A couple of years ago, Cathy Whitehead walked away from a two-day marathon of parent–teacher conferences feeling burned out and dissatisfied. “It was just conference after conference,” says the Henderson, Tennessee, third-grade teacher. “I felt like I was on the hot seat, and the kids were nowhere in sight. I really felt they needed to be active partners in the conversation.”
Whitehead began searching for a better way and came upon the concept of student-led conferences. In this model, students present their own artifacts and goals to their parents while teachers linger on the periphery, piping up periodically to keep the conversation on track.
When she started doing student-led conferences, Whitehead says, parent participation doubled (from 40 percent to 80 percent), and she saw “huge student ownership over their own learning,” because kids knew they would be the ones explaining their progress.
Interest in SLCs is growing nationwide. More schools and districts are trying them out, and in a June survey of its members, ASCD found that more than 60 percent had tried them. Once they do, many of these teachers, like Whitehead, are hooked. In the ASCD survey, 85 percent of the teachers who’d implemented SLCs said they were effective.
“It’s changed my classroom, and it’s changed my kids so much,” Whitehead says. “I would never go back to traditional conferences.”
What Do SLCs Look Like?
Some of Whitehead’s third graders show up for their conferences dressed in suits and ties or nice dresses. When it’s time to start, they sit in the “teacher’s chair,” across from their parents.
“I sit to the side and watch,” she says. “Sometimes I have a student who is struggling, or a parent is asking a really specific question about a piece of data, and then I will answer that.”
Usually, teachers provide some sort of script to keep students on track and ease their nerves. And kids come to conferences armed with data binders or portfolios to show off their work.
Aimee McKenney, a first-grade teacher at Startzville Elementary School in Canyon Lake, Texas, helps students create agendas with visual cues so that they can confidently guide their parents through their progress on letter sounds, sight words, and math facts. “It’s very kid-friendly,” she says.
As children get older, the data can get slightly more complex. They may refer to bar graphs illustrating their averages on unit assessments and benchmark exams, for example. The act of presenting this data to parents helps to deepen students’ understanding of it and can also boost motivation, says Callie Ward, a fourth-grade teacher at Startzville. “You can tell students, ‘You made an 80 on this test,’ and they’ll forget by the next day,” she says. “But if they constantly have their data notebooks, their goals stay fresh in their minds.” (Depending on grade level and time of year, SLCs can focus more on data or on school projects.)
How Do I Prepare Students?
Teachers often find the conferences relaxing (or, at least, a break for their vocal chords), but there is prep work involved to help students understand their progress, organize work, and prepare presentations. This isn’t wasted class time, though. There is much value in helping kids better understand which skills they have and which they need to work on, and the prep process can build real-world skills as well.
“We do a lot of preparation on speaking clearly and presenting well,” says Liza Rickey, a fifth-grade teacher in Issaquah, Washington. “We’re working on our communication skills, and we’re working on our writing skills. It’s very cross-curricular.”
Depending on their age and what the conference will cover, kids can prepare by doing the following:
creating bar graphs showing their progress
selecting work examples and writing reflections about them
setting new goals
creating PowerPoint presentations to deliver to parents
Some teachers select a thoughtful and outgoing student to participate in a model, or “fishbowl,” conference with them in front of the class, and then pair students with one another to practice before the main event.
The prep work often helps kids be more reflective about their academic progress and their roles in the school, says Kryssie Pratt, a third-grade teacher at the New Albany 2–8 Learning Facility in Ohio. “It really led to some good conversations about how, if we have something we need to work on, that’s not a bad thing. One of my students said the thing she was most proud of was that she is excited to come to school every day. Even if they struggled academically, they were able to think about what they did that was amazing this year.”
What Are the Pros and Cons?
In addition to the prep work required to pull off student-led conferences, there are other challenges teachers may face. Some students have a tough time being articulate in front of an audience, even if the audience is just their parents. Rickey says some kids have teared up out of nervousness. “I’m there to help them and prompt them if they get stuck,” she says.
Also, parents often look forward to the chance to speak with teachers one-on-one, and those families who are unfamiliar with student-led conferences may not understand the point of coming in to school for the chance to speak to their own children.
“The only negative feedback we get from parents is that they would like some time to discuss concerns that they don’t want the students to hear,” says Whitehead.
It’s important, then, for teachers to give parents opportunities to speak with them privately. Some offer individual meetings by appointment, and others simply give parents time to talk privately for a few minutes after the conference. Be sure to send a note home as well, explaining to parents just what student-led conferences are, why they’re valuable, and what parents can expect from them.
“[SLCs are] very different from kids just going home and having a conversation over dinner. Parents get to see their children’s goals and the progress they’ve made,” explains Texas teacher Aimee McKenney. “It’s a lot more than just, ‘How was your day at school?’”
In fact, proponents of SLCs say that the revelatory conversations sometimes spurred by these meetings are one of the major benefits. Samantha Mosher, a middle-grade learning specialist at the United Nations International School in New York City, says the conferences can help parents stop comparing their child to peers and instead allow them to focus on his or her unique abilities.
Mosher recalls one student who spoke to his parents about how he’d progressed in his writing, and what he wanted to work on next. “When I talked with the parents at the beginning of the year, they weren’t necessarily focusing on the big things that their child needed to focus on,” she says. “I think it was really important for them to see how proud he was and to hear him talk about his process.”
Janelle Luther, a seventh-grade English teacher in Creston, Iowa, says she likes the way student-led conferences—and the prep work leading up to them—make students more accountable for their own learning. “But maybe more than that, it’s a chance for the parent and child to sit down and look at work and ask some questions. With this age group, a lot of parents don’t see schoolwork. I just think it’s a great opportunity for a parent and a child to sit down and have a conversation about their education.”
A Few Last Tips for Success
Whitehead’s top tip for teachers thinking about giving student-led conferences a try: “Make sure you’re super organized before the first day of school.” This means knowing early on which types of data and artifacts students will show off during their conferences and how they will organize everything, so that they can collect those things throughout the semester with your help.
Another tried-and-true tip, shared by several teachers, is to have other teachers or administrators waiting in the wings to serve as an audience, in case some parents aren’t able to come. Ask one of your close colleagues to pitch in, and offer to do the same for her. This way, students will still have an adult they can share their progress with.
Above all, says Rickey, teachers shouldn’t let uncertainty—or the additional prep work—steer them away from student-led conferences. “Don’t let fear hold you back, because [this model] is so incredibly valuable. Just go for it, try it out. I’ve only ever received overwhelmingly positive feedback.”
Illustration: Linda Helton