Families & the Community

Talking Points

October 01, 2003 5 min read
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Teachers seeking to improve parent-teacher conferences say wisdom comes out of the mouths of babes.

When Katherine Murray attended parent-teacher conferences at her 15-year-old son’s Indianapolis middle school last year, she sat down across from someone she knows quite well: her son.

He proceeded to tell her how he was doing in school, complete with a portfolio of work and written self-evaluations to lend his assessment credibility. Then he outlined his goals for the rest of the year. Where was the teacher while all of this was happening? Wandering around the classroom, making herself available to any of the other five parent-child conferences taking place.

Murray and her son, Christopher, are participants in the fast-growing trend of student-led conferences, in which the traditional parent-teacher meeting is, quite literally, turned on its head. She gives high marks to the school’s unusual approach to discussing student learning. “It’s wonderful,” she says. “It engages both the children and the parents...and gives the teachers a chance to observe important dynamics. Plus, it puts the responsibility for learning back on the kids and shares accountability with the parents.”

—Photograph by David Kidd

The interest in the idea, which first surfaced about 15 years ago, is hardly surprising. Traditional parent-teacher conferences are among the most dreaded events on the academic calendar, for parents and teachers alike. They’re generally too short, leading to the exchange of vague platitudes rather than specific examples and details of a child’s progress, notes Harvard education Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, author of The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other. Discussions easily veer off topic, with parents’ memories of their own, perhaps difficult, school days influencing the topics and tone of their conversation. And the teacher’s view of a situation may differ from how the child has described it to his or her parents; without the student present to discuss the discrepancy, confusion lingers. “Having the child in there keeps them focused on the child in a way that is current and vital—and lively,” Lawrence-Lightfoot argues.

Dissatisfaction with traditional parent-teacher meetings provided the incentive for student-led conferences at Talent Middle School in Oregon, according to its principal, Patti Kinney. When she arrived at Talent in the early 1990s, she was shocked by the 10-minute, “arena style” conferences teachers held with parents in one room. “There was no time to build connections,” she says. And there were no kids present. “We started looking around and saying, ‘This whole thing is about the kids, but where are the kids?’” she recalls.

The first year the school implemented the student- led conference method, participation rates jumped from 45 percent to 90 percent, says Kinney. “Before, parents who figured their kid was doing OK felt they didn’t need to attend the conference. Now, if their child was going to be presenting, they’d be there.” Kinney has since co-authored a book, A School- Wide Approach to Student-Led Conferences: A Practitioner’s Guide, to help other educators start similar programs.

At Hershey Middle School in Pennsylvania, student-led conferences work a little differently, with kids conducting their meetings at home. They practice the conference with their teachers before taking home their portfolios of work and self- evaluations. “One requirement is that the parent stops what they’re doing, sits down, and talks,” says assistant principal Lori Dixon. “We don’t want the conference done while the mother is at the sink washing dishes.” Parents then come to the school for a more traditional conference with the teacher, says Dixon, but the focus of that meeting is usually just how the home conference went. “Teachers love it, because parents already know how their son or daughter has done in school,” she says, noting that parents have given teachers tremendous positive feedback about the process and the learning experience. “A lot of parents said they might look at their kid’s work, but they never take the time to sit down and say, ‘Show me what you’re doing.’”

Dixon says student-led conferences work for all types of learners, not just high achievers who can deliver glowing reports of their accomplishments. In fact, she argues, “it is especially important for students who struggle with some type of learning difficulty to take the time to engage in the self-evaluation process—especially the process of selecting a piece on which they did well. Students who struggle can easily lose sight of the fact that they are a learner, that they can learn, and that they have made growth over time, which can easily be seen as they review their work to select artifacts.”

Student-led conferences also meet the needs of the changing American family. Dixon has had students with divorced parents present their work twice—once to each parent. At Kinney’s school, attendance among Latino parents increased after the student-led conferences were introduced. “The language is no longer a problem, so they feel much more comfortable attending,” she explains. “The student can act as a translator if needed, and it’s amazing how much you can pick up from expression and body language, even if you don’t know the language....It’s pretty easy to tell if the student is giving the parent the accurate picture.”

The only downside to the conferences, educators say, is that they won’t work if schools don’t prepare their students to participate. Kinney says that well before parents arrive, students must be taught how to analyze their work. “You want them to be reflective, to think, ‘What did I do... that really made this good?’ or ‘If I were to do this again, what would I do differently?’” she says. Teaching these skills takes additional preparation and effort, but Kinney deems the time “well worth it. It benefits the students, who are held accountable for what they’re doing. And they’re learning to articulate a self-assessment. This is a lifelong learning skill.”

—Debra Gordon


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