Vignette #4 – Searching for ways to increase student and family engagement in constructive conversation over student work and progress, a middle school team considers a growing trend- the student led conference.
Charged with figuring out how to make the parent-teacher conference more user-friendly and satisfying for both teachers and families, middle school team leader Elizabeth Price spends time investigating ways to incorporate student voices more prominently in these meetings. With feedback suggesting that too much conference time has been focused on grades and test scores, Elizabeth considers shifting to conversations that highlight greater understanding of student work and steps to support student progress throughout the year. When Elizabeth proposes a brainstorming session with her colleagues to identify strategies for increasing student and parental engagement in conferences, she is inspired by research that someone shares about moving to student led conferences. While the teachers agree that such a shift will take greater investment in preparation and time, they are eager to consider how they could make it work for the fall conferences. Having previously discussed a need for students to take more responsibility for their learning and for strategies to link parents more closely with “hands on” opportunities to support their children’s work, student led conferences seem to provide an opportunity to address both of these needs in their community.
Come September, the middle school team is ready to launch their new effort, and uses orientation meetings to let parents know what they can expect at the fall conferences. By sharing that their children will in fact be leading the conference, they hope that parental attendance will increase from past years. The teachers also include information on their classroom websites to inform parents about their roles during the conference, including possible questions to ask their children about their work. Initially wary of the time required to help students prepare for their participation in the conferences, the teachers find the benefits worth the time invested. Told that they would be preparing portfolios to present at the fall conferences, the students seem more invested in their work. Encouraged to reflect on both successful and more challenging pieces of work, the students have opportunities to address their strengths and weaknesses, while further learning to articulate personal goals for making progress over the course of the year. They manage this crucial self-assessment by responding to rubrics created for each assignment/project they present. In addition, the students are asked to reflect and respond to questions about their work that help them ascertain how well they are meeting the criteria established for “success.” Questions that ask students to reflect on their work processes (ex. “please clarify and explain the steps you took to prepare and execute your project on Botswana’s Chobe National Park) help them identify specific areas for improvement while further encouraging them to better understand their own learning styles. Teachers remark how the journey leading up to the conferences has created a positive culture of greater responsibility and reflection for many of their students.
In the weeks leading up to the conferences, students work on a “script” for their leadership roles and have time to observe and practice possible scenarios. While some students admit to being nervous, most are excited and invested in this chance to tell “their thoughts” of what they have been working on all fall. As part of the post conference evaluation discussions and surveys, parents and students largely share that they appreciated this opportunity to talk with one another about work in the classroom. With the support of the teachers (who serve as facilitators), important lines of communication about struggle and success are opened for families. Many students share how important it feels for them to have parents listening to them and asking them questions about their work. Likewise, parents report that they leave the conference having a better understanding of what is going well for their children and where they need more support. They appreciate hearing their kids talk about tangible ways they could improve their grades/work in the months ahead and the role they can play in helping them. For the few parents who wish to have connecting time with the teachers without their children present, the teachers offer additional conference time or ways to get in touch. The middle school team will meet again to explore the surveys and decide if their community would benefit from both fall and spring student led conferences.
- This excellent website provides strategies to enhance student self-assessment. It offers sample reflective questions and prompts for younger and older students and presents information on how the following tools can be used to support effective student self-assessment: student-led and three way conferences, use of rubrics, use of graphic organizers, and setting learning targets.
- A Step-by-Step Plan for Student-Led Conferences at the Elementary Level – In this Teaching Channel article an elementary school teacher shares her journey to student-led conference and outlines how she makes them work for her students and their families. She offers concrete suggestions for where to start and what these hands-on conferences can look like. She offers tips for success and shares how these conferences have benefitted her students and their families.
- In “Student-Led Conferences at the Middle Level,” Donald Hackmann outlines conference goals, the student-led conference model, how to accommodate some aspects of the traditional parent-teacher conference, and what to do when a parent is absent from these conferences.
- Parent-Student-Teacher Conferences Keep the Focus on the Child – This short article from a Responsive Classroom Newsletter describes some of the benefits of “three-way conferences.” In addition to the “collaboration that emerges,” the approach encourages children to take responsibility for their learning and keeps the adults in the room focused on the child’s work.
- This twelve-minute video on Student-Led Conferences shares a range of high school students commenting on their experiences with student-led conferences. They discuss how to prepare for the conferences and how they have grown and developed throughout this process. Although the video is geared towards a student audience, it is helpful for teachers (and parents) to hear these perspectives.
- A two-minute video on student-led conferences from the point of view of middle school students.