Let Student Lead! Making a Case for Student-Led Conferences
It is critical that students know how they are performing and what they need to do to improve on their skills to be fully invested every day to achieve their learning goals. Student-led conferences are one way to support this effort, and research for many years has stated the positive aspects of involving students in this way. In a study almost twenty years old, parents have expressed their support for this shift, “as one that focused on the whole child, fosters more student-led accountability, and accentuates positive attributes about their child’s learning” (Conderman, et. al, 1998, p 134). So why has it taken so long for student-led conferences to be fully implemented in schools?
In many ways, education tends to resist change despite research that states the benefits. Last year at Ashland Elementary, we piloted student-led conferences kindergarten through 5th grade, with teachers choosing the method and frequency of these types of conferences with their students and parents. For some grade levels, they went all in with these for all students, while in other grade levels only one teacher piloted this for the team.
Student-led conferences have a powerful effect on helping the adults in the room focus on what is most important by “centering learning evaluation and goal setting direction on the student” (Borba & Olvera, 2001, p. 335). With the student directly involved, often we will hear additional insight from them about their struggles and needs. In education, how often do we talk about the student, but not with the student?
Teachers used surveys to parents, and teams met with administration, to discuss any positive or negative attributes with not only this type of conference, but also the manner in which they implemented them. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive by teachers and parents. There were some concerns regarding spreading out more across the room for additional privacy during the conferences and other logistical questions. Comments from the surveys that teachers sent out showed excited parents.
“I liked hearing from her about how she is doing in class. I enjoyed having her take some of the ownership of her work.”
“I liked the checklist to keep the child on task, products/examples of work was there. Teacher stepped in to express areas of concern or positive accomplishments.”
“I learned that my child is self-driven to do well on her work, and has higher expectations for herself than I was aware of.”
“I really like activities like this one because this helps the students with their self-esteem and confidence while setting their personal academic goals.”
“I think this is one of the best conference I have ever attended!”
This year, we decided to approach student-led conferences with a more unified front having all teachers and grade levels move forward in this direction but still with a lot of choice in how they conduct them with their families. The typical first choice was to either have conferences with students and parents one at a time, like a typical parent/teacher conference but now adding students, or have conferences by inviting multiple parents and students to have their conferences occur in the same room at the same time with the teacher as the overall facilitator.
There are three typical options that teachers are using for student-led conferences:
- Tradition conference with teacher and parent only, one parent at a time.
- Same as above, one parent at a time, but this time, the student attends and leads the conference.
- Multiple families in the room, typically 2-4 conferences happening at once but in different parts of the room so they can’t hear each other. Teacher goes to each conference to help facilitate, be involved, and answer questions.
What are we doing at Ashland this year? Below is an update on what our teachers informed us on how they are meeting with parents. Some parents are letting their students lead the conference and then having additional meeting later with the teacher for a more private conversation.
TEACHER FEEDBACK: Jen Young, 5th Grade Teacher
We had open-ended questions on each table that parents could ask their child as well as reflection forms that students had completed ahead of time that noted how they felt they were doing in various areas (academics, organization, conduct, etc). Students read a writing sample out loud and completed a math problem on the current concept with their parents. We are keeping that all the same this year, but we did individual reflections for each subject area in addition to the overall reflection.
While some parents were hesitant at first on student-led conferences, we received positive feedback after the fact, with parents specifically saying they were glad they gave it a shot. They were pleased to see their child’s progress through their child’s eyes as well as the teachers’ eyes.
Student-led conferences had a great impact across the board, and I’ve had teachers from other states even ask for our materials because they are so interested after hearing about our success!
TEACHER FEEDBACK: Kristin Keskel, 3rd Grade Teacher
After teaching and doing traditional conferences for eight years, I was presented with the opportunity to try something new last year. I wasn’t sure how I would get the students ready for the conference or how they would turn out, but was intrigued. At the end of conference day, I realized the impact that student led conferences had on me, the students, and the parents was worth taking the risk to try something new. Conferences were so much more meaningful because everything came from the student’s view. They took ownership of their school work. They were so proud to show their parents what they were doing in school. The kids were honest about their successes as well as their challenges. The students were able to show what they knew well, tell them where they needed to work, and also told their parents ways they could help them get better.
With student led conferences, the parents still learned everything I would have shared with them. With it coming from the students it means so much more, because at the end of the day, they are the ones who have to put in the work each and every day to improve and be successful.
There are many online resources out there to help set up student led conferences. You need find what fits your group of kids, as well as what you are comfortable with. Once you figure that out, there is some prep work. You and the students put together the items that they will share with their parents, as well as run through the agenda for the conference so the kids are ready and comfortable. The more you keep to your normal routine, the easier it is for the students to share with their parents.
Last year, our third grade team searched online for student led conferences, and found many different resources. Besides sharing their data binders, we decided to pull something from each subject that the students had done recently that they could share with their parents. We also found several different reflection pieces that would show how the students felt about school, what goals they had, etc. I gave the parents some questions that they could ask to help drive the conversation. Finally, I came up with an agenda for the students, and went through it with the kids prior to conference day. We spent about a half hour the day before conferences organizing our materials as well as going over a practice together, and then the kids were ready!
I had the parents fill out a feedback form last year, and every single reflection was positive. The parents loved how the students took charge going through the agenda. Also, they loved that the time was longer, more flexible, and not as rushed as in traditional conferences. Parents were proud of their child for being able to share with them what they were doing well, but also with their child for being able to ask them for help (examples: buying them flashcards to help practice facts, reading with them more, practicing the study guide with them before the tests). Parents felt that the conference was a positive experience, and would enjoy doing it again.
TEACHER FEEDBACK: Hannah Brown, 3rd Grade Teacher
Student-led conferences added responsibility for students, student created goals, ownership of strengths and challenges, and a new sense of pride in the work that they had already put in that year. Students had more of an understanding of their own progress as we took time to reflect together.
Keep things simple and have a checklist for the students to work through so they don’t miss anything that you would like to have shared with the parents. We had multiple students come in at a time, but we spread them out throughout the room so everything could still be confidential. As teachers, we still had conversations and clarified any questions that parents had, but the students truly led the rest of the conference.
Having the students sitting and reading the book that they were reading at school or solving a multiplication problem that we had been solving in class gave a “real-time” snap shot on what exactly happens each day in the classroom.
I had exclusively positive feedback. They loved hearing from their own students what they felt their strengths and weaknesses were and how we all could work together to help the student improve over the school year. They also commented on how students were learning real life skills of leading a meeting, having an agenda and sticking to it, and relaying information in a concise and organized way!
TEACHER FEEDBACK: Brian Rodgers, 5th Grade Teacher
Last year, my students participated in student led conferences for the first time in my twenty-seven years as an elementary school teacher. For the first time, I saw students as a part of their conferences instead of being on the outside looking in. I witnessed students showing pride in their accomplishments and discussing options for areas that needed improvement. This is the way conferences should be because it puts the focus on the students.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Shellenbarger, 2017) describes this growing trend that has recently increased in scope around the country. The renewed focus on student-led conferences is in part to help the efforts schools are making on personalizing the learning of their students through an increased ownership in progress and mastery of skills. Educators across the country, and definitely here at Ashland, are helping students shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student so that they feel a sense of control and empowerment in their own growth.
Thank you parents for helping us to keep students as our number one focus for our parent-teacher conferences and being innovative in our practices. Our school community must continue to rethink what has been done in the past and find new ways to inspire our students for greatness! They deserve it!
This article was written with teacher input by Andy Jacks, Principal at Ashland Elementary School. Pictures in this article were posted or submitted by various Ashland teachers including Rachel Baxter, Summer Crawford, Lisa Clevenger, Sarah Trachtenberg, and Carolyn English and not always aligned with teacher comments. Look for more information and pictures through posts on Twitter at #ashlandsoar.
Borba, J., & Olvera, C. (2001). Student-Led Parent Teacher Conferences. The Clearing House, 74(6), 333-336.
Conderman, G., Hatcher, R., & Ikan, P. (1998). Why Student-Led Conferences Work. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 34(4) pp 132-134.
Shellenbarger, S. (2017). When Your Child Crashes the Parent-Teacher Conference. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-your-child-crashes-the-parent-teacher-conference-1508253263