Data, expectations, report cards, goal-setting, learning objectives, and parent-teacher conferences. These are just some of the responsibilities of teachers. (And trust me—there’s much more where that came from.) While not the most appealing parts of the teaching profession, they are also necessary to show the growth of students.
But what if some of these responsibilities were taken off the teacher’s back and given to students? As classrooms shift from teacher-driven instruction to more student-centered learning, teachers have witnessed how powerful it is when students take control of their own learning.
To share their learning with others, students are setting goals, tracking their learning, compiling binders, and leading others through presentations in the form of student-led conferences. While this is a shift from parent-teacher conferences, where teachers are providing the information to families, more and more schools are seeing the positive outcomes when they put the student in control. Jered Pennington, principal at Amy Beverland Elementary in Indianapolis, IN, mirrors this view:
“In order to maximize students’ learning potential and success, key stakeholders must be fully invested in the process. With that said, why leave the most integral stakeholder, the student, out of the conversation?”
As Pennington goes onto say, “Student-led conferences provide a platform for students to serve as equal partners in the educational conversation,” and offer them an opportunity to “have a sound understanding of perceived strengths, challenges, qualitative/quantitative data, and desired learning goals.”
Why not help students to be the masters of their own data?
How to Prepare for a Student-Led Conference
First off, students start to compile a data binder at the beginning of the year. The binder is filled with assessments and work completed by the students, as well as student reflections.
Teachers might start out by having all students put in the same type of data, but over time, students will take more ownership of their binder after they begin to understand the process and the impact it can have on their learning. Once again, this is a reflection of the students as a learner, rather than the student as a data point. In my classroom, when having students set goals, I have them complete their own “Plan of Action” that states their goal, and then lays out how they want to achieve their goals. Over time, they independently decide on a specific plan-of-attack.
One of the most important parts of preparation is having students practice vocalizing their learning and explaining it to others. Sometimes, a sample script or bullet points help students first attempting student-led conferences. I have my students practice with different students in the class discussing their binders and then answering questions from their peers. This gives them confidence, knowing they are prepared for when family members and other adults are present.
What It Looks Like Day-Of
My school made the shift from Parent-Teacher Conferences to Student-Led Conferences a few years ago, and we still follow the 15-20 minute format that most teachers are already accustomed to in their schools.
This year, instead of the teacher driving the conversation, students were showing off their data binder. First off, students highlight some of their work that they are most proud of and explain the learning process. Then, they are reviewing data to show their growth thus far. And then, there are the goals—in fact, one of the most powerful moments is when students share their goals with family members. When a student is telling an adult how they want to be a better student, it is much more powerful than hearing it from their teaching.
What about the teacher?
Teachers are still present during the conferences, but only there for support. This is a shift from teachers having the typical “How do you think your child is doing?” and “Here are their strength…” and “Here’s what they can work on….” discussions. Teachers are there for one central purpose: to answer any misunderstandings, and further explain how they would support students in achieving their goals.
Don’t Stop At That One Fall Conference
As I reflect and plan for future years, I plan to have another conference towards the end of the school year to have students showcase why they are ready for the next grade level. Over time, it is very easy for teachers to simply stop setting goals with students, and following up on them after the student-led conferences. I’ll admit that when I first started it with these types of conferences, I sat down with the students and had great conversations—yet this slowly stopped, once the student-led conference took place. Hence, one fall conference isn’t enough.
For those that are trying to take things digital, there are more and more tools that support digital student portfolios online. My first grade students, for example, use a tool called Seesaw (@seesaw); Seesaw allows for my students to take photos and videos of student work, record voiceovers, write on photos to deepen their explanations, and import work from other apps. It also allows for great communication with parents because they can be alerted anytime students upload posts.
Seesaw is just one tool that teachers can explore. Other options includePadlet (which is a favorite of some of the intermediate classrooms at my school), apps such as Three Ring and Evernote, and other student website options like Weebly or Wix or blogging sites, such as Kidblog. While it might be beneficial when starting a digital portfolio to have students use the same tool, upper grades might like the option to select their own tools.
Onto you, educators. And if you’re still a bit reticent about taking that leap away from teacher-controlled conferences, I leave you with one final thought from Jered Pennington: “Traditional parent-teacher conferences may (or may not) lead to educational compliance, but student-led conferences lead to educational cooperation.”
Mitch Mosbey (@mitchmosbey) is a first grade teacher in Noblesville, Indiana at Promise Road Elementary.
This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Indiana). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
PITTSFIELD, N.H. — Pushing up the cuffs of his plaid shirt and adjusting his glasses, ninth-grader Colton Gaudette looks across the small classroom conference table at the day’s special guest.
“Welcome to my student-led conference,” he says.
“Thank you for inviting me,” answers his mother, Terry Gaudette.
This family meeting has replaced the old format of parent-teacher conferences at Pittsfield Middle High School, a rural New Hampshire campus that takes a “student-centered learning” approach to the business of schooling.
With this model, students are given more freedom in choosing how, what and when they learn, and teachers are considered collaborators and coaches. Advocates contend this provides superior preparation for college and career by helping students connect their individual interests to their academic learning and future goals. Students are also expected to shoulder more responsibility for their school lives, and at Pittsfield that includes taking charge of the twice-yearly status meetings attended by their families and campus advisers.
“Kids have to be honest with themselves and I think that’s fantastic,” said Paul Strickhart, who teaches math at the rural New Hampshire campus and is Colton’s faculty adviser this year. “They have to own up to why they’re not passing a class, or, if they’re doing well, they have to be able to identify what’s contributing to that and how they can keep going.”
The student-led conferences may also be a way to teach skills you can’t learn from a textbook: organization, long-term planning, confidence with public speaking, collaboration and self-reflection — even how to shake hands and make introductions in a more formal setting. That aligns with a larger goal for Pittsfield’s students — to move beyond rote knowledge to develop the kind of critical-thinking skills needed for “real world” success, said John Freeman, the district’s superintendent.
In addition to giving students an opportunity to shine, the conference format has helped kick-start family engagement, school officials say. That’s a crucial element in Pittsfield’s efforts to revitalize the only high school serving the former mill town’s 4,500 residents. (The combination middle-high school has an enrollment of about 260 students.)
Indeed, from New York to Washington State, student-led conferences have been praised for reinvigorating an otherwise perfunctory process. That’s certainly been the case in Pittsfield, according to school officials and families. Prior to the adopting the new format a few years ago, turnout for the traditional parent-teacher conferences was dismal, with a participation rate of less than 20 percent. Now, more than 90 percent of parents regularly show up, according to the school’s data.
Students are responsible for writing a letter inviting their parents or guardians to attend, coordinating with their faculty adviser to schedule the conference and preparing a portfolio of their academic work. The conferences typically last about 30 minutes, which includes time for parents to ask questions and for the faculty adviser to give feedback on the presentation. Students are expected to discuss their academic, social and emotional progress and to outline their short-term and long-term goals. Each student’s faculty adviser attends, and students are encouraged to invite another member of the school staff to participate, as well. (Colton invited his biology teacher, Daniel Courtney, to sit in on the conference with Terry Gaudette and Strickhart.)
At the classroom table, Colton lays out samples of his schoolwork —showing some of his strongest work and several assignments with which he had less success. In English class, Colton says he had an easier time crafting his literary analysis of “Lord of the Flies” than the subsequent assignment for “The House on Mango Street.” He’s working hard to keep his grade up in geometry, and intends to earn at least a 3.5 (out of possible 4) for both semesters. His geopolitical studies class is going well, as is computer-assisted drafting — his blueprints for a set of shelves turned out better than his first effort, at designing a stone bench.
In addition to discussing his academic work, Colton shares the results of several questionnaires used by the school to help him learn more about his personality and learning style. The results: “I’m empathetic, artistic and kind of shy,” Colton says. His strengths include music, writing and hands-on learning.
The personality assessments bolster the plans he has for the future: He wants to study creative writing in college and potentially launch his own comic book company. So Courtney encourages Colton to look for more opportunities to connect his artistic interests with his academic learning — he could have gone further with an in-class assignment asking him to describe the life cycle of a cell, for example.
“I felt down when I got that [assignment] back and you wrote that we could be more creative,” Colton says. “I want to try that.”
At the conclusion of the conference, Colton thanks the adults for participating, and says he is feeling good about where things stand for him.
“That was very well done, very thorough,” Strickhart tells him.
His mother is also impressed.
“You’ve been so nervous about this — I think you did an excellent job presenting,” she says. “And you know how to better prepare yourself for some of this academic work.”
At Pittsfield, students are expected to begin preparing for the conferences about a month ahead of time. They use a checklist to mark off each of the requirements — including confirming the meeting times with all of the adults, reviewing their portfolios and preparing answers to the self-reflection questions. Lauren Martin, a Pittsfield senior, said even though it means more work for her, she prefers the revised format to the traditional conference, which didn’t usually include the students. Instead, she would have to wait at home for a replay — and then only get her parents’ perspective on the discussion.
Now, as each semester progresses, Lauren said she’s keeping an eye out for projects and papers she wants to add to her portfolio, which serves as the backbone of her conference presentation.
“It gives me more control of what I share,” Lauren said. “I know more about my academics than the one teacher who’s my adviser, so it’s up to me to decide what I’m going to include from each class.”
While not a new idea, the student-led conference is an approach that’s “gaining speed and traction,” said Monica Martinez, an education strategist and senior scholar for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (The Hewlett Foundation is among The Hechinger Report’s many funders.)
“How many of us appreciated as a student being talked about in the third person as if we were invisible?” Martinez asked. “When it’s just the teachers and parents participating in the conference it can end up as ‘we’re going to dictate what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.’ That’s taking away the power.”
That being said, a student-led conference by itself won’t mean much, Martinez added.
“The school must be really transferring ownership to the students and making it clear that kids have plenty of opportunities to reflect on their work,” Martinez said. “A student-led conference just puts an exclamation point on that.”
Pittsfield English teacher Jenny Wellington agrees. The schoolwide shift to student-centered learning is one of the reasons the conferences work, according to Wellington. In class, students get a say in choosing their academic projects, which not only makes them more excited about working on their assignments but also about presenting them at the conferences once they’re completed, she said.
She added that the conferences don’t preclude parents from getting in touch with teachers at other times to ask questions or to request meetings.
Pittsfield’s teachers said the conferences are also an opportunity to observe students’ interactions with their families, and those moments can be an important window into understanding their attitudes and classroom behavior.
Conferences don’t always go smoothly. Wellington said she’s observed meetings in which a student’s stated post-high school career plans vastly differed from what their families had in mind. For example, one student was hoping to attend an out-of-state college, while her parent expected her to stay local or perhaps prepare to work in the family business.
“That can be heartbreaking,” Wellington said. “You see the parent maybe trying to push the kid in a direction that the kid doesn’t want to go in, and as their teacher you didn’t know that dynamic was happening at all.”
In such instances, Wellington tries to encourage the families to use the conference as an opportunity to talk through their differences. Ideally, the result will be a plan of action that incorporates the student’s goals while fostering parental support.
To be sure, those kinds of negotiations work best when teachers know their students well. And Pittsfield’s small size certainly helps in that regard. But Wellington, who taught middle school for six years in New York City, said she could also see it working in a larger school setting provided there is a reasonable student-teacher ratio.
Pittsfield tries to accommodate parents’ requests to schedule the student-led conferences early in the morning before class or in the evenings after they finish work, Wellington said. That’s a better use of her time, she said, than the standard procedure at her old school in the Bronx, where classes would be canceled for a day and parents had to show up during that time — or not.
“Usually the parents who did make it to the conferences weren’t the ones you needed to see. It would be a quick conversation with me saying, ‘Your kid is doing great, keep it up,’ and that was it,” Wellington said. “Now the parents are hearing directly from the students — it’s a completely different kind of conversation, and it’s so much better.”
Combatting Conference ‘Fatigue’
While the successes and benefits of the student-led conferences are widely acknowledged, there is also agreement among Pittsfield’s faculty and administrators that there is room for improvement.
Parents of older students have been through the process enough times that it’s becoming familiar and even rote, said Derek Hamilton, Pittsfield’s dean of operations. More families seem to be having regular conversations at home with their kids about their day-to-day academic progress — a very positive development, he added — but that means there isn’t as much new information to share in the twice-yearly conferences.
To combat that fatigue factor, Pittsfield is looking for ways to make the conferences more explicitly about the student’s post-graduation plans and goals and to “raise the stakes” for their presentations as they advance by grade, Hamilton said. That could mean asking juniors and seniors to present in front of a larger audience, including community members from outside the school, rather than just sitting at a table with parents and teachers, he suggested.
In the meantime, it’s clear that the basic logistics of the existing conferences are teaching the students important lessons, contends Hamilton.
“You’d be surprised how many kids struggle to fill out an envelope to invite their guests to a student-led conference,” Hamilton said. “The question from kids about ‘how do you address a formal letter’ turned into a conversation about what a professional email message might look like compared to one you might send to a friend. People laugh sometimes about the cliché of ‘21st-century skills’ but these are things every one of these kids is going to need to know how to do in their adult lives.”
Paulette and Matt Wolfe, the parents of two Pittsfield students, weren’t likely to skip the school conferences before the switch to the new format. But they both said they prefer the student-led version and the overall direction the school has taken to teaching and learning in recent years.
Freshman Colby Wolfe has taken advanced math classes since the seventh grade, and said he hopes to follow his mother — an investment banker — into a career in finance. During his most recent student-led conference, his adviser, Jessica Bickford, told the family that the reports she’s gathered from his other teachers are highly positive. Because Pittsfield allows students to take advanced classes once they’ve mastered their required grade-level content, Colby will have accumulated enough credits by the end of freshman year to be ranked as a mid-year sophomore.
Part of the reason Colby’s doing so well academically, he said, is that he gets to choose projects that most interest him and relate to his post-high school goals. One example: In a “learning studio” project —in which students teamed up to do a deeper investigation of a particular issue — he looked at the financial aspects of professional sports, an assignment that required him to incorporate academic work from several different classes.
“I get to shape my own life starting here at this school,” Colby said. “I have to say I think that’s pretty cool.”
His sister, Alison — a member of Pittsfield’s class of ’16 — was able to graduate early with a year’s worth of college credits, thanks to the school’s dual-credit program. Colby said he’s glad to know he could have a similar option a few years down the road. But for now he expects to want to stay for the full four years so he can also play soccer, continue to take advanced math classes and be involved in student government — all goals that showed up in the blueprint he presented to his parents and Bickford.
“Both our kids are different, and student-centered learning has benefitted them in different ways,” Paulette Wolfe said. “It’s flexible, not rigid, and I think that’s a smarter approach.”
While it was largely an upbeat conversation punctuated by moments of genuine humor — Matt Wolfe joked to his son that “this is the most I’ve ever heard you talk at one time” — Colby didn’t gloss over the facts. He said he’s finding some aspects of his English class challenging (his grade is the equivalent of a solid B while he’s getting an A grade in math), including a recent assignment that required him to connect a fiction reading to real-life experiences. He was also disappointed not to have stronger marks in Spanish. His overall grade should be higher based on his perception of how well he’s mastering the language, he said.
“That might sound like I’m just complaining, but I’m not,” Colby said, his wry tone drawing some light laughter from the assembled adults.
When Bickford mentioned that Colby could speak to the Spanish teacher about his concerns, the high school freshman respectfully rejected the suggestion — at least for now.
“I think I can bring my grade up by doing better on the assignments,” Colby said, looking around the table at his parents and adviser. “I want to try that first.”
Middle school parent-teacher conferences are tomorrow and I can’t bring myself to think about going.
It’s not the two hours I’ll wait sitting on hard chairs in the hallway, anticipating my allotted five minutes of playing musical chairs with each teacher.
It’s that I haven’t heard a teacher say one nice thing about my child in about a year.
When I was in middle school, my father was one of my teachers. One day in his seventh-grade social studies class, a friend sitting behind me somehow let the pencil in his hand fly across the room. To my friend’s utter horror, it hit my father, square in the middle of his overly large forehead.
The class fell silent.
The kid picked up his jaw from the ground, and then began rapid-firing: “Oh, Mr. Waite, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry!”
My dad’s stormy brow of intensity — what I referred to as his “serious lines” — smoothed, the corners of his mouth turned up, and he broke out laughing.
A big reason he became a teacher was that he liked kids, and he could delight in the absurdity of a roomful of seventh graders. I know he also had days of complete exasperation, usually with parents. I often overheard the phone calls: parents who thought their child could do nothing wrong, parents who didn’t support him, parents who were constantly attacking him and the way he taught or his expectations.
But even when he was frustrated with a student, he was upbeat, positive and full of support as he talked to the parent.
I’m beginning to wonder if my father is some strange middle school teacher anomaly — an empath with evolved communication skills — because this is not the way my child’s teachers interact with me.
My son struggles with organization and self-motivation. Because of this, even though he is in advanced classes, he’s not a top performer. But he’s certainly not failing or in trouble. He’s right in the middle, which is, I’m learning, where a lot of kids get lost.
Classes my child should be skating through, he has just barely passed. Not because he doesn’t know or understand the material, but because he is losing work or forgetting about work.
Scouring the Internet for organizational strategies that might help him, I found an article with a really familiar script. The writer’s experience with her child was so relatable, it felt as if it had been written after sitting and listening to the back-and-forth in our home over the course of a week.
And it was the first time I didn’t feel alone in watching my child flounder with managing his workload.
The article said that the demands of middle school basically outstrip many students’ cognitive abilities. Middle schoolers “freeze up” at all of the possibilities, and at all of the differing expectations of their myriad teachers.
What a relief to find that my child is on the spectrum of normal.
In all of the interactions I’ve had with my child’s teachers this school year, the commentary has been anything but reassuring about the normalcy of struggling with self-management and organization. The responses to my requests for feedback, basically on loop, go something like this:
“J had 14 opportunities to meet this goal. I reminded him on this day, that day and another day. I even made my classroom available during lunch period for three months — which he never took advantage of. He approached me four times for one assignment and he never kept track of it. I just ended up giving him half credit in the end. Hope this helps.”
Well, I suppose if you mean, “hope you feel like a complete and total failure,” then yeah, it helps a ton.
For parents, these brief interactions with teachers are about things that keep us up at night. They are about the people we love more than pretty much anything in the world.
I think back to three years ago and how terrified I was of middle school for my son. Would this huge school with 800 kids swallow him whole? Would he be picked on? Would he survive?
In his middle school career, my child has grown taller than me, gained more friends than I can name and learned to love running and drumming and student leadership. In that time, he has had perhaps 20 teachers.
Exactly two of them have ever said something notably positive about this amazing kid to me.
I wish that teachers would consider that as much as parents want to know about areas that our children are struggling in, we’re also wondering what teachers like about them.
Do they notice that my son gets along with almost everyone, that he loves to be included and joins all the clubs, that his friends mean a lot to him, that he loves to read and has a huge vocabulary, that he laughs boisterously, that even when things are hard he trudges through mostly with a smile, that he’s determined, he’s smart, he’s energetic, he’s optimistic?
I wish teachers would use the conferences, emails and phone calls with parents as opportunities to mention each child’s strengths as well as the areas that need improvement.
Not merely to make the parents feel better, but because the students deserve to be seen for who they are and not only for their ability to perform.
Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer and blogger who writes primarily about gender, parenting and justice-related issues. Her work can be found at The Establishment, xoJane, Mutha Magazine and on her blog, Birth Anarchy.
I will change roles next year. I will now be responsible for the school’s Middle School (grades seven and eight). The other day I went around talking to each Middle School teacher sharing a little bit about myself, my beliefs and some initial thoughts on my vision of where I see our school going. I prepared every teacher for the fact that I will be continually asking “why?” and I invite and encourage them to do the same of me. It is not that I necessarily believe we are doing something wrong, but I will always want to know the purpose and challenge if there are other more effective methods to reach the goal of doing what is best for students.
As I sat with a couple of young teachers, I noticed a stack of traditional final exams, all the same, photocopied and ready to be handed out to grade seven students for a timed test. I asked why? What ensued was a great conversation. No one in the room truly felt that these final exams were the best way for students to demonstrate what they have learned, so why are we still doing it?
I confessed that I have many whys. Why do we still have parent-teacher conferences that often don’t even involve the student? Why do we celebrate academic achievement in such way that honours only those who have reached a certain percentage and a way that ranks students? Why do we make decisions without consulting students?
How many of us have sat through pointless or less-than-informational parent-teacher conferences? It often goes a little something like this: Mom asks, “How is Jeff doing in your class? I see he earned a “C,” and I want to know why.” Jeff sits silently, afraid the teacher will “spill-it” about what he has been up to in class. The teacher responds, “Sometimes Jeff does his work and is on-task, but other times he struggles to focus and talks too much. He loves to get the class going and cuts-up too much. I also have a problem with Jeff turning in his work.”
Mom and Dad turn to Jeff, “What’s this we hear about you goofing off in class?” Jeff shrugs. Dad says, “We’ll talk about this at home.” Jeff disengages as the conversation turns to missed assignments and lack of motivation.
Many of us have been there, as the student, teacher, or parent. It is painful, and what’s more, Jeff leaves feeling deflated rather than invigorated. His future motivation will most likely be to get everyone off his back, rather than to take greater ownership of his learning. We can even imagine that Jeff will be planning his escape from the next conference. In addition, little useful information was shared in the meeting. Did anyone come away with an understanding of what Jeff learned or didn’t learn or the effort he expended? Something’s got to give!
What if we asked Jeff to articulate and provide proof his own learning? What if he prepared evidence of his learning to show himself, his teacher, and his parents what he had achieved through his own effort? What if we put him at the center of the conference and the learning?
Professor John Hattie (2012) refers to this idea as creating assessment capable learners, those that can answer:
Where am I going? or What is the learning goal?
How am I going/doing? or What is my progress toward the learning goal?
Where to next? or How can I deepen my learning?
In other words, assessment capable learners own their learning, their progress, and their next steps. They can own and lead conferences as well. Before we outline a different model for conferences, we would suggest one additional question that will catapult the parent-teacher conference, as well as classroom relationships forward: What is my contribution? How many students are asking how they contribute to their own learning and that of their peers? How many teachers are encouraging the idea of students making a major contribution to the learning environment, lesson planning, feedback and conferences?
We could revolutionize conferences and the way that students feel about learning if we allowed these four powerful questions to drive our practice and conversations. Let’s begin with changing conferences from a less than helpful obligation of parents, teachers, and students to an empowering experience for students. We suggest three steps:
First, establish success criteria with the students by taking the time to determine what criteria will prove students know and are able to show they have reached the learning goals for the unit of study. Teachers can do this in a variety of ways, but the key is to involve students in the process so they develop an understanding of what success looks like and have a clear pathway to reach the learning goals.
Second, as the learning occurs ask students to gather evidence in a portfolio, notebook, or electronic tool that can be shared to prove learning. We recommend that the evidence shows progress, is messy, and includes mistakes, feedback, multiple drafts, misconceptions addressed, and the student’s own detection of errors, etc. During the entire learning process, ensure that the evidence students collect aligns to the success criteria and learning goals.
Third, change the current conference scenario by asking students to share their achievements through evidence with their parents. The conference can follow the four powerful questions that define an engaged and assessment capable learner, which will provide everyone with the information needed to understand what learning occurred and what is still to be learned.
New Conference Scenario:
By empowering students to own their learning and providing a meaningful conference experience for everyone involved, conferences can be changed forever and so can students!
Mary Jane O’Connell is a former elementary principal in Douglas County Colorado, and Kara Vandas is the former Director of Teacher Effectiveness at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
Hattie, J. A. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on teachers.
New York, NY: Routledge.
O’Connell, M. J. & Vandas, K. (2015). Partnering with students: building ownership of