Student Achievement Opinion

Student-Led Conferences: A Key Structure of Student Agency

By Contributing Blogger — January 22, 2018 3 min read
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By Jeff Heyck-Williams, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Two Rivers Public Charter School

“Student-led conferences allow us to take ownership of our learning. Only we know how we are doing and where we are running. There isn’t always going to be an adult there to help us,” said Payton, a 6th grade student at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

The best argument for why we do student-led conferences at Two Rivers comes from the words of our students. Only they know where they are running, and there isn’t always going to be an adult there to help them. At the heart of our mission is that every one of our students will be life-long active participants in their own education with a strong sense of self and community. Student-led conferences are core to realizing this mission.

Beginning in 4th grade, we flip the script on the traditional parent-teacher conference and turn it completely over to the students. Where traditional parent-teacher conferences leave all of the power in the hands of the teacher and the parents, student-led conferences empower students to own their data and their learning. Students share accurately where they have gone in the last semester, describe where they are planning to go, and map out with the adults in their life how they are going to get there.


Digital portfolios of student work are the core structure of our student-led conferences. At the end of each semester students gather representative pieces of work in English language arts, expedition, mathematics, Spanish, and physical education. They then curate their work in a portfolio on a Google Site.

Where traditional conferences seek to explain where students are academically primarily through assessment data and grades, our student-led conferences root the conversation in the work that students have produced. While traditional grades and assessment data are included in a section of each students’ portfolios, examples of students’ highest quality work best exemplify where students are in their understanding and skill development. Students not only are able to share where they believe they are based on their grades and tests, but give concrete examples from their work as evidence of their knowledge and skill development.

In addition, the digital portfolios provide a structure for the student-led conference script. Students move through each section of the portfolio in a twenty-minute conference touching primarily on their English, math, and project work as well as their grades and testing data.


Throughout each conference, students make reasoned-based claims about their progress in each subject area and their future goals. This process builds their reflective skills and puts them in the driver seat of their education.

Students answer three core questions: where am I? where do I want to go? and how do I close the gap between the two? These simple questions function as a foundation of reflective practice that will serve students beyond our doors as they learn to set goals and create plans to reach them.

By building this reflective practice into a student-led conference with families, students invite their parents and guardians into the conversation as proactive partners as they set goals and discuss ways that they can be supported.

Student-led conferences do take more time in preparing students to be successful, but the benefits are exponential. Particularly, if we are serious about providing all students with agency, then turning conferences over to students just makes sense.

To learn more about how we do this at Two Rivers, check out the Learn with Two Rivers Student Led-Conference page.

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