October 2017 Volume II Issue X
Marcia Baldanza, the author of Professional Practices and a Just ASK Senior Consultant, lives in Arlington, Virginia. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.
Making PSEL Come Alive!
As schools across the nation turn their eyes and calendars toward parent-teacher conferences, I wanted to take another look at this time-honored tradition by offering a few wonderings:
- I wonder why, if we’re talking about student progress and goals at the parent-teacher conference, the student is typically absent from the conference?
- I wonder if Hattie’s revised list of the most effective influences on student achievement identifies student self-reporting as the most significant indicator linked to raised student achievement, why we still hold a 15-minute meeting where the teacher tells parents how their children are doing behaviorally, socially, and academically?
- I wonder if reporting at conferences is about sharing information on student progress and achievement, how we can involve parents in real and meaningful ways?
- I wonder who is better at describing their learning successes and struggles, hopes and dreams, goals and aspirations than the most affected person in the equation – the student?
I use this issue of Professional Practices for the 21st Century Leader, which focuses on Standard 8: Meaningful Engagement of Families and Community, to convince you to consider moving your school, teachers, students, and parents to student-led conferences. I reviewed research on why and how to integrate this practice with our youngest of learners to our high school seniors. I share my learning and resources with you here, starting with a Yesterday & Today of Parent-Teacher Conferences. I hope you’ll be convinced!
Student-Led Conferences: A Powerful Engagement Tool
Cherie Taylor-Patel put forth a usable definition of student-led conferences in her 2011 doctoral thesis Student-Led Conferences: How effective are they as an alternative reporting method? She notes simply, “A student-led conference is defined as a conference lasting between 30-60 minutes run by students, for their parents to learn about their learning. During the conference, students present work in different curriculum areas. Students discuss the process of learning and the progress they’ve made, with reference to their goals and the criteria against which their work has been evaluated.”
Parent-teacher conferences have long provided parents with updates on their child’s progress and opportunities to see their work. They also opened communication between school and home. However, students were, and are today largely passive or even absent during traditional parent-teacher conferences. One way to fix this is to put students in the lead, as they are the ones who are responsible for their work and progress and can best affect outcomes.
Many of my secondary principal colleagues seek ways to continue to engage parents in their child’s education, especially after middle school. I believe that parents, students, and teachers would place more emphasis on conferences, if they were indeed led by their son or daughter. In this era of immediate access to grades via online platforms, parents know where their child stands gradewise. What they might not know, however, are the academic goals set by their child or their unique reflection on their work and progress. What parents almost certainly do not know are any anecdotal remarks and feedback made by teachers and how their child responded.
In the student-led conference format, students and teachers prepare together, and then students lead the conference while teachers facilitate. They sit together with the parent to review and discuss the work and progress. The message is that the students are responsible for their own success. Student-led conference models vary, but the premise is the same: This is the student’s moment to share his or her reflections on achievements and challenges with his or her parents and seek assistance to meet their goals.
Adjusting to the new conference style can take time, but parents become more reflective about their children’s progress and understand how to help at home. The students also gain a better understanding of their strengths and challenges and the correlation between their effort, progress, and resulting quality of work. For the student-led conference to be most successful, roles and expectations must be defined and communicated ahead of time.
I summarize below Martinez and McGrath’s recommendations for new roles and responsibilities in parent-teacher conferences as presented in Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty- First Century.
From the beginning of the school year, students compile their portfolios consistently and thoughtfully. A portfolio for a student-led conference typically includes an agenda for the conference, a compilation of the student’s work in the class, and usually goal sheets outlining academic and behavioral standards for them moving forward, as well as information on how parents can help at home.
When assembling the portfolio, students maintain them throughout the year. Usually, students use self-evaluation checklists or learning surveys to determine their areas of strength and weakness and set learning goals. Check out the resources from The Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning (WHEEL) School in New York City. Students must resist the urge to show parents their very best work and provide them with a clear picture of their school year and progress including their best work and their “not-so-best” work. Most importantly, students clearly communicate their progress and learning processes with their parents.
As the conference date draws near, students rehearse while teachers model the process and give students time to practice in class prior to the conference. Students can rely on notebooks or notecards with their written reflections or talking points to help ease their nerves and remain on track during the conferences.
Additionally, students advocate for themselves during the conference. If they feel that their parents could do more to help them, such as keeping younger siblings out of their rooms or study space during homework time, they can communicate this during the conference. Because student-led conferences are reflective by nature, students must be honest with themselves and their parents when reflecting on their grades, effort, and study habits. They also should set appropriate goals for the next grading period or semester.
Parents accustomed to the traditional conferences will likely want to ask teachers about classroom behaviors and performance. Parents may find the most difficulty listening to their student instead of asking teachers for clarification or explanations. During student-led conferences, parents focus the conversation on their children and reflect on their work with them. They look at samples and listen to their children’s explanations and reflections. Then, they ask how they can help and what the students need from them.
Some of the best questions that parents can ask center on homework environments and classroom efforts. This way they can participate in developing strategies to support their child and then remain consistent long after the conferences end.
During student-led conferences, teachers take on the role of facilitator, rather than that of leader. Individual teachers or whole schools may determine the conference format; for example, one teacher might meet with students and parents, or a few sets of families might meet in one space with circulating teachers. Regardless of the format, teachers play a more direct role in conference preparation with the students than during actual conference time. For some useful tips, tools, and templates see the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) PowerPoint presentation link on the next page.
When preparing students for conferences, teachers outline student portfolio requirements. Often, teachers ask students to choose pieces illustrating areas for improvement, strengths, and personal choice such as work samples that make them especially proud. Teachers also prepare students for presenting their work. Ultimately, the goal is to help students communicate their learning and processes to their parents through work samples.
Teachers also act as student advocates throughout the student-led conference. Parents may see lower than expected grades or hear surprising admissions from their child, so teachers need to guide discussions in a supportive manner that eliminates blame and promotes deeper connection.
Some schools that implement student-led conferences, also offer parents an additional time to meet for any questions or concerns that they would like discuss in the absence of their child. I believe this could undermine the power of the “student” in the student-led conference and would avoid this, unless there is something of an urgent or a very private nature.
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Please include the following citation on all copies:
Baldanza, Marcia. “Student-Led Conferences.” Professional Practices. October 2017. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2017 All rights reserved.