Saturday, 05 February 2011 17:45

Tip #21: Student-led Conferences (Part 2 of 3)

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Elementary and middle schools typically schedule parent conferences in November, or roughly a third of the way into each new school year.  I view these meetings as indispensable parts of the home-school connection, and I greatly value the quality time I can spend with each child and his or her family.  During the conferences we work as a team to discuss areas of strength, address areas of need, solve problems, and set goals for the future.  Because meeting individually with each family is so time-consuming for teachers, many schools do not schedule follow-up meetings later in the year to continue these conversations.  Student-led Conferences offer teachers a wonderful way to extend and strengthen the home-school connection because when compared to traditional Parent Conferences, they require only a fraction of the work and the time and provide students with an incredible opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning.

The Teaching Tips will focus on the topic of Student-led Conferences for the next three weeks.

Week 1: Introducing Student-led Conferences
Week 2: Preparing for Student-led Conferences
Week 3: Using Student-led Conferences to Feature Specific Habits of Mind and Habits of Character

Preparing for Student-led Conferences


 Preparation for Student-led Conferences begins approximately 1-2 weeks before the event.  I recommend starting earlier if you want your students to create hand-made invitations to their parents.  With instructional time being at such a premium these days, my third graders and I start our preparation about a week and a half before the big day.  I send home a conference sign-up sheet about a month prior to Student-led Conferences.  

The first important task that the kids undertake is assembling their work portfolios.  These portfolios may include any combination of the following:

• Work samples from the different disciplines
• Academic assessments showing progress toward the content standards
• Reflections, Self-evaluations, Journals, and/or Learning Logs focusing on work and/or behavior
• Personal Mission Statements
• Photographs or videotapes of performances or presentations             
• Special papers or projects

You must decide which portfolio items you will select and which you will ask the students to select.  One way to achieve a balance is for you to determine broad categories of work and then let students pick specific examples of work from these categories.  For instance, within the category of Writing Workshop projects, have the kids choose their favorite piece of writing to share with their families.  Once you and your students have decided which items the portfolios will include, create a simple form to help organize the assembly process.  After writing the name of each piece of work they select, this form becomes the table of contents that the kids keep in the manilla folders I distribute, along with the work itself.

After the students assemble their portfolios, the next step involves deciding what they are going to say about these items during the meetings.  Create an advance organizer with enough space for the students to write the names of the items they selected in the order the kids wish to present them.  This sheet becomes their “Student-led Conference Outline.”  On the advance organizer include two blank lines under the spot where students write down the name of each item, and on these lines ask the kids to write down two specific points or comments that they would like to make about each item.  You can also create a space on the outline sheet for brief introductory and concluding remarks.  This sheet serves as each student’s personal conference agenda.  

A few days before the conferences, have the kids practice giving their presentations to a partner.  By first rehearsing with peers, your students can work out the kinks and gain confidence.  Some students will choose to follow their outlines closely as they share their work; others will not.  Either way is fine as long as the kids address the main points they wanted to make.  I have even had students go a step further and prepare their entire presentations on index cards for a more professional look.  Brainstorm other such possibilities with your kids so that they can benefit from one another’s clever ideas.

On the day of the conference, lay out all the portfolios on a large table.  Greet the families as they arrive, and once they locate their child’s portfolio, show them to an empty table.  Most families will stay for 20 to 30 minutes while others will stay for well over an hour.  It is wonderful to watch the kids share their work with pride.  Being a fly on the wall enables you to hear a number of interesting comments from parents and students alike.

Make a special effort to speak with all the families before they leave.  Thank them for coming and ask for their feedback.  In addition, remind them that you are always available should they ever want to schedule a meeting with you.  I learned this lesson the hard way.  The only negative reaction I’ve ever heard in fifteen years of conducting Student-led Conferences came from a parent who felt that I was abdicating my responsibility as a teacher by having her daughter lead the conference.  The mother felt that I should have lead it.  Her comment caught me completely off guard.  I had always viewed Student-led Conferences as a supplement to my communications with parents, not a replacement.  

Follow-up on these meetings by asking your students to reflect on their presentations, either in class or for homework.  Have them write down what they liked, what they might not have liked, how they would improve these conferences in the future, and what advice they would give to a student about to conduct a Student-led Conference for the first time.  In addition, invite the parents to write their children a letter expressing what they enjoyed about the meeting, what they learned, and how much they appreciated being able to spend that time together.  I have seen many heartwarming letters that significantly strengthened the parent-child bond.


More information about Student-led Conferences, including examples of the forms I described, can be found in Eight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8.

New Teaching Tips appear every Sunday of the school year.