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Student-Led conferences successful in elementary, middle grades


As student-led conferences grow in popularity, educators are finding ways to improve their flow and productivity. Preparing students and parents for what's involved and practicing before "going live" can help. Included: Descriptions of student-led conferences at different grade levels.

Preparation and practice are keys to successful student-led conferences, several educators said, as the format continues to spread to more schools and to lower grades.

Veterans of student-led conferences, who have refined their programs over the years, say the extra effort to offer them is worth it for both parents and students.

"I can't even begin to tell you what a great experience this is for all," said Mary Lou Bettez, a teacher at Flat River Middle School in Coventry, Rhode Island. "For the most part, students will say (if it is their student-led conference and it usually is) that it is the first time that they are 'heard' and not 'talked at.' Parents have commented that it is the first time that their children really talked to them about their work. The conference now puts the responsibility of the work more on the shoulders of the student, forcing all stakeholders to realize that the adults are present as supporters, not doers."

Part of the curriculum

During student-led conferences, teachers act as facilitators as students review their work and progress with their parents. Often students work from a portfolio filled with assignments they have collected before the conference. Some teachers also provide checklists of items for students to cover during the conference or a rough "script" for them to follow.

Preparing for the conferences helps students take a more active role in their learning throughout the year. "I began student-led conferences to involve the students in their learning and to give them ownership of it," said Sherri Clifford, a second grade teacher at Hagemann Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri.

Students in Sandra Brand's third grade class in Madison, Connecticut, start the year by completing a self-evaluation, including a list of strengths and areas on which they need to improve. During the student-led conferences, they update their parents and Brand as to where they are in meeting their goals.

At Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Forest, Virginia, all students in kindergarten through fifth grade know they will lead a conference in May. They spend the year collecting material in a portfolio, said principal Bruce Shafferman. The aim of the conference is for students to explain to parents, using examples, how far they have progressed since September.

"Even the kindergarteners can read a book to their parents and show them how their writing has improved," Shafferman said.

Students at the Cape Fear Center for Inquiry, a charter school in Wilmington, North Carolina, also collect portfolio material throughout the year. The school uses two student-led conferences in place of report cards, said Teresa Glenn, an eighth grade humanities/reading-writing workshop teacher.

Clifford's second graders compile material including a quarterly spelling profile, which is 50 words from the year's list, and a math profile, with a graph illustrating the skills they expect to master each quarter. They also select their best story every quarter from the class Writer's Workshop; they attach a self-evaluation in which they explain why they are proud of the piece and what they hope to improve upon in the next assignment.

Teachers at Flat River Middle School realized after their first year of conferences that having students reflect on their work throughout the year not only helped them prepare for the conference, it helped them learn more effectively, said Bettez. "During our first experience, we had students preparing portfolios two weeks prior to the conference," she told Education World. "When we integrated reflection more naturally [into daily work], the students' abilities to present their work to parents was much more effective. In addition, after the first conference, parents were also interested in students sharing work in which they needed to improve. So this was added as well."

Preparing students, parents

The more students prepare and the more parents know what to expect, the more successful student-led conferences will be, educators said.

At Bettez's school, teachers participated in training before the school began using student-led conferences.

About a month before the conferences, information about the conferences is sent home to parents, Bettez told Education World. Two weeks before the conference, students prepare written invitations accompanied by more information from teachers regarding the content and process for the conference; such as, allow your child ten minutes of uninterrupted time to present his or her portfolio and then take five minutes to ask your child questions. After that, a teacher joins students and parents for a post conference wrap-up. At that time, parents, teachers, and students review strengths and needs and set goals for the upcoming grading period.

Since switching from the traditional conference format to student-led conferences, attendance at parent conferences has increased from 20 percent to 90 percent, Bettez added.

Glenn, from the Cape Fear Center for Inquiry, which will be holding student-led conferences for the second time this year, said she has added checklists of talking points on the table where the students hold their conferences so that the youngsters have some guidance during their presentations.

"We develop this checklist as a class," Glenn told Education World. "We also develop the order of the conference and role-play conferences. One thing I think worked well was doing a post-conference reflection for the parents. They could reflect on what their child had communicated and how far their child had progressed throughout the year."

While not necessarily a deterrent to holding student-led conferences, Glenn has found that they require a significant time investment.

"Students need lots of rehearsal time to practice the conferences," Bettez said. "I wouldn't say this is a disadvantage, exactly -- but it is something teachers need to be aware of. I role model a conference, then have each kid do his or her conference for a group of peers who play their parents."

Overcoming glitches

Teachers also are finding ways to adjust to some of the challenges they encountered in the first few tries at student-led conferences. One problem that can arise is that children who fail to complete assignments have few items to put in a portfolio. To address that, Bettez asks those students to reflect during their conference on why a piece of work is missing, what prevented that work from being completed, and what plans they have to prevent them from failing to complete other assignments.

She also assigns peer tutors, students who have prepared model portfolios, to help other students complete their portfolios.

In a few cases, parents do not attend the conference. Glenn then sends the student's portfolio home, although she admitted often there is no response. In Bettez's case, if a parent cannot come to the conference, the student presents his or her portfolio to another adult in the school.

Some parents also still want to speak to the teacher privately, in a more traditional conference. Several educators said they tell parents they can arrange to hold another conference with them, or speak with them on the phone.

Student presenters get high marks

While some parents, and even some teachers, are at first wary about students running conferences, practitioners told Education World that in most cases, the experience has left everyone pleased.

"Some parents are scared at first -- they think they won't have a chance to talk with the teacher in private," said Brand of Madison, Connecticut. "But I tell them they can speak with me on the phone if they have other concerns. Then the parents always are amazed [after the conference] that the child knows him or herself so well and is so self-motivated."

"Seeing the children's pride in their accomplishments warmed this teacher's heart," said Clifford of Hagemann Elementary School. "I believe my second grade students were on the way to becoming life-long learners at the age of 8."

Student-led conferences also can supplement, rather than supplant, parent-teacher conferences. "I wouldn't eliminate the others [traditional parent-teacher conferences,]" said Shafferman of Virginia. "There are times when it is good for the teacher to relay information to the parent. We have two parent-teacher conferences and one student-led conference. Each serves a different purpose." The student-led conferences do impress parents, he added. "It's an extremely powerful conference when you can get parents and students together. Parents can really see the differences from the beginning of the year."

Jackie McCarthy, director of communications for the National PTA, said she is not aware of any parent dissatisfaction with student-led conferences, and agreed they can be positive. "Parents hear one thing from the student, another from the teacher," McCarthy told Education World. "This way, the triangle is complete. You have parents, students, and teachers together."

The conference process helps students comprehend the importance and means of taking charge of their own learning. "There is nothing like having a child be the locomotive for his own education," Brand said. They can't move forward unless they really understand how."

Additional resources

Student-Led conferences: A growing trend

Student-Led conferences hold kids accountable