Confession: I look forward to parent conferences. I value the opportunity to connect with families face-to-face. But discussing report cards? Ugh. After 16 years of traditional parent conferences, I decided to make a good thing even better.
Student-led conferences intrigued me. The basic concept: students lead the conferences about their academic progress. They take ownership of their learning experience, sitting at the table with parents and teachers. Older students generally share their body of work through portfolios and work samples.
But how could it look for primary students? Nine years into implementing student-led conferences with primary students, I've found this is the key: have students demonstrate what they can do.
What Happens at a Student-Led Conference
Parents come into the classroom with their children. Together, families visit four learning stations set up around the classroom. I schedule two conferences every half-hour period. Families move from station to station as they complete each task.
Each station is designed to take about five minutes. Parents can read the instructions and interact with their children, but should observe and not participate in the activities. I circulate around the stations, answering questions and providing feedback on student progress.
The Benefits of Student-Led Conferences
- Students actually show parents what they know and are learning in school.
- Parents are exposed to materials and activities that students engaged in during the school day.
- Teachers can observe interactions, comment, offer suggestions, and model strategies.
- Students, parents, and the teacher are all active participants in the conference.
Where to Start
1) Decide on areas to highlight. (I usually choose reading, writing, math and science.)
2) Consider what students should know and be able to do in those areas at this time of year. What is most important? (Keep in mind that less is more; you cannot address everything in 20 minutes.)
3) Identify simple activities to demonstrate students' understanding of specific standards.
4) Figure out how to organize and set up the activities.
What It Can Look Like
My conference stations typically involve large display boards and tubs, but I have colleagues who use large plastic Ziploc bags or who just place materials on students' desks. Whatever you use, make sure it is simple to take out and put away. Instructions should be easy to follow.
Example One: Science
Example Two: Reading
Example Three: Math
Example Four: Writing
Helpful Tips for Organizing Student-Led Conferences
- Keep it simple. One- to three-step directions work best. You want for your students to be able to show what they know—not to leave parents trying to figure what they are supposed to do.
- Limit handouts. I once provided rubrics, standards, and lots of home activities at each station—but most parents didn't take them. A sheet for jotting down notes is all that parents really need. You can post additional handouts online or provide them per request.
- Provide translations. Provide pathways for non-English-speaking parents to participate. I try to schedule Spanish-speaking parents at the same time, so that I can make sure there is someone to translate for them. If there is no translator available, I make sure directions are translated ahead of time.
- Together is better. Find a buddy! I once asked two colleagues to join me in trying out student-led conferences and we split the amount of work, each taking on a subject and creating stations for the others. My kindergarten colleagues are now doing student-led conferences, so when students and parents come to me in first grade, they already know what to expect!
- Practice with students. This is the best way to try out your stations. Introduce each task so that students know what to expect when they arrive.
Yes, this is more work than sitting down with each set of parents, but trust me, it's worth the effort. Students feel ownership of their learning and look forward to showing their parents what they know.
Parents get a much better sense of what is happening at school and how to continue that at home.
Anyone else out there doing student-led conferences with students in the primary grades? Please share your experiences.
Center for Teaching Quality is writing a series of blogs in partnership with Teaching Channel. CTQ is transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders.
Jane Fung is a National Board Certified Teacher in urban Los Angeles, where she currently teaches 1st grade. She serves on the board of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, and she is an active member of Accomplished California Teachers, Milken Educator Network, and the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory. Jane has a master's degree in curriculum and instruction and 25 years of teaching experience.