a portfolio review is often part of the homeschooling end-of-year assessment process, it takes on special significance in the lives of homeschoolers.

Still, keeping a portfolio doesn't need to be a daunting task. Here are a few tips to help you stash away samples of your children's work so that you'll be ready when assessment (or bragging) time rolls around.

Sacred Space

First, establish a place in your home where potential portfolio work will reside. File cabinets are great for this purpose, and you can often pick up a used one cheap at a thrift store. One drawer per child (in a standard vertical cabinet) will hold many years of work—especially since you can cull the collection at the end of each year (or every 3-5 years) to make sure you're keeping the items that are essential, or most treasured, or use the prettiest colors.

When it comes to larger pieces—you know, 11x17 papers, models, sculptures, 3D art, and the like—you can always snap a picture of the piece and keep the picture in the portfolio to save space. Alternatively, you can display the work somewhere in your home and place a note in the portfolio to remind you that you intend to include it when the time comes to present the work later down the line.

Going Digital

By scanning or photographing your child's work, you can seriously limit the amount of space portfolio prep takes up in your house. Does that mean tossing out all the originals? Of course not. (At least, not unless you want to.)

Some homeschoolers combine the digital and hard copy approaches by creating digital images of their students work and then organizing the work into a photo book—printed via a service such as Shutterfly, Snapfish, or mpix. And that way you get the best of both worlds.

What to Keep

Not so sure? Here are some good ones to hang onto.

  • Samples of your child's writing (this includes those incomprehensible crayon markings—even all those early scribbles are early examples of writing). It's ideal to have samples from the beginning and end of each school year so that progress can be easily demonstrated.
  • Worksheets, project summaries, and photos that show what your child has worked on over the course of the year. If you have work from specific subject areas (math, science, foreign language, language arts, social studies), keep some samples from each—perhaps from your child's favorite units, chapters, or topic areas. If you took a more project-based approach without necessarily separating out subjects, you may want to make a quick list to show how each individual area was addressed.

    For example, you may have arranged a unit study of ancient Egypt in which all subject areas were covered as a part of the whole—maybe math took the form of calculating the volume of pyramids, plotting the mileage between cities, estimating the time required to traverse the country on foot or by camelback, etc. Jotting these things down can both demonstrate what you've covered and recognize that long list of accomplishments.
  • Pictures of your child engaged in learning, whether that means sitting in a class, playing with friends at the beach, studying at the library, discussing a topic with peers, volunteering at a soup kitchen, hiking, biking, drawing, or building.
  • Lists of books read, field trips taken, museums visited, classes attended, etc. This, of course, will require some organization on your part, but it can be as making notes on a few pieces of paper—titled "Books," "Field Trips," and "Classes and Activities," for example. Or if you're the digital type, use an Excel spreadsheet or apps on your phone or tablet (such as OneNote or Evernote) to jot down such things.
  • Assessments and certificates from individual teachers (even if it's you) or classes (if applicable). If your child takes a class, ask the teacher, coach, or instructor to provide a brief assessment or a certificate of completion.
  • Programs from performances and events—dance or piano recitals, art exhibits, or plays your child has participated in.
  • Anything else that seems worth keeping. Feel attached to that cartoon of the American Revolution? Hold onto it. You can always eliminate it later.

Stay on Top of It

Obviously, you can't present a file drawer full of work as a portfolio. For one thing, portfolio reviews tend to be relatively short, and for another—that would be a lot of stuff to carry, even if you don't have to go any further than your dining room table for the assessment. So amassing a portfolio has two steps: first, collecting, and second, culling. And even if the first part is more fun, you need to stay on top of both.

To begin phase one, make adding work to your child's portfolio a habit. Each time a project is completed, a new picture is drawn, or a new model is built, place it (or a picture of it) into that sacred space. This is the collecting phase, and you want to make sure you're doing it regularly.

Once you begin to amass some goods, start setting aside time each week or each month (every Friday, the first Friday of each month, the last Friday, the second Tuesday, whatever works) for you and your child to sit down and cull. Help your child to pick just a few things to keep out of the many you've stashed.

Tossing things out can be hard. And of course, you can hold onto anything you want to keep for sentimental reasons, but reserve the portfolio space for those pieces which do a nice job of demonstrating learning or showcasing your child's interests, talents, and accomplishments.

As you get closer to your end-of-year assessment, start going back through the portfolio for a final cull. You'll want to settle on a small body of work that demonstrates learning in numerous areas, and you'll want to make sure you have pieces from various points in the year so that progress can be clearly demonstrated.

Trust us: you'll be glad you picked and chose.

Assembling the Portfolio

Whether you work solely with hard copies, go completely digital, or combine the two methods, you have several options for putting together and presenting portfolios.

  • Papers can be organized in notebooks or folders.
  • Shoeboxes make great carriers for small 3D works.
  • Slideshows can be assembled on tablets or laptops.
  • Pictures can be arranged in albums or on poster board displays with captions.
  • Photo books are a great way to organize the work for an entire year into a keepsake that can sit on a bookshelf.

Once you have your portfolio assembled, help your child to create an agenda—a simple list of what will be presented and in what order. The portfolio presentation can be handled in the same way as a student-led conference, so be sure to check out our article on those for tips on organizing.

Making a portfolio is an ongoing project, and when stuff really starts to pile up it might start to seem overwhelming. But that's the beauty of keeping track: you can go back and appreciate your child's various accomplishments through the years, and whether it's for an actual assessment or just to reminisce, you'll be glad you kept that shoebox stocked.