At the reading center, Jacob explains to his mother how he deciphers an unfamiliar word: "When I can't read a word, I just say the first letter out loud, then read on. Then I get it!"
Over at the math table, Leah plays a game with her grandmother. "My answer is 4 + 3 is 7," Leah says. "You had 5 + 4 equals 9. Your sum is larger, so you win an animal."
At the science center Carlos pours 50 milliliters of oil and 50 milliliters of water into a cylinder. Before adding three drops of blue food color, he asks his parents what they predict will happen to the drops.
These children are all participating in my student-led parent conferences at the South Park School, in Victoria, British Columbia. Through this process, students become responsible for demonstrating what they have learned, showing their progress, and discussing future plans. At my school, these conferences have proved enormously successful in grades K-7.
Student-led conferences are beneficial for everyone. Relatives become aware of the programs and teaching methods at work in the school, and they observe how students interact with the teacher. Most parents say that they learn much more about their children's learning than they would if they were to talk to the teacher alone. The most positive effect: attendance at these meetings is high in our school because the children insist that relatives come.
Students love to be in charge at the conferences. Stephen, one of my first graders, was so proud, he wore his Sunday suit, complete with bow tie! When preparing for and conducting these conferences, students become aware of the learning process. They must work to express what and how they are learning, which builds valuable communication skills.
When students take the lead, teachers gain insight into family expectations, interests, and relationships. If a parent is domineering, for example, the teacher may gain an understanding of why a child is shy in class. The teacher can then apply his or her observations to help increase the child's self-esteem. This type of knowledge is often difficult to get from traditional parent-teacher conferences. After adopting the "student-leds," we were able to say good-bye to the stressful days of meeting with a seemingly endless stream of parents to repeat what was written on the report cards, while the children waited anxiously.
Discuss your plans to hold a student-led conference with colleagues, parents, and administrators ahead of time. Inform parents by letter, telling them that they will have an opportunity to evaluate the experience. Let them know that you would be happy to schedule a parent-teacher meeting if they wish to discuss some issues in private. I've found that most parents find the student-led conferences, coupled with report cards, more than adequate.
Next, decide which curriculum centers to set up. For each center, I prepare a simple instruction/comment form that explains what students and parents should do and leaves a space for written observations from parents. When planning activities, include some hands-on projects such as science experiments or math games along with writing samples and finished work. Self-evaluation forms will give children the opportunity to assess their progress in specific areas and to share their reflections. At the "final stop," provide a snack for students and parents to share. For one of my recent conferences, I set up the following centers and instructions:
Reading: Read the message on the chalkboard together. Fill in the missing words. Next, read to your visitors a book that shows how well you are reading at this time. Writing Share your writing folder. Read the pages that show your best work. Describe what you are going to do to become an even better writer.
Math: Complete the "food preference" graph by asking your adult the questions supplied about the types of food he or she likes and dislikes. Compare this graph with the graph you completed for yourself last week in class.
Science: Demonstrate the "color drops" experiment for adult visitors. Be sure to ask them for predictions and possible explanations.
Social Studies: Take a tour of our class mural about houses around the world. Explain what the mural shows.
Music: Demonstrate how you can clap to the rhythm of the notes your music teacher has written on the board and show how you can play "Oats, Peas, Beans" on the bells.
Art: Display your work on the bulletin boards, on the clay table, and in your art folder. Point out your best pieces and explain why you chose them.
Emotional and Social Development: Share the self-evaluation form that you completed in class last week. How can you improve your work and social habits?
All of these activities demonstrate both how and what I am teaching. I include activities at different skill levels so students can select ones that are appropriate for them.
Parents also appreciate being given a few questions to ask their children at each center. You can include these on a conference form itself or on cards to be placed at the different centers. For instance:
- What new things can you do in your writing?
- Is there something in math I can help you with at home?
- Is there something you want to be able to do better?
Prep Your Students
When planning, invite students to vote on some of the projects, games, and activities that they would like to share with their visitors. Remind them that it is their responsibility to choose examples of their best work ahead of time.
Once the activities have been selected, allow students to become familiar with the centers, the instruction/comment forms, and the questions parents may ask. The week before, have kids practice giving answers to partners playing the role of a visitor. Have them reflect on their progress in various curriculum areas by filling out self-evaluation forms to be shared with their adults. After the conferences, ask youngsters and their visitors to supply written feedback.
The Big Day
At our school, classes end at noon on the day of the conferences. Adults select a time in the afternoon or the evening that fits their schedule best, and they usually stay for an hour or an hour and a half. Generally, four to six families are in the room at one time, circulating among the centers.
Teachers are present, but, again, the students are in charge. I join in at certain centers when I think I can offer useful comments, model a teaching technique, suggest how parents can help at home, or direct attention to a child's progress. For example, I might make the following remarks:
- "Sasha has really been enjoying these science experiments. He makes excellent predictions when we do experiments in class together, and his science-book drawings are very clear."
- "Jennifer, show your mom some of your work from September so she can see how much your writing has improved! Back then you were still using some 'pretend writing.' Now I can read your work without your help. We'll work on some of those tricky vowel combinations."
- "Mrs. Fraser, Fiona is making progress in her reading, but she would really benefit from doing some home reading with you. Would it be all right with you if Fiona and I chose some good books to send home?"
Most parents report that they have learned considerably more about their children's progress in this hands-on experience than at traditional parent-teacher conferences. "The conferences gave us a special time alone without siblings," said one parent. "I felt a strong connection to Jeb's learning. I was impressed by the amount of self-reflection he had done, his pride in himself, his joy in sharing his world with us."
Can any teacher at any school use student-led conferences effectively? I think so. Students, teachers, and parents find student-leds positive and energizing, and they bring into central focus what is most important to our work-the child.
Student-Led Parent Conferences, by Linda Pierce Picciotto (New York: Scholastic, 1996).
Managing an Integrated Language Arts Classroom, by Linda Pierce Picciotto (Scholastic Canada, 1995).
To order the books above, call 1-800-SCHOLASTIC.
Changing the View: Student-Led Parent Conferences (Teacher to Teacher), by Terri Austin (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994).
Young Writers in the Making: Sharing the Process With Parents, by Alison Preece and Diane Cowden (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993).