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Empowering Families Through Student-Led Conferences

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We strive to empower our students and families. We desperately want them to partner with us as we try to build and engage students who are willing-no, eager– to take charge of their own learning. Yet often times we remain in control of the management of it. We record, we analyze, we measure progress, and we report out to parents in a conference that their student does not even attend. And by doing so, we unintentionally remove much of the ownership that we are so passionately trying to share with our students and families. Parents become passive listeners to the concert we have orchestrated and conducted ourselves.

Shooting ourselves in the foot. We do that a lot, don’t we? As educators, adults, and professionals, we must navigate student growth and make targeted, data driven plans for each student. That doesn’t mean our students can’t be involved in this venture, or that they should be kept in the dark as a quiet part of the process regarding their own education. We sometimes get so busy in our own “educator business” that we unwittingly take on the role of landlord, communicating when we need to and encouraging them to take care of and support only what we have built.

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One of the best things I’ve done this year was to implement student-led conferences. This was a learning experience for me! I definitely stepped out of my own comfort zone here by turning over the conference to my students.

I want to see students as critical thinkers in all areas,  including an awareness of their own progress. To be comfortable in recognizing struggle and seeing it not as a defeat but as a place to employ strategies and devote energy. To be aware of strength areas and informed about how they learn and demonstrate that learning.  To be comfortable and aware enough to share this information with their own families.

We know we are experts in something when we can teach it to someone else.

This is about life-long learning habits.  Below is the system I used this year, along with the documents I created to support it. I will also share what I am learning through the process.

Pre-Meeting First Conference:

The first step is to share data with my students. Because I teach all subjects, we discuss everything! Fluency targets, comprehension areas, math standards. I show them their own information alongside each area, and we discuss and celebrate the “wins” and “struggles”. I want them to see areas for growth as just another step on the journey, but I am careful in how this information is shared. Knowing each student well at this point, I feel comfortable in knowing how to share this information and how to have these conversations. I start always with the positives. If we come to an area where they are showing little progress, I have that conversation with them in a meaningful but positive spirit.

The focus is not on “how you compare”, but rather on “what progress you have made”.

They Do/I Do

About three weeks before the parent-conference days, I give each student this Student Led Conference Form and have them complete their section. They do this independently and I am careful to encourage them to think about it before answering. I tell them to be transparent, honest, and thoughtful as they think about and respond to each section. After a few days, I collect these, review them, and then complete my own section of  the form. You will see that I included a behavior section as well as a “learning targets” section (more on that further down).

Goal Setting

We then begin brainstorming goals. Along with their input, we identify specific, measurable goals both short and long term, and complete that section of the form together. I like coming up with short term goals that I am confident they can reach soon. I think this sets them up for success and by doing so, empowers them to continue striving to meet those long-term areas for growth.

Learning Targets

One thing you will notice about my student-led conferencing form is that it contains a section on “Learning Targets/21st Century Skills”. I did this purposely because I am of the belief that I don’t teach content, I teach kids. I think there is a place for “learning skills” in general and I also like that it isn’t content specific. We all have areas that we are great at and areas that we struggle with. Kids are no different. But “learning skills” removes the barriers that they might see in, say, math. If they can identify a learning goal, it can transfer over to the weaker content area and lead to improvement in something they may not have a lot of confidence in. For example, if a student believes “I can’t do math” (many do), but can identify “problem solving” as an area to target, this is a direct correlation minus the self-imposed defeatist attitude they may carry into that content.

Portfolio

Throughout the weeks leading up to the conference, students are in charge of collecting work that showcases their skills, improvements, and celebrations. They also collect work that supports the goals they have identified. This is kept in a folder with the SLC form we have already completed. They are in charge of keeping this data folder until the week of the conference. I have yet to have anyone misplace it. This becomes a very important folder! Within it lies their own thoughts, ideas, dreams….story

Meeting Schedules

Have you ever noticed how many parents will show up for their child’s performance in a play or choir concert, but then fail to respond to these conference requests? I have. It’s apparent that many may have either had their own negative experiences with school, or experienced a difficult and unhappy conference in the past. About two weeks prior, I send out information to parents asking for a conference. I let them know that their students will be leading it, and that they are eager to share their triumphs and their goals. I have found that parents are very eager and responsive when they anticipate that their students will be holding this meeting. It won’t be the teacher handing out information. It won’t be a conference in which the teacher is “talking to” them; instead, it is a gathering, and their students are leading the show. The unease that many parents may feel toward parent teacher conferences seems to evaporate. I had 24 out of 24 families schedule a time! The students are really looking forward to their “appointments” leading up to this time and they talk it up at home!

Parent Input Form

I send the parents their own  Parent Input Form to be completed ahead of time. I ask them to return it to me prior to the meeting. By reviewing this ahead of time, I am more aware of what they are wanting to discuss and can add to our meeting documents and conversations as needed. I also note if they have concerns that they want to discuss privately and make arrangements for that to happen after the student has shared.  I have heard great feedback on this from my parents! They really enjoy the opportunity to submit what they want to discuss and know it will be brought into, and be an integral part of, our conference.

Meeting Week

I collect all folders and then organize them by day of appointment. If I have four conferences scheduled for Monday, I have them organized in order of time slot. It is easy then to pull them out and begin the conference. The prep work has already been done and I am ready to meet with parents and share the conference with my students. No time is wasted in walking around “gathering” my grade book  or grabbing work from student’s desks or binders. We get down to business!

Meeting Day

meetingweekI have students bring me any journals they want to share, with pages they have marked. It might be a reading response journal, a writing binder, a science journal. The excitement is felt this day as students anticipate their meeting! Parents are eager for this time and so are their students, who prior to this normally did not even attend this meeting!

When the conference starts, I thank them for coming, and explain again that their student will be presenting most of this information. The student begins by sharing out their great triumphs, following the form in order. I have coached the students ahead of time; we have practiced their conference and I have shown them how to stop after each section and ask if there are any questions or input from their parent (they have note card reminders in their hands as they go through the conference).  I do this because I am trying to structure it so students don’t go so quickly. Plus, I want them to be able to field questions as I think this helps solidify understanding and adds to the conference by giving parent and child an opportunity to engage in discussions.

I lead the data discussion myself with students taking the listening role. They are fine with this because I’ve already shared it with them. But there is more to the data story itself than what I have typically shared with students and so this area is the one I talk through.  At this time, if there is a need to meet privately with the parent I excuse the student. There are some conversations that a 9 year old really does not need to be present for, and the decision to share that is left to the parent. It’s a consideration I think is important to give.

Sharing Work

During each section, the student pulls out and shares the work that he/she has collected which ties to that strand of the form. They discuss the work using note cards which they have already completed and attached to each sample. This saves time and also gives them “talking points“. I have seen this to be a very good thing because many of them are so nervous at the conference, and might otherwise stumble over words! It also helps them refer back to their goals.

Parent Input

If parents have shared on their input form that they want to discuss reading, or have a specific concern about math for example, I try to have that worked into the section as we go through it. If it doesn’t relate to one of these areas already on the conference form, then at this time we have parent share time. I have already invited them to give input (via the parent portion form) and so this time is specifically reserved for them to share thoughts, questions, and suggestions. They also have this time to reflect and discuss anything that their student or I have shared thus far. Normally, I have heard “well, everything I wanted to know about has been covered”!

I then ask them what I believe is a very important question that often goes unasked, “What goals do you have now for your student“? I have found that most are kind of quiet at that moment because I suspect they’ve never really had that asked. We discuss their goals (many of which the student has accurately identified already).  I note this information on the parent goal section of the conference form and now I have it to plan activities for their student that supports that goal. The student also takes note of this and will then be charged with incorporating this into their own learning. We make that an integral part of their goal setting and daily work. The parents really enjoy having this type of impact!

I include personal goals because it gives me insight into the family and it provides a way for me as a teacher to support home/personal goals within the classroom.

Follow Up

About two weeks after, I have students complete a follow up which you can find here.  They report out on how they are doing with regard to their goals, and the parent’s input during our meeting.  This has opened up a lot of communication for my families; they often tell me that they discussed this at dinner, etc.  I’ve even heard about them being hung on several refrigerator doors! About two or three times is all that is needed for my parents and kids to tell me that they are engaging in ongoing dialogue about learning and progress. This is the most beneficial aspect of these student-led conferences. Family impact.

Time–And Other Questions We Ask

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The most common question I’ve been asked about student-led conferences is, “how long do you spend with each family”? My answer is: I spend as long as is needed.  I normally schedule these conferences in 30 minute blocks of time. If some are going to need to be longer, they are longer. I try to be aware of that and schedule accordingly. In the rush to get through multiple conferences, teachers sometimes decide to schedule back to back conferences in 15 minute segments, rushing through one to get to the next. I don’t agree with this. I think this time is far too valuable, and the lasting impact potential too great, to approach it that way. I use the two “late night” days we are given for this, but I also use about two weeks of other time. I want this to be meaningful, and for me, that doesn’t happen in that quick of a way. I don’t think of this as just checking off something on a list. I want it to matter. And things that matter, take time.

Followed by time, I’m asked about how I convey concerns with the student present. I don’t know why we shy away from this. I think it’s important that students are aware of areas where there is a concern. However, if it is something that can’t be framed in a growth-mindset way, if it is something that is of a delicate nature, this is taken care of in a separate, private conference. I think it’s important for all students to have the opportunity to shine and learn to lead a conference, so they engage in these regardless. Separate, additional conferences are scheduled as needed.

Bottom Line: We are in the kid and family business. The meeting itself is just a starting point, but it is a vital part of the process in developing habits, building relationships, and giving students a pathway to become actively engaged in their own education and learning.

The Little (Big) Extras

In starting student-led conferences, I have seen a great increase in parent engagement. Communication is at an all-time high, but more importantly, we have truly developed a bond and established a relationship upon which I can build throughout the year. We are partners. Students are engaged and aware of their own important areas:

…as students, as family members, and as people.

Feel free to use my forms, system, or any other tidbits of help that I might have provided in this blog post. I have had great success with this system. I hope to hear from you! Have you employed student-led conferences? How did that go? What suggestions might you have? I welcome and value your input!

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3 thoughts on “Empowering Families Through Student-Led Conferences”

  1. Our school does student-led conferences, but we haven’t yet been quite so organized or thorough. You have some ideas and practices I will definitely revisit and recommend we look into this fall.

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