How to Shift to a Student-Centered Approach in Parent-Teacher Conferences

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How to Shift to a Student-Centered Approach in Parent-Teacher Conferences

By Mitch Mosbey     May 30, 2016

How to Shift to a Student-Centered Approach in Parent-Teacher Conferences

This article is part of the collection: The EdSurge Guide to Becoming a Future Ready Leader.

Data, expectations, report cards, goal-setting, learning objectives, and parent-teacher conferences. These are just some of the responsibilities of teachers. (And trust me—there’s much more where that came from.) While not the most appealing parts of the teaching profession, they are also necessary to show the growth of students.

But what if some of these responsibilities were taken off the teacher’s back and given to students? As classrooms shift from teacher-driven instruction to more student-centered learning, teachers have witnessed how powerful it is when students take control of their own learning.

To share their learning with others, students are setting goals, tracking their learning, compiling binders, and leading others through presentations in the form of student-led conferences. While this is a shift from parent-teacher conferences, where teachers are providing the information to families, more and more schools are seeing the positive outcomes when they put the student in control. Jered Pennington, principal at Amy Beverland Elementary in Indianapolis, IN, mirrors this view:

"In order to maximize students' learning potential and success, key stakeholders must be fully invested in the process. With that said, why leave the most integral stakeholder, the student, out of the conversation?”

As Pennington goes onto say, “Student-led conferences provide a platform for students to serve as equal partners in the educational conversation,” and offer them an opportunity to “have a sound understanding of perceived strengths, challenges, qualitative/quantitative data, and desired learning goals.”

Why not help students to be the masters of their own data?

How to Prepare for a Student-Led Conference

First off, students start to compile a data binder at the beginning of the year. The binder is filled with assessments and work completed by the students, as well as student reflections.

Teachers might start out by having all students put in the same type of data, but over time, students will take more ownership of their binder after they begin to understand the process and the impact it can have on their learning. Once again, this is a reflection of the students as a learner, rather than the student as a data point. In my classroom, when having students set goals, I have them complete their own “Plan of Action” that states their goal, and then lays out how they want to achieve their goals. Over time, they independently decide on a specific plan-of-attack.

One of the most important parts of preparation is having students practice vocalizing their learning and explaining it to others. Sometimes, a sample script or bullet points help students first attempting student-led conferences. I have my students practice with different students in the class discussing their binders and then answering questions from their peers. This gives them confidence, knowing they are prepared for when family members and other adults are present.

What It Looks Like Day-Of

My school made the shift from Parent-Teacher Conferences to Student-Led Conferences a few years ago, and we still follow the 15-20 minute format that most teachers are already accustomed to in their schools.

This year, instead of the teacher driving the conversation, students were showing off their data binder. First off, students highlight some of their work that they are most proud of and explain the learning process. Then, they are reviewing data to show their growth thus far. And then, there are the goals—in fact, one of the most powerful moments is when students share their goals with family members. When a student is telling an adult how they want to be a better student, it is much more powerful than hearing it from their teaching.

What about the teacher?

Teachers are still present during the conferences, but only there for support. This is a shift from teachers having the typical “How do you think your child is doing?” and “Here are their strength…” and “Here’s what they can work on....” discussions. Teachers are there for one central purpose: to answer any misunderstandings, and further explain how they would support students in achieving their goals.

Don’t Stop At That One Fall Conference

As I reflect and plan for future years, I plan to have another conference towards the end of the school year to have students showcase why they are ready for the next grade level. Over time, it is very easy for teachers to simply stop setting goals with students, and following up on them after the student-led conferences. I’ll admit that when I first started it with these types of conferences, I sat down with the students and had great conversations—yet this slowly stopped, once the student-led conference took place. Hence, one fall conference isn’t enough.

Where Can You Learn More

Check out Twitter and be on the lookout for chats regarding students-led conferences. You can also check out various teacher blogs and websites. For those looking for a great book to read about the impact of student-centered learning, check out the book Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment by Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin.

For those that are trying to take things digital, there are more and more tools that support digital student portfolios online. My first grade students, for example, use a tool called Seesaw (@seesaw); Seesaw allows for my students to take photos and videos of student work, record voiceovers, write on photos to deepen their explanations, and import work from other apps. It also allows for great communication with parents because they can be alerted anytime students upload posts.

Seesaw is just one tool that teachers can explore. Other options include Padlet (which is a favorite of some of the intermediate classrooms at my school), apps such as Three Ring and Evernote, and other student website options like Weebly or Wix or blogging sites, such as Kidblog. While it might be beneficial when starting a digital portfolio to have students use the same tool, upper grades might like the option to select their own tools.

Onto you, educators. And if you’re still a bit reticent about taking that leap away from teacher-controlled conferences, I leave you with one final thought from Jered Pennington: “Traditional parent-teacher conferences may (or may not) lead to educational compliance, but student-led conferences lead to educational cooperation.”

Mitch Mosbey (@mitchmosbey) is a first grade teacher in Noblesville, Indiana at Promise Road Elementary.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Indiana). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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