When it comes to the concept of student-led conferences, I never had a full first-hand experience with one until we moved to our current school district. As a high-school teacher, we never have set parent-teacher conferences like younger grades do. I would, however, have parent-teacher conferences when it was necessary to meet with a parent about a situation with his or her child.
During these parent-teacher conference experiences, I always made a point to speak directly to the student in the room. Whether the student openly or begrudgingly participated, I would make sure we had a dialogue about what was being discussed, their own concerns about whatever situation the meeting was regarding, and their thoughts about the systems and functions of my class.
I also always found it weird that this was apparently an anomaly compared to what other teachers did during these conferences. The students were often surprised that I engaged them in meaningful dialogue as opposed to just having them answer for themselves.
Since I fully believe in a student-centered approach to things, it did not seem odd to me to have them take responsibility for the events in question.
However when it came to my own children in their elementary classrooms, the system was always to make sure that they were at home with a babysitter, or in some situations, there were seats set up in the hallway outside their classroom when the conference was to take place.
I understand that this is meant so the parents and teachers could have an open and honest dialogue without interruptions. However, this is a huge disservice to the child and why student-led conferences are so important to try.
At a very young age, this teaches them that they are not the ones who have control over their actions in the classroom. There are adults in their lives who will have the conversations to help guide them forward.
Although this concept is not a negative one per se, it also takes away the ownership of the actions, achievements, and challenges of the student, no matter how old they are.
We moved this past summer and I just had my first experience with student-led conferences.
Oh my goodness, what a difference with student-led conferences!
The Benefits of a Student-Led Conference
Though they are a bit outside of the norm of what most of us think of when we consider parent-teacher conferences, the benefits of student-led conferences are well worth exploring. It can be a little strange for parents and students to get used to at first, but in the end, it’s really about empowering your kids and giving voice to how much they appreciate their teachers – which is never not going to be a good thing!
When you’re looking at the effect on the student leading a student-led conference, for example, it’s important to remember that your student is learning so much more than just content. They’re also learning the finer points of collaboration and working with others, public speaking, and how to prepare for a presentation. By taking on this role, they learn:
• To be an effective team member through active listening and self-awareness of their own opinions and how they can work to balance them with others’ viewpoints.
• To be an effective presenter through observation of the audience and environment, planned organization of their thoughts into well-defined points, outreach to others for support or collaboration, and appropriate use of tools like visuals (pictures/charts) or stimulus (questions).
• That ideas are not set in stone; it is okay for their idea to evolve and grow when they hear what others have to say.
• How to take a leadership role, which can further help them develop compassion for others’ opinions and ideas because they understand the effort that goes into creating an argument.
The benefits of student-led conferences don’t stop there, though. For parents, the benefits include:
• More time to speak one-on-one with your child’s teacher about how they’re really doing without worrying about other students being involved in the discussion. Also, it often inspires teachers to bring up points that otherwise might not have come up or at least to be able to give you more information on what’s happening in the classroom, which you can then use to motivate your student.
• Knowing that your child takes their education seriously enough to want to take an active role in discussions about it with their teacher. And didn’t you always say you wanted them to take responsibility for their own learning? This is exactly the kind of thing that will help you make the point to them that their education is important.
• Seeing how your student handles presenting to an audience (especially you, their parent). If they’re nervous, it’s a really good opportunity for you to talk about how everyone gets nervous, even adults in big jobs like doctors and lawyers; if they run out of steam, it’s a great opportunity for you to encourage them and help them persevere.
• Knowing that your child is able to advocate for themselves effectively in one-on-one situations and what better way than one they’ve prepared for? There are so many ways parents can scaffold this kind of activity so that it really helps their kids improve their skills while feeling successful.
• By having to prepare for an upcoming presentation, your student is able to practice self-advocacy in a low-risk environment because it’s not really about whether you’re right or wrong, just that the topic is presented well. You can also ask them questions about what they plan to include – then have them practice the presentation on you to give them feedback before they’re called up.
• It builds confidence! The ability to effectively present ideas is a very valuable skill for anyone, but especially for kids who are still learning how to advocate for their needs or express their opinions. For example, if your child struggles with writing essays because it’s often hard to explain complex ideas, an opportunity to present them in a different form to someone else may help inspire them to write more; if they struggle with public speaking (throat clearing, etc.), an opportunity like this can be very helpful for building confidence that helps carry into other situations.
The goal here should always be about empowering students and helping them become their own best advocates, and we can do that at any age.
Running a Student-Led Conference
We started with my son who is in kindergarten. They had practice at school before the student-led conferences took place, so they already had an idea of what they were supposed to do.
Parents received a checklist as we walked through the door in case there was something that our child forgot or they needed a reminder of what they were supposed to be doing. The students went and found the desk that had their name on it and systematically went through all of the documents in their folders with us. They showed some of their work, their progress both through test scores and also a checklist that they filled out themselves based on how they felt they were doing in class.
When all of the paper documentation was reviewed, they had the chance to take us to different parts of the room where different activities were set up. We got to see how they practice sight words, worked on math, iPads were set up to look at Class Dojo and SeeSaw, and then they were able to get out Chromebooks and show us the different programs that they use on there.
My son was so overly excited to show us every little thing that he does during the school day when he is away from home. Not once did a teacher have to intervene to explain something or direct him towards what he needed to be doing.
My son is not an anomaly; every other student in the classroom at that time was doing the exact same things. They barely even acknowledged each other and they were taking their job of showing their families everything very seriously.
There was an option to sign up for a one-on-one conference with the teacher, but only if you had further questions or concerns that were not answered at that time.
When I got to my third grader’s classroom, it was much of the same. He was able to show us all of the different programs that they take part in throughout the school day for their different subject areas. There was some classwork waiting to show us as well, and even though he wasn’t as openly excited as our kindergartener was, he was able to answer all of our questions and show us exactly what he liked about his class.
His teacher was able to come over and fill in any of the missing pieces and talk a little bit about his progress once she noticed that his jobs for student-led conference night were complete.
After experiencing both types of parent-teacher conferences, from a purely parental standpoint, the student-led conferences were so much more engaging and it was great to see how excited my kids were about what it was they were doing in school.
Sure, when they get home they tell me about what happened that day (sort of), but this was hands-on and I could see exactly what they were talking about and they could show me examples of anything that I asked to see.
They also were so proud of themselves to be able to show us how their class was day-to-day.
I know teachers who run student-led conferences do them in different ways. These are just the two personal experiences that I have looked at thus far.
Adapting to Your School Expectations
I know in some places it’s mandatory to have one-on-one parent-teacher conference time, but there is nothing against establishing something for your class so you encourage the students to come to the conference. You can create any number of graphic organizers or data spreadsheets to help the students engage in and prepare to be able to discuss what is going on with their parents.
Especially as they get older, that one-on-one time would surely be beneficial and still puts the ownership of the education on the student.
Even if your school or age group does not do parent-teacher conferences, it’s probably not a bad thing or a bad idea to still set up some time where the students can check in with their progress in the class and determine what their strengths and weaknesses are.
They can set goals to move forward throughout the remainder of the school year, and there are certainly ways to incorporate parents into this process as well. It could be as easy as sending the paperwork home and having a parent sign it, or it can be more complex as setting up some type of a Flipgrid or another way to show interaction with that parent.
As teachers we know sometimes it’s difficult to be able to connect with our parents given so many of them have multiple jobs, may live in a different location from their child, etc. Doing this is a way to connect with them in a time that works for them and shows that their child is responsible and has a vested interest in their own education.
Again, we are preparing our students for their future no matter what age they are.
Whether they are in kindergarten or about to graduate as a senior, there is nothing wrong with having them take ownership and have open lines of communication between school and home regarding what is going on when they are not in one place or another.
This concept of student-led conferences is going to change the face of education and I couldn’t possibly promote them more after what I have experienced with them.
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