I admit it; yesterday morning even I thought I was crazy. I was getting ready to unleash my students in their first student led conferences and with no experience to fall back upon, those 24 super nervous students were freaking me out. And then something magical happened; it worked! The students took their parents through an eloquent journey of their learning, and more importantly, flaunted their knowledge while setting new goals for themselves. I am sold.This beauty of the student-led conference was not something invented by me; in fact, many people have blazed the trail on this and I have even heard of kids as young as 1st grade leading their own conference. Therefore when I decided this year that the classroom was no longer all about me
, I was intrigued by the idea of also “allowing” students to run their own conferences. Every year, I am exhausted and exhilarated after these. Exhilarated, because it is a thing of beauty to discuss success, progress and goals with parents – exhausted because I talked and talked for 20 minutes a kid two or three nights in a row. Although students have always been required to be at their conference with me (why discuss them if they are not there to hear it) they were never really engaged. Conferences for them were a way for me to tell their parents how they were doing, and as such, a passive act for them, something they were required to listen to but not be full participants in. This year, I knew it had to be different.Always a believer in preparation, I decided that much as I prepare for conferences so must my students. We therefore discussed the purpose of them until everyone understood that conferences were there to show off their learning, not as a form of punishment or “telling” on them to their parents. Then came the real work; what would they discuss? I knew that these kids had never led a conference before and so they needed an agenda. Students therefore received a 2-sided agenda from me with what I expected them to discuss. (Another valuable life skills happens to be how to lead a successful meeting so this proved practice in that as well). They were given time in class to take notes for their conference if they felt they needed that to guide them; some did but not all, and they were able to ask any clarifying questions of the agenda and curriculum we had covered. Students were also asked to self-assess both their writing and grade themselves. I have to give them letter grades on their report card, even if I would prefer not to, and so they were asked to translate their performances and knowledge into grades. It was eye-opening to see how harsh they could be when judging themselves. Once students felt that they had everything prepared, we met to go over their papers. They were given a folder in which they could place anything they wanted to show at the conference, including their notes. And then we waited…
Our final question session was yesterday right before the first conference was to be held. Students all placed their conference folders in a safe spot and took a deep breath. I showed no nerves, even though inside I was second-guessing this decision with every teacher-bone in my body. It wasn’t that I thought students couldn’t do it, but more that I wondered whether parents would get it. Would they see that this wasn’t just a way for me to “get out of” conferences, but rather a much better way for the same information to be delivered? I am glad I was proven so wrong.
While some students did better than others, 1 never showed up, and 3 parents forgot to bring their kids, it was still incredible to hear and see the kids share their learning. Parents were given a recommended question sheet but most did not need it. They knew which questions to ask their children and I became what I should be; an accessory to the conversation. I jumped in when clarification was needed or if a child judged themselves too harshly. Otherwise I helped guide a little and then just listened and what I learned was so valuable. I got a better grip on how secure some of my students were than I could have ever gotten from just observing them in the classroom or let alone given them a worksheet. I also got to see another side of my students as they spoke to their parents, in essence representing themselves as members of my class to the outside world. I know what I have to repeat in class and what students get. I know what has made an impression on them and what I should skip next year. But the best part of all of this was the pride these kids took. And not just in their work, or their grades, but in doing the conference themselves. The parents noticed too and I therefore must declare these my most successful conferences to date. I am thankful for the advice given to me regarding student-led conferences and I hope this will inspire others to try it as well. If you let your students lead; you will be amazed. I know I was, and for that I am thankful (and proud!).
I have all of the forms I use available here