Why Student-led Conferences Are Worth the Time

Along my journey with student-led conferences, I have gradually grown to appreciate their value.    Like many parents and teachers, my initial feeling was that they are largely a waste of time.   The thought of giving up two academic days twice a year to hold conferences made me fairly unhappy when I jealously guard every single academic minute that I have with my students.    After all, the kids who show up for them are already having these conversations around the dinner table and the kids who need to have these conversations don’t show up, right?  As a parent, I really didn’t like them either.   I didn’t want to take off half a day of work to go to a 20 minute conference when we talked about things at home already.   I always went, though, because I wanted to send a message to my children that school is important.

As I have watched so many of these conferences over the last decade or so, this is what I have learned.

Preparing for the conferences is a growth experience for students.

  • In my class, I require them to set a goal for the year.    I make them break down how they are going to achieve that goal in very specific terms.   If they say they are going to “study more”, I ask them how specifically they are going to do that.   So, they have to come up with something like “I am going to review my Science vocabulary flash cards for 10 minutes every day in the car on the ride to soccer practice.”   (I know SMART goals are a big push, but talking about SMART goals with 11 year olds doesn’t really work for me.   I’ve tried it and found it to be a disaster.   Talking about  goals and having a specific plan for reaching them is something they seem to grasp a little better.)
  • I also require students to think about what is going well and what is not going as well in each of their classes.    I ask them to share two pieces of work from each of their core classes (Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies).   (They can also bring work from electives if they want, but I don’t require it because sometimes the elective classes don’t really lend themselves to it. )   As they choose their work,   I tell them I would like them to bring major pieces of work (not daily homework unless there is a really important story that goes with it).   One of the pieces of work should be something that went well and the other should be something that didn’t go so well.    The conversation with their parents needs to center on why one didn’t go well and what they did differently with the piece of work that did go well.   The reflection that they have to do preparing for this helps to build the idea that hard work and persistence (and asking for help) can make a difference.
  • Planning what they will share and how they will do it requires students to organize their thinking.    I give them a framework for the conference, but students have to organize their presentation within that framework.    This is a building block for later presentations that they will need to do in school and in the workplace.

Leading the conference gives students real experience in a safe environment

  • A student-led conference is an opportunity to gain presentation experience.   For many of my 6th graders, this is a nerve-wracking experience.   Some of them are almost shaking.    What they don’t realize is that the more they give presentations, the easier it gets.   They ability to do it well can have a big impact on their future success in the work world.
  • For most students, their parents are the safest audience they will ever have.    That is a nice thing to have when they are shaking in their boots.   I have watched parents reach over and put a calming hand on a student to reassure them.   I have heard parents say things like “It’s OK.   You know that I love you.”
  • At the end of the conference, parents almost always tell their child that they did a good job.   Hearing that makes it a little easier the next time they give some kind of presentation.

The setting and structure brings out things that sometimes are missed in everyday conversations.  

  • Almost every parent just wants their child to do their best.    Sometimes that fact gets lost.     Students don’t always realize it if it isn’t explicitly stated.    If  students aren’t doing well, they sometimes think their parents are focused solely on grades.   Others  think that their parents don’t care.   Listening to students talk about their progress in this kind of a structure gives parents and teachers a chance to very explicitly say that they just want the student to do his or her best.  That is important for a kid who is working hard to hear.   No one expects him or her to be perfect.   It is also important for a kid who is just coasting through life to hear.   He or she needs to know that parents and teachers see it and that they expect more.

What Does It Feel Like To Walk Around in Her Skin?

What does it feel like to walk around in her skin?   I have asked myself this question on an almost daily basis about one of my students this year.   I have watched her closed face.   I have listened to her silence.   I have tried to coax her out from behind the mask that I see.   Each day, I wonder what is behind the mask.

I wonder if she is just reserved.  I wonder if she is shy.    I wonder if this is a reflection of culture.  I wonder if this is a reflection of religion.   I wonder if she is afraid.    Each day, I wonder what I can do to help her.

Each day, I speak to her as she enters my room.   Each day, I check in with her to see if she is understanding.   Each day, I keep her sitting with the one other girl in the room (and wonder if the male:female ratio is part of the problem) instead of mixing up the seating like I do in every other class.    Each day, I thank my lucky stars that the only other girl in the room is confident and strong and kind and celebrates their time together.    Each day, I look hard trying to find the things she might not understand but won’t tell me if I don’t directly ask her.   Each day, I try to find something to make a connection with her (a comment that the design on her scarf looks similar to a piece of art that I have seen, a comment on how my daughter likes to wear braids too, a compliment about the art she has drawn on her notebook).   Each day, I try to discover who this eleven year old girl is and how I can help her discover that she is amazing.

It has been ten weeks of this.   Now, when I look at her with a question, she smiles that she has “it”.    She sometimes will even giggle quietly with the girl who sits beside her.   Each day, I wonder what it is like to walk around in her skin and I wonder if I am giving her what she needs.   Each day I wonder and I celebrate each small success.

A New and Improved IEP Calendar Form

Two heads are definitely better than one.   Back in August, I shared a calendar/organizational  tool that I created to organize data about all the students on my caseload.   One of my colleagues read the post  and downloaded the tool.   She liked it enough to add a few improvements to it.   She then kindly shared it back with me.   That inspired me to make a few more improvements of my own.    Here is the new and improved IEP Calendar

The “goal” section serves two purposes.    We can use a number or letter to represent different goals that we have for different students.   The numbered boxes that are sub-headings can be highlighted as Progress Towards Goals are completed and sent to parents.

The “IEP/Re-eval” category tracks the date the IEP or re-evaluation are due and the date that they are held.

In the “Areas of Qualification” section, the different areas of qualification are listed and we just put a dot or an x in the box to indicate the areas in which a student has qualified.   This section could be changed to different areas of qualification for students with disabilities.

The “schedule” section documents the student’s schedule.   We put the teacher’s initials in the box for each period of the day.

The final “input” section documents when goals and parent/student input have been entered into the document.  (We usually send a form home asking for parent/student input prior to the IEP meeting and have the parent email them back to us.   This enables the parents time to think about their responses rather than being put on the spot during a meeting.   We can always add things during the meeting if the parent has additional thoughts.)

When we type the student’s name into the document, we make it a hyperlink to his or her IEP document in our online system.



Friday Favorites – A success, a lesson, and an assessment

The frenzied pace of the first months of school has finally slowed enough to catch a breath.   My students have settled into life in middle school.   We’ve spent enough minutes and hours and experiences together that we know each other.   We have weathered disappointments and successes.   We have had surprises and laughter and we have learned a lot.

There are too many stories to tell, but here are a few of the best moments from this week.

Favorite “Favorite”

I gave a retake test this week for students who did not receive an A or a B on the last test.   It had been a really challenging unit and despite our best efforts, some students had not been very successful.  A week later, seeing the continuing hard work those students invested turn into sheer joy as they saw a D become an A or a B was my favorite “favorite” of the week.

Favorite Lesson

On Friday, my students explored the “stories” that graphs tell.   I gave each table group of students a set of 6 graphs and 7 stories. They had to match the stories to the graphs.    It was not a 1:1 match, so there could be no “process of elimination”.   The room buzzed as students engaged in rich conversations about why a given graph did or did not match a given story.  After a period of time, I had students do a gallery walk to examine the choices that other groups had made.   At each “station”, a group could give another group feedback by rotating the story card 90 degrees if they disagreed with the match.   The next group could give feedback on the “disagreement”, indicating that they disagreed with the “disagreement” by rotating the graph card 90 degrees (so the group would see that one group disagreed with their match and another group thought that the match was correct).   After all groups had given feedback at each station, they returned to their own station and had time to make changes to their matches based on any changes in thought that they had as a result of seeing other groups thinking and based on the feedback that they had received from other groups.    Finally, we had a whole class debrief in which we matched the stories to the graphs.

This was a “favorite” because the conversations were so rich, the students were so engaged, and I heard  “This was so much fun.”

Favorite Formative Assessment

My students are learning to correctly make  line graphs.   As we work our way through the unit, I take anecdotal records on a clip board documenting their mistakes as I circulate around the room.   I use these to help select which graph the class will look at for a given problem.   During this unit, I always choose graphs with errors and ask the class to find the errors.   The student whose work is shared and the students who find the errors all get candy as a “Thank You” for the gift they have given us in helping us to learn.


This year, I reused the same sheet on multiple days and just changed the color in which I took the notes.   This gave me an easy picture of whether things were progressing for a given student or whether the same error was being repeated.    Late in the week, in addition to taking the anecdotal records, I walked around with a pink highlighter.   On each graph, I made a pink mark indicating where there was an error (e.g, a pink line at the top if they forgot a title, or two pink lines showing that intervals were not uniform).   My hope is that seeing the pink marks in their composition book will be not only giving them feedback but also giving them a clear visual reminder about the ins and outs of that particular step in making a graph.   (Details and a download of the anecdotal record form are here.



Reflections on My MTBosBlaugust

At the end of July, I decided to participate in a blogging challenge that @druinok initiated.   It is the perfect blogging challenge for me.   There were no rules or expectations, no pre-defined prompts, just an invitation to write, to  share, and to read as much as you would like.    Some people dove in with the plan to post every day.   Other people targeted a once a week post.   Still other people just targeted “more”, whatever that meant for them.   I fell into the latter category.   I didn’t really have a defined goal.   I just wanted to write “more”, which wouldn’t take much since I was so busy during the last six or seven months that I wrote hardly at all.   If I only managed  two posts during the month of August, I was going to count it a win.

I wanted to write “more” because writing makes me pause.   It makes me think about the choices that I am making in my classroom.   It makes me consider what I am doing and why.   It makes me think about how the choices I make are impacting my students.   It makes me consider things from another perspective.   It makes me grow.   It doesn’t matter if anyone else ever reads it.   If someone does read it and they find something they can use or that makes them think, that’s awesome but it isn’t why I should write.  I should write because of the thought that must go into the writing and what I do with those thoughts afterward.

As I look back on the month of August, I never would have imagined that I would write so much this month.   Some of it was more reflective  and some less so, but I am better for having taken the time to think in ways that I would not have done without this challenge.   So, many thanks to @druinok.


A Flurry of Owls

Yesterday, Diagon Alley began to take shape.

Today, there was a flurry of owls delivering owl post.


Tomorrow, students will begin shopping for school supplies for Hogwarts.   They will need to convert their Galleons and Sickles from fractions to decimals.   Then, they will determine subtotals at each shop.

On Friday, there will be a mini-lesson on finding the percent of a number so that students can calculate discounts and taxes.   (Flourish and Blotts is having quite a sale.   Of course, the Ministry of Magic must have their due as well.)   They will then set to work finalizing their expenses and making sure that they have stayed within their individual budget.

Not Teaching to the Test

Every spring my students spend a week taking the PARCC test.   Like every other teacher who sends students off to take the test, I want my students to show what they know.     Some people view the test as forcing teachers to try to teach to the test.   I’m not really sure how one would do that.    I don’t even try.   I teach the Common Core State Standards and I try to teach my students how to tackle different kinds of test structures.   One of those that my students need to be able to tackle well is the PARCC Math Test extended response question structure.   Today’s post is about how I start to teach my students to write an extended response.

Step One – Learning how a task is scored

I begin by introducing a task that is one grade level below my students current grade.  I choose a released PARCC item for that grade level that has anchor papers published to go along with it for this stage.    I have students work  individually complete the task.    I want them to be familiar with the math so that they can then focus their attention on how it is scored.

After students have completed the task, I have them work together in groups to score the anchor papers.   Each student scores each anchor paper individually, then they discuss the scores with their table mates.    The group comes up with a consensus score for each anchor paper.    This takes a fair amount of time.   (The completion of the task and the consensus scoring can take between one and two class periods.)

I follow up by giving each group the actual score that each anchor paper would have received.   I give them time to review the scores and compare them to their own group’s scoring.    I then lead a class discussion on the take-aways from the exercise.   These take-aways usually include the following.

  • The correctness of the answer matters, but it is only part of the score and usually not the largest part.
  • Each sub-part of the question has points allocated to it so it is important to complete each part.
  • The explanation or justification is a big part of the point  and it doesn’t have to be verbose,  it just has to be complete.
  • You have to actually answer the question asked.

Step Two – Applying What We  Learned

For the second step of this exercise, I have students individually complete a grade level task related to the work that we are currently doing.   I choose the task from a set of released PARCC items or use a Smarter Balanced Assessment task.  The following day, I have students peer review each other’s work.   Then, I let students revise their responses based on the feedback that they have received from their table group before turning it in for an actual score.

When I score the task, I use a published rubric.   If there is no published rubric, I create one before giving the task to students.   If I have to create the rubric, I try to mirror the kinds of rubrics I have seen in released PARCC items.   I tend to score pretty strictly on these tasks.   When I return the task, I give them feedback and share the rubric used.

Step Three – Ongoing Practice With the Test Structure

Because learning how to write a PARCC response is not a one-time event, I incorporate at least one task that will be scored like a PARCC extended response question into every unit.   I often give these tasks for students to complete on Quiz or Test days.   Students work on the task after they finish the quiz or test.    This means that they are seeing a question with this kind of structure about every two weeks.

By the time that they take the actual PARCC test, my students are very comfortable with this kind of test structure.    I don’t teach to the test.   I teach the content that I should teach based on the standards and based on what my students need.   I am just giving them the tools to tackle the test in a way that shows what they know.