Building Self-Advocacy and Ownership Through Student-Led Conferences
When I was young, I dreaded parent-teacher conferences. They were shrouded in mystery and I had no control over what was discussed or how my school experience would be characterized during the conversation. Usually the conferences were uneventful, but occasionally they led to upsetting misunderstandings between me and my parents regarding my effort or ability in a subject. I always thought it was odd that the person being discussed was not invited to participate, but I accepted the arrangement as an injustice that children suffered because, well, because we were children.
In my 5th grade class, students are included in the conversation. In fact, they lead the conversation. Students reflect, prep, and plan before conference day. They prepare a reflection sheet that serves as a backup script for the meeting. It covers their growth, points of pride, areas of challenges (skills, work habits, difficult content) and their plans to address them, their feelings about their social life, observations about how they work at home, overall goals, and areas for which they would like to solicit adult support.
WHAT THE CONFERENCE LOOKS LIKE
The 30-minute conference begins with the student welcoming the parent(s) to the conference. Following that, the student shares work curated beforehand. The parent is reminded that they will have the opportunity to take additional time with the work because it will be coming home with their student that day. That takes the pressure off spending too much of the conference time reading a long paper or reviewing a complicated project.
My co-teacher and I guide the student with gentle reminders and encouragement and help keep things on track. The parents ask questions, offer praise and encouragement and provide an audience for their child's learning reflections. The parents, teachers and students collaboratively problem-solve around any defined challenges by offering observations about what has worked in the past, what the challenge looks like at home and in school, and brainstorm opportunities to support the child to address the challenge.
One of the objections that parents sometimes have about student-led conferences is that they don't offer an opportunity for parents and teachers to address certain concerns that might be hard to share directly with the child present (tensions at home, worries they have about their child, etc...). To address that concern, we dismiss the student for the last 10 minutes of the conference (with a pause to aknowledge and appreciate the student's leadership). By that time, the student is relieved to get a break from all the attention and go play. The idea of a meeting between their parents and teachers has been demystified and a tone of support and collaboration has been established. In other words, the students have no "gotchas" to fear while they are out of the room.
When we first introduced the concept of student-led conferences with our ten and eleven year olds, some of my colleagues worried about their students who were struggling with academics or behavior. They could easily imagine sharing positive observations with a child present, but challenges and concerns? In fact we have found that it is the strugglers who benefit the most by being a part of the conversation. Students who struggle in school can become passive and develop a sense of defeat related to their school lives. They often feel like school is something negative that is happening to them. Inviting students to be active participants in discussing their school struggles, strategizing about how to create the most effective support, coordinating their work inside and outside of school, and celebrating their strengths and progress can be an opportunity to increase engagement and trigger additional growth.
OVERALL BENEFITS OF THE STUDENT-LED CONFERENCE
With everyone at the table, there are wonderful opportunities to model praise aimed at encouraging a growth mindset, smooth any transition issues between home and school (eliminating any potential misunderstandings or triangulation), and establish an open and supportive relationship between the student's family and school life. Considering an ability to self-advocate is a known determinant of academic success, it seems natural to have students practice that skill in this supportive context. Additionally, teachers get a chance to observe parent/ child interactions and parents get to see teachers interact with their children. Student-led conferences clearly establish that while adults are there for support, students are expected to own their own learning, during the conversation, and most importantly, at school the next day.