Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Student-Participated Conferences

I can admit it: as a newbie teacher, I dreaded and feared parent-teacher conferences. I think much of this fear was shaped by my experience as a first-year teacher, when I hadn't planned enough for what the conference would look like, and where I had several parents extremely dissatisfied with the things I was doing as a teacher. (In their defense, it was probably warranted. In my defense, I got better.)

As my teaching career progressed, I grew to grudgingly accept parent-teacher conferences. Though they still stressed me out beforehand (probably shell-shock from that first-year experience), by the end of those few nights every fall and spring, I often felt quite good about the opportunity to connect with parents and have candid conversations about successes and shortcomings--both for me and for their children.

In the last school I served as a middle school teacher, we had traditional parent-teacher conferences in the fall, but we invited (required) students to participate in the spring. In fact, we wanted these conferences to be led by the students themselves. We collected a folder of their work throughout the few weeks leading up to the conference nights, and then gave students some class time to organized that pile of papers into some semblance of order. Students also filled out a checklist about their work habits to share with the adults in attendance the night of the conference.

As you might suspect, the results were mixed. Most of my students dreaded this night as much as I dreaded conferences as a newbie teacher. 20 minutes flipping through papers with Mom and Dad, and the teacher hovering nearby? Or even worse: parents and teacher ganging up to point out where you are falling short? What 13-year-old looks forward to that kind of experience?

Image by Innovation_School [CC BY-NC 2.0]

In retrospect, I think these might better have been named "student-participated" conferences, rather than student-led. And that is probably a healthier approach anyway. I think we could have done a better job at preparing students for the purpose of the evening. Probably could have done a better job of preparing the parents too.

Here are a few thoughts on how we might improve student-participated conferences:
  • I like the idea of collecting a portfolio of student work, but the students have to be in charge of it. Maybe we have them stash a pile of papers in a folder for each subject, but then they need to have some time to select just a handful that actually represent specific examples of their work. Maybe these could be tied to the school's mission or vision statement--how do these particular work samples demonstrate their learning?
  • I think we need to help students reflect on their own learning process, and in a richer way than just a checklist of work habits. ("I bring a pencil to class...  ◊always ◊usually ◊sometimes ◊never" isn't as beneficial as "I'm proud of the work I did on this project because...") I recently came across a great resource from Edutopia that might help: 40 Student Reflection Questions.
  • If feasible, we should send the collection of work home ahead of time for parents to have a look at before the conference time. Otherwise they spend the whole time flipping through work samples rather than talking about their child's learning. I know this might not be realistic in every situation--sometimes the work sent home wouldn't come back again for various reasons. But I think it's worth dreaming about...
  • As we shift more and more to a technology-rich teaching environment, let's think about having students collect their work as a digital portfolio--including reflections, perhaps using the kinds of questions linked above?--on an ongoing basis. I think it's still worth having a dedicated, sit-down-with-the-folks time a few times a year to have an authentic, face-to-face conversation. But with a digital portfolio that parents could access, they could have a better look into their child(ren)'s academic growth and development on an ongoing basis.
I think student-participated conferences are a great way for kids to see that parents and teachers are really on the same team and looking out for them. While it still might feel intimidating for the students, knowing that parents and teachers are interested in talking about their specific learning, their needs, their strengths...I think this would be a real benefit for students.

What do you think? Does it make sense to structure conferences this way? Why or why not?


  1. Dave, love your thoughts on this one! Another twist on this is thinking about how technology can play a part. A grad student last semester had her students prepare voicethreads to share with their parents. Instead of writing reflections, they just talked about them -- things they were proud of, things they wanted to work on, things they wanted their parents to know -- pretty cool!

    1. Pat, that's a fantastic idea! VoiceThread makes a lot of sense--easy to use, but powerful possibilities for capturing the student's reflections.

      Thanks for the feedback, my friend!

  2. I love your thoughts here, Dave. I want to explore digital portfolios with my students next year. I also invite my students to attend the conferences so they see that we are all on the same team. I want them to take ownership for their work, both positive and negative. Great post, Dave. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I appreciate your feedback, Jim. I think having students in on the conferences can send an important message to them: you are important, we value your insights into your own learning, we care about you! I think that re-thinking the role and structure of student participation in conferences will only strengthen these messages.