Would you like to find a way to actively engage students in their learning process and increase parent attendance at conferences? Student-led conferences can accomplish those two objectives. Included: Highlights of research about student-led conferences.
Over lunch at a middle school conference, teachers told Jack C. Berckemeyer, director of member and affiliate services of the Association for Middle Level Education, formerly the National Middle School Association, about students who took an active role in leading the familiar parent-teacher conferences.
Several aspects about student-led conferences appealed to Berckemeyer. He liked the fact that the responsibility of the parent conference rests where it should -- with the student. The teacher facilitates the conference, but the student is responsible for answering parent questions and concerns about student learning. Students share with their parents what they have learned, show their parents their student portfolios, and discuss the reasons for their academic grades.
"Occasionally you come across a program, a method, or an activity that really makes so much sense that you wonder 'Why didn't I think of this a long time ago?'" Berckemeyer writes in the foreword of a book recently published by the NMSA, A School-Wide Approach to Student-Led Conferences, written by Patti Kinney, Mary Beth Munroe, and Pam Sessions.
Forms guide student preparation
A School-Wide Approach to Student-Led Conferences is a guidebook to help teachers and administrators who want to implement student-led conferences. The book answers practical questions on the logistics of student-led conferences; it also includes forms and handouts to help students prepare for and present the conference.
Avis Breding, who teaches sixth grade at Jeannette Myhre School in Bismarck, North Dakota, has been involved with student-led conferences for four years. She finds that asking students to fill out forms before the conferences is very useful. In fact, she hands out three forms to students to help them evaluate their learning and prepare for the conference with their parents.
One of the forms asks students to rate the subjects they like best and least and to explain why. Another form challenges students to rate themselves on a variety of skills and habits, including how often they complete their work on time and how well they get along with their classmates. The last form asks the students to set goals for themselves.
"Basically, I like everything about student-led conferences," Breding told Education World. "I like the fact that the students have to be the ones to explain what they are learning in each subject, and I love the expressions on the parents' faces as they listen to their children and realize they are learning!"
Parents generally like the student-led conferences too. "Parents love this method and learn more about what children are learning as children explain each subject and how they arrived at the grades that they have earned," Breding said.
Over the past two years, only two parents didn't like the student-led conference, added Breding. "My feelings are that they wanted more of a 'report' than to find out what their children are really learning."
Breding's students generally liked the opportunity to explain their grades and what they had learned. "What I like about student-led conferences is we have to tell our moms and dads why we have an F and other grades," said Jake, one of Breding's sixth-grade students.
Dawn, another student in Breding's class, explained that being held responsible for learning can be a little difficult. "I think student-led conferences are OK," Dawn said. "The first time you really don't like them is when you have bad grades and you have to tell your parents why your grades are bad. The thing I like most about student-led conferences is that we have to do the talking and not just the listening. Then you get to show your parents your work and some things you have been doing in school."
Growing in popularity
Student-led conferences are emerging as a positive alternative to parent-teacher conferences by those who advocate active student engagement in the learning process.
"If educators wish to have parents involved to a greater degree in their children's educational experiences, and we wish for students to be more involved in setting personal learning goals and accepting greater responsibility for their academic process, it makes sense to include students at the table when parents and teachers discuss their progress," said Donald G. Hackmann. Hackmann, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University and author of Student-Led Conferences at the Middle Level, has conducted research about student-led conferences.
One concern of parents is that they would like to have a candid discussion with their children's teacher, and student-led conferences do not permit that to occur, Hackmann said. To accommodate parents who desire an opportunity to privately discuss their child's progress, Hackmann suggests several possibilities:
Hackmann says student-led conferencing is successful at any grade level. "Student-led conferencing has been used successfully beginning in the kindergarten grade," he said. "Obviously, the child's teacher will need to be a bit more involved in the conference, helping to facilitate the conference and cueing the student to more fully discuss her or his work. This model certainly helps the child understand his or her role and responsibility in the educational process."
Hackmann knows the benefits of student-led conferences firsthand. For two years, he attended the student-led conferences of his kindergarten child. "As a parent and as a researcher, I was quite interested in how adept my son would be with this model," Hackmann said. "Although he needed some teacher prompting, he did quite well."