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Putting Students in the Driver's Seat at WHEELS

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This post is written by Rachel Folger, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City.

Note: Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) is a K-12 EL Education school (part of the NYC-Outward Bound schools network) whose students are all students of color, mostly Latino. Over 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. 100 percent of students have been accepted to college since the school's first graduating class in 2012.

Folger_WHEELS photo.jpg

An 8th grade student, Justin Rosso and his mother, Joanna Brito, participate in student-led conferences at WHEELS.

It's the morning before student-led-conferences at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). My students anxiously double-check their portfolios and fidget in their seats, but few of them realize how the simple yet impactful presentation they give today may shape their confidence in advocating for themselves for life. My next conference is with Eric, who walks through the door now with his mother, whom I know from previous meetings with Eric's older brother. She is hopeful, but also anxious. She wants her son to succeed, but she also feels frustrated by his attitude and actions in school.

Eric's social life blossomed in eighth grade, but over the year his ability to keep up with his assignments has begun to slip. His quiz scores have declined, his hand shoots up less and less during class, and during our first student-led conference earlier this year, Eric offered a wealth of excuses as he presented his spotty work samples. In today's conference, he starts making excuses again: "I would have completed this assignment but I had baseball practice." . . .  "My teacher didn't remind me at the end of the day." His mother starts to interject here, but I politely insist we let Eric continue to do the talking. 

Before we follow Eric the rest of the way through this scenario of grappling with the new responsibilities and autonomy expected of an eighth grader going into high school, let's go behind the scenes of Student-Led Conferences (SLCs) to consider the logistics of having students lead their own conferences and the preparation that happens in the weeks before during a daily class that we call Crew.

SLCs are a central practice in EL Education network schools, replacing the traditional open-house parent-teacher conference model we probably all grew up with. At WHEELS we use three full days of the school year--one each trimester--when each teacher participates in fifteen twenty-minute conferences, with fifteen families. Each conference is led by the student. This manageable scale allows me and my fellow teachers at WHEELS to take ample time to delve into each student's academic needs and build trust and familiarity with each family.

The fifteen students whose conferences I manage are all members of my Crew. We meet together daily to support the social, emotional, and academic needs of our diverse group with guidance from our school's character education traits, a.k.a HOWLs (Habits of Work and Learning). In the weeks preceding SLCs, students use part of their crew time to identify two or three pieces of work from each subject that demonstrate complexity, craftsmanship, and authenticity. We take a look at their recent major projects and formal assessments and reflect on their mastery of learning targets; we also evaluate their HOWLs (responsibility, perseverance, craftsmanship, and curiosity). Once the work is selected, students prepare their upcoming presentation to align with a rubric that describes clear expectations of what to include and how they should conduct their conference. They practice presenting with their peers and get feedback that holds each person accountable. They are very quick to celebrate honesty and also to call out their classmates who sidestep responsibility.

Because of this detailed and focused practice, students take ownership of the content of their conferences and have the skills to lead them. This video of a seventh grade student at WHEELS leading her conference illustrates students' accountability and investment in their learning.  

You'll notice in this conference that family members also speak during SLCs, building a bridge between school and home to support the student toward mutual goals. After 10 years of doing student-led conferences, we have approached 100 percent parent participation.  And because the student's crew leader is also at the table, parents know whom to call as the school year progresses to monitor actions that were decided upon at the conference. When students and parents really feel that they're being heard, these meetings become a true collaboration, not a series of orders. 

Let's step back into Eric's conference, to see what that looks like.

"So Eric it seems like you've identified that you're not managing your time well in order to get enough studying time in, right?" I ask after Eric had fumbled his way through his meager work samples. My question redirects Eric's excuses, and after some discussion of his busy schedule and what works for his particular academic needs, Eric suggests that maybe he could take time during lunch and once per week after school to study in my classroom (several of his peers use these teacher office hours as well). Our twenty minute long meeting is plenty of time for us to get to the heart of what is holding Eric back, and for him to create an action plan that will be shared with all of his teachers. Instead of a vague feeling of failure or anger, I see a little relief and pride in Eric as the meeting concludes. In addition, Eric's mother and I agree to follow up in two weeks. As we all stand up and shake hands, she smiles at her son, clearly emboldened with specific ideas of how she can encourage Eric to stay focused on these goals.

In the many student-led conferences I've been part of during my time at WHEELS I have seen students like Eric take simple yet huge steps towards embracing a growth mindset. Too often students are not a part of the conversations that directly affect their lives, but placing their voice at the center puts the power back in their own hands. Reflecting and taking responsibility for one's choices is a habit that resonates throughout a person's whole life. The student-led conference is where Eric got his first taste of being in charge of his own learning, but it will not be his last.

Photo: Keith Lau

Video: David Grant

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