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.
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