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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Student-Led Conferences

By Peter DeWitt — November 01, 2011 5 min read
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We take the mystery out of learning because we have a habit of talking at children and not to them.

As many schools prepare for parent-teacher conferences they should consider involving the students in the process. It sounds like a radical concept to involve the student in the process of discussing their academic progress but it is an approach that many schools use and it has been around for decades. It’s called Student-Led Conferences.

For a long time schooling has focused on one to glow on, one to grow on and one to go on. During the conference, teachers tell parents an area of strength, an area of weakness and an area that is improving. If you are a parent, you may feel that conferences are a time when a teacher is telling you what is wrong with your child, which is not the goal of the teacher but some parents walk into a classroom and are instantly transported back to when they were a kid. Parent-teacher conferences can be very intimidating.

I remember the fear of my mom leaving our house to go meet with my teachers when I was in elementary school. I watched out the living room window as she backed down the driveway. I worried that she may never return again or if she did, she would be angry when she walked in the kitchen door. I was fearful because I wasn’t sure what she would hear. Was I doing something wrong? Would they only focus on the math tests that I failed? Would the speech teacher attend the meeting and tell my mother that I could not say the R sound? If I lived in Massachusetts my R would sound fine!

The truth is, to a child the idea of their parent meeting with the teacher is a frightening experience. Children still think that teachers and the principal live at school, and they are surprised when they run into us at the mall or the grocery store. So when their parent meets with the teacher, students worry about the conversation because they know it is all about them.

Parent-Teacher Conferences Have Not Changed for Decades
In the past, students were left out of the conference because teachers and parents were trying to watch out for the self-esteem of the child. It was easier to talk about their need of improvement if the child was not present. In addition, it was not considered important to have the child present for the conference.

As adults, we do a very good job of telling children what they need to do differently. We do not always do a good job of asking them what they think they need to do differently. We take the mystery out of learning because we have a habit of talking at children and not to them.

However, there has always been one flaw with leaving the child out of the conference, which is that the child knows what they can and cannot do. Telling a child who can’t read well that they cannot read well is something they already know because they listen to their peers read and understand they have a weakness in reading. We can change the names of the groups to reflect happy animals like Lions, Tigers and Bears, but children know that the Bears are the great readers!

One other reason that conferences tend to be the same as they have been for the past few decades is that the teachers are under time constraints. They have one day or maybe one night and a full day to meet with twenty-seven parents. Collecting all of that data that needs to be discussed as well as making sure that the meeting starts and ends on time is stressful.

The key to any successful meeting between parents, children and teachers is time-management and organization. It takes a great deal of proactive work to make sure that everyone is set for a student-led conference.

How Do Student-Led Conferences Work?
Preparing for student-led conferences really begins at the beginning of the school year. As the quarter or trimester goes on, students begin collecting their favorite pieces of work and add them to a portfolio. More technologically advanced schools may incorporate on-line portfolios instead of hard copies in folders.

Great writing assignments, art projects, or anything that focuses on the strength of a child can be added to a portfolio to be used during a student-led conference. Depending on the age, children need to know what makes a good addition to their portfolio because they may want to add everything they do, which would be overwhelming.

As the conference time approaches the teacher spends time with the class discussing what the best pieces would be to include in their portfolios. Students decorate their portfolio and add a table of contents so that everyone who views the portfolio knows what is in it.

During the conference time the teacher usually sets up a 30 to 40 minute conference with the parents. The first 15 to 20 minutes of the conference is between the child and their parent. Parents sit in a designated spot with their child and they are lead through the portfolio. This is an important time for parents to have questions for their children and be fully engaged in the process. When parents can’t attend or do not show up for the conference, perhaps another teacher (librarian, reading teacher, music teacher, etc.) or the principal can meet with the child during a non-conference day to go through the portfolio.

After the parent and child work through the portfolio the teacher meets with the child and parent. The teacher may discuss the portfolio and talk with the parent about the work that was good as well as areas where the child can improve. The purpose of the conference is to provide children with a full picture of how they are doing in class. It helps to build maturity with the student as well as give them an opportunity to discuss their own learning.

Student-led conferences need to be done in an age-appropriate way. K-2 students could choose the work that is included in their portfolios but might not be able to lead a conference with their parents. Students in third grade and above are certainly capable of leading their parents through a conference.

In the End
In order to properly engage students in their own learning we must allow them the opportunity to be a part of the conference between a teacher and parent. Allowing them to choose their own pieces for a portfolio adds to the concept that the child is the center of the learning process.

As students get older they are at risk to become less engaged in school and student-led conferences allows them to be fully engaged in the process. It also helps parents communicate better with their children, and perhaps can even help parents feel more engaged in their child’s academic progress as well.

Student-led conferences may be something that teachers cannot do presently because of time-constraints but they could consider doing it in the future. It would make for a great goal for a spring conference or the next school year. The time devoted to student-led conferences is time well spent.

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Pierce-Picciotto, Linda. (1996) Student-Led Parent Conferences. Scholastic. New York.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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