As conference time is upon us, I am reminded of one of my major career “catapult” moments: initiating student led conferences. As I began to leverage the enthusiasm, ambition, and inquiry of the students in my classroom, I quickly began achieving more by doing less. As a result, I discovered an invaluable, always accessible, and unlimited resource in my classroom: my kids. This applies to all things, but I will share my learning progression as it pertained to initiating student led conferences.
Setting the scene: It was a century ago (1999). I was teaching 3rd grade and had one bulky computer in my room. The entire school (500 kids) had a hub of 30 laptops that could be signed out. No wi-fi, so cords, wires, and power strips littered the hub. I was a 2nd year teacher who had grown up without a computer, and was as far from a techie as one could possibly be. I had just finished my first year of teaching, and spent the summer taking a few student centered “tech” classes (HyperStudio, KidPix, Inspiration, Kidspiration, etc).
I was excited to put my new toys to use in my classroom; however, I was terrified of the equipment and the set up. I had no idea what the difference was between the blue cords and the yellow cords, or what plugged into what. But Kyle did. Kyle was one of my 3rd graders, and had a passion and extreme depth of knowledge of “tech stuff”. So, every morning Kyle volunteered to show up early and plug everything in for me, log in every computer, and set up the day’s program we’d be using. I would watch him, ask him questions, and have him show me how to do things. I wanted to become a techie like 8 year old Kyle…
The way things had always been: They were called Parent-Teacher conferences for a reason. Students were not a part of them. Teachers told parents about their kids for 15 minutes, then the next parents came in. Sometimes, parents would receive and take a different message home than was intended by the teacher.
I didn’t see the point of me entirely telling a parent about their kid. I wanted kids to tell parents about themselves and their work, goals and progressions, challenges and plans of action…
Phase 1: Students need to attend their conferences. I shared my preliminary vision with my principal and asked if I could request students to attend. Her response was, “The kids are only 8!”, to which I replied, “I know, they’re 8. They can do this!” I was told I could not make kids attend, but could ask. So I did, and got 100% attendance!
Phase 2: Students need to share. Not only did all of my kids attend, but some even improvised and voluntarily commented and shared! The response from parents was great, as hearing from their kids has a different value than hearing from the teacher. So, in anticipation for our next round of conferences, we prepared and practiced sharing. I offered some prompts and sentence starters, and my kids really took to them.
Phase 3: Students have examples of work, progress, & action taken as part of plans. A nice surprise that evolved from students taking to the verbal sharing was they wanted to provide evidences. To keep things organized, accessible, and mobile, with Kyle’s help we began creating electronic portfolios using Hyperstudio, Kid Pix, Inspiration, and KidSpiration. With so much value and enthusiasm being inserted by my kids, 15 minutes wasn’t going to be enough. So, we experimented by extending to 30 minute conferences, two at a time. We set up families in opposite diagonal corners of the classroom, and I set up a boom box (1999, remember?) in the middle of the room between them to provide some auditory privacy. Students shared and led with such pride, and parents were extremely engaged. I was able to simply float between the families, filling in where needed.
Phase 4: Get out of the way and simply support where necessary! Things went so well during our conferences, 30 minutes was not enough time. I had to kick out every single family. Because they knew that everything we did could potentially be something they share in the spotlight of their conferences, kids began taking serious ownership of their daily learning, behavior, reflections, goals, and action plans. In other words, school was becoming what school is supposed to be! So, moving forward, we set up 60 minute conferences, four at a time, one family per corner of the room, boom box tunes in the middle providing auditory privacy, with me floating.
Families could come and go as they pleased during their 60 minute blocks. For many families, 60 minutes was still not enough. So, we (Kyle, who was now in 4th grade but still came back to help me) set up laptops outside of our room for families to begin early or continue after their 60 minute blocks.
Benefits: Students can achieve anything put on them. As I learned, what was hindering my classroom was not my students’ learning, but my comfort in the rigor of things I limited myself to putting on my kids. My student led conferences progression spanned 2 years (4 rounds of conferences). What I put on my 2nd cohort of kids was much more complex than what I put on my 1st cohort; however, to the kids it was simply how we did things and the expectations of what they knew 3rd grade to be. As I learned something new, became comfortable, and shared A, B, and C with kids, they took it in as A, B, and C. As I evolved to D, E, and F, then G, H, and I, then J, K, and L, kids were still taking it in as A, B, and C. Because to them, it was all they knew. It simply was how we did things.
During daily instruction and learning time, I rarely had to discipline kids and never pointed to a poster of rules not to break. We simply reminded ourselves, “Am I going to be proud to share this during conferences?”
In Summation: Student led conferences promote ownership and accountability in learning. It gives meaning to daily work and builds community around expectations. Implementation paces will vary dependent upon district initiative, building administrative support, culture, and your own comfort.
My journey began with an immense fear of technology, and resistance from a principal’s perspective that kids should not even attend conferences because they were only 8. It progressed to those same 8 year olds leading 60 minute conferences twice per year. It resulted in our student led conferences being filmed and used for presentation as a district initiative of student led conferences all the way down to Kindergarten.
Students consistently monitored themselves, their learning, and behavior, invested in their goals and plans of action, and achieved beyond anything I could have put forth for them at the time. By relinquishing control and utilizing the number one resource in my classroom, rigor was increased on all levels.