The Power of Student-Led Conferences in Primary Grades
This post is written by Marcia Bryant-Fowler, the instructional coach, and Robin Fountain, the principal, at Oakhurst Elementary School in Decatur, Ga.
One facet of learning deeply is that students are able to speak with passion and power about what they know and how they learned it. Deeper learners are confident crafting a message for an audience. They are self directed. "They set goals, monitor their own progress, and reflect on their own strengths and areas for improvement." At Oakhurst Elementary, an EL Education network school in Decatur, Ga., planting the seeds for these skills in our young students has always been important to us, but initially we believed our seeds wouldn't mature until our students went on to the intermediate grades. Now we know different. Shifting our traditional parent-teacher conferences so that students lead their own conferences has provided the structure to develop and showcase the metacognitive side of deeper learning even in kindergarten.
Our transition to student-led conferences (SLCs) was daunting; we needed to learn and plan! We began by establishing buy-in with our staff, community, and students. First, we took a team of interested staff to Delaware Ridge Elementary, an EL Education school already implementing student led conferences. It was truly an enlightening experience that helped us believe our young students could lead a conference successfully and what we would need to do to prepare them. This video shows a Delaware Ridge kindergartener leading her conference.
Eager and motivated by seeing SLCs in action, we shared our learning with the Oakhurst staff and our School Leadership Team (SLT), a group comprised of parents, teachers, district leaders, and community leaders. With the support of our SLT, we shared our vision and educated our community about SLCs, defining the purpose, as well as articulating the role of teachers, parents and students. Then we moved forward to implement Oakhurst's vision, becoming a pilot for this high-leverage practice in the City of Decatur school district.
Know Your Community
One of the things we learned early on in the pilot is the importance of tailoring our communications and procedures to the needs of our families. Our families are diverse and busy; time is one of their most valuable assets. In designing our SLCs, therefore, we made sure to schedule them conveniently, make them accessible, offer on-line sign ups, and, most importantly, make them purposeful for parents and students alike. When the practice still felt new, we started the countdown to the big event with a series of articles highlighting aspects of SLCs and the groundwork taking place in classrooms with students, as well as strategic moves being made by staff and leadership. We educated our entire community and listened to their feedback. As a result, we have nearly 100 percent parent participation, and parent surveys shows that they are deeply invested in SLCs. A few comments from our most recent conferences demonstrate that parents are making the connection between the SLC and students' deeper learning:
"I loved seeing his rough draft through his final draft and how well he is able to explain the steps involved in solving a math problem. It shows he has a firm grasp on the material he is learning."
"Our child benefits so much from showing us his progress. It makes him so much more confident."
"We enjoy hearing directly from our child about her learning. It makes her more aware of the bigger learning process rather than focused on just the facts."
Be Strategic about the "What" and the "How"
Each year our administrative team and teachers work collaboratively to create parameters for what students will include in their SLC portfolios. For example, when we implemented a new writing curriculum, we decided each student should share his or her growth in writing. When we explicitly began integrating performance character traits (perseverance and craftsmanship) into our learning targets, we decided each student would share about his or her growth in these areas. During grade level collaborative planning, teams decide on specific assignments and projects to include. They script the flow of conferences, then create student and parent prompts (open-ended questions) to help keep SLC conversations moving smoothly. Teachers model an SLC with students multiple times, and then students practice with one another, taking turns wearing the "parent hat."
Additionally, through lesson debriefs in the regular school day teachers provide opportunities for students to articulate their learning process, strengths, challenges, and how they work to meet learning targets. Our students are used to sharing the story of their learning journey publicly with others in presentations and student-work celebrations. Student-led conferences are a more formal and structured way of talking about their learning, but they are not the only time our students are asked to do so.
Take the First Step
After our first conferences in 2012, we no longer needed to worry about buy-in. Students shone with pride and were able to connect the work they were doing everyday in class with the habits they have developed in school. One student comment says it all:
"I think the best part of my (student-led) conference was showing my opinion piece because I used craftsmanship. I was proud of my writing because I challenged myself. I kept trying to make my writing better. Even when it was hard, I never gave up."
Teachers discovered that SLCs are an authentic and manageable way to engage young children in understanding and taking ownership of their learning. A first grade teacher remarked, "My first thought was... Great, one more thing! But to see the pride that students develop about their work is remarkable." Another admitted, "I worried... Will kids really be able to share their learning process and give a true picture of where they are? But because we now have them reflect and self-evaluate so often, their perspective is really valid!"
After each session of student-led conferences, we take stock and revise, just as we're asking our students to do. We have reduced the number of subjects to allow for deeper conversations. We have included rubrics, checklists, and multiple drafts as well as the final product. Now we're planning to transforming our third grade SLC into a "passage" presentation that shows their readiness to move from Oakhurst to the next school in their journey.
In the end what we've discovered is that the power of student-led conferences, perhaps especially in the primary grades, is that it benefits every student--the one who struggles to keep up as much as the over achiever. Leading their own conference enables students to persevere and grow in the face of challenge because it focuses their attention on the specific steps they've taken, or will take, to achieve high quality work. With that in mind, the deepest, most profound advice we can offer to other schools is exactly what we tell our students. Just get started. Take the first step.
Photo: Marcia Bryant-Fowler
Video: David Grant