Student Led Conferences

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Notes from Vicki

Student Led Conferences

I hope you enjoyed your student-led conference. I saw many kids grinning ear to ear. Even many of the upper grade students going through the super-cool-don’t-show-your-emotions stage couldn’t wipe the smile from their face. And why should they? After all, they’ve just had the undivided attention of their parents and teachers -- some of the most important adults in their lives -- who celebrated their strengths and supported their efforts to work on their weaknesses and challenges. The dynamic of unconditional love is downright intoxicating. Even those who felt a bit more somber with the weight of needing to make some immediate improvements knew they were surrounded with support to do their best. I witnessed incredible courage on the part of students and parents in “going there,” even on hard issues.
I know you’ve heard me say this a million times, but teaching is about relationship building. Once healthy bonds are made between the teacher, the student, and their parents, there is no limit to the learning that can take place. Student-led conferences are an opportunity for the child to be an active participant in the reporting of his/her progress. Let’s face it – the adults can talk until they are blue in the face, and set the most meaningful and relevant goals in the world for the child, but they will never be realized until the kid is actually involved. Our goal is for the children to be intrinsic learners; we’ll never get there unless they are empowered to be part of the process.
Effective student-led conferences can only happen when there is quality instruction including meaningful instructional assessments, daily feedback, and ongoing opportunities for students to honestly self-reflect. They take a great deal of front-end loading on the part of the teachers, and then the children actually practice communicating the most important things you as parents need to know. As the students get older you will notice they are more and more involved in the selection of which pieces of work to show you, and their goal setting becomes deeper and richer.

What if my child’s self-assessments are inaccurate?
Our experience shows us that if students are given ongoing opportunities to be part of the evaluation process, and are expected to be honest and show integrity, that their self-assessments are amazingly “right on.” Their own perspective brings a richness and an authenticity that we would never be able to fully know without their involvement. In fact, we find that more times than not, students are actually harder on themselves than we would be as evaluators – that’s how seriously they take this process! In the occasional case where a child overrates him/herself, the teacher finds time to privately compare the differing perspectives. If a child has perfectionistic characteristics and is being unreasonably hard on him/herself, the teacher works with the child on this issue.
What if we didn’t get through all of the work samples chosen to be shared at the conference? Students share only a sampling of work for the conferences. Many of them were involved in the selection of such work samples that illustrated their strengths as well as areas they need to improve. Please find time at home to have your child finish showing you their work.
I’d still like to talk to the teacher privately but there wasn’t time. Our teachers schedule in time for the teacher and parent to chat privately following the student-led conference. If you did not get this time or still have questions you’d like to discuss, please feel free to contact the teacher to set up another conference.

So if student-led conferences are so valuable, why don’t more schools do them? There are many reasons why some teachers and schools hesitate to conduct student-led conferences. They take a great deal of extra time to prepare for, and with the increasing number of students in a classroom, it is difficult to have a meaningful loop of feedback, assessment, self-evaluation and individual student goal-setting. It would also be fair to say that some educators may not be familiar with or convinced of the value of student-led conferences. And just because you have student-led conferences does not mean the students attain the depth we are looking for – it could simply involve the students explaining/sharing a few pieces of pre-selected work samples and that’s it.

I remember sitting in the long empty hallway of my elementary school while my mother attended the parent-teacher conference. I truly had no idea what the teacher was saying to my mother. Later that day I’d be shown my report card with letter grades that seemed fairly random. I was always surprised by my grades. I was never invited to participate in the process of figuring out where I needed to improve in school. It was much later in my life when I actually learned what I needed to do my best work and how to advocate for myself; our goal is for our students to be able to have this self-understanding as early as possible, as it will open doors for them for the rest of their schooling, and the rest of their lives.