Our Student-Led Conferences Were Falling Short. Here’s What We Changed.

Voices | Practice and Implementation Strategies

Our Student-Led Conferences Were Falling Short. Here’s What We Changed.

By Meghan Tufa     Jan 14, 2019

Our Student-Led Conferences Were Falling Short. Here’s What We Changed.

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

“Focus on your mantra,” I told myself. “Breathe in and out, go to your zen place,” my inner voice whispered. I wasn’t practicing yoga or daily meditation. I was preparing for parent-teacher conferences.

After over a decade of teaching in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and encountering countless parents aggressively accuse me of dashing the dreams of their children by giving them a B, I had developed a preparation ritual that even a practiced yogi would envy.

As I sat in my new classroom at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago, awaiting the first family to arrive, I wasn’t sure how things would go. There was certainly a different culture around conferences at my new school, and apparently students were supposed to lead them, but out of habit, I did my breathing exercises and recited my mantra. I was ready for whatever came my way, but as I inhaled deeply and opened my eyes, I was greeted warmly by my advisee Rob and his excited parents.

Rob set up his power point slides independently as his parents made small talk with me. “They’re smiling now,” I thought, “but wait until they see his GPA.” He began his presentation, taking us slide by slide through his current grades, his NWEA scores and the goals he had for his future as a YouTuber, a gamer or an E Sports professional. His goals were lofty and somewhat unrealistic. Rob felt that because he liked playing video games and knew of a few young people who had become YouTube sensations, that it was simple to do and that he could become famous.

After Rob’s presentation, I shared some handouts compiled by our school leadership team detailing his promotion requirements and we discussed them together. Rob committed to studying more, attending office hours and managing his time better. I kept waiting for the fall out, but as the conference continued, I realized that my breathing techniques weren’t necessary. There was no aggression, only active listening—Rob’s parents were engaged in what he had to say. Though their rolling eyes and stern comments communicated disappointment, they did not use the conference time to ask questions. When he was finished, they glared at Rob, thanked me and left.

Rob’s wasn’t the only conference that went this way. Many of my students had unrealistic goals. One wanted to play professional football but had never played before—our school doesn’t even have a football team. While we want to encourage our students to reach for the stars, we’ve had to have some tough conversations with students about the reality of their goals, and we now recognize the detriment to waiting until sophomore or junior year to say something like: “You have never touched a football, how can you expect to be in the NFL in a few years?”

Though I didn’t need to practice deep breathing for Rob’s conference, I walked away from it disheartened because I knew that it didn’t accomplish exactly what a conference should. We looked at Rob’s not-so-stellar grades and we chatted about his goals, but our conversation was surface level and nebulous. We hadn’t tackled the elephant in the room: the fact that Rob’s goals might be unattainable. Rob had completed and presented his slides, but now what?

The Origins of the Student-Led Conference

At Intrinsic Schools, while conferences are still a time for parents and teachers to talk, the spotlight is on the student, who plays a key role in the conversation. In fact, these conferences even have a different name: student-led conferences (SLCs).

SLCs are not exclusive to Intrinsic Schools—a charter school in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood of Chicago that serves a largely Latino population—but we have spent a significant amount of time honing and revising them to maximize their effectiveness as a tool to help students reach their potential.

We began SLCs in 2014, during the school’s second year in operation. They were intended to put students at the center of progress monitoring and designed to address typical conference topics like GPAs, exams and academic habits, but in a format that encouraged students to take active ownership in communicating their learning, goals and growth rather than be a passive observer. Our vision was for SLCs to prompt a series of ongoing conversations that followed each student year after year until graduation. We felt that this type of conference was core to the model of the school.

A central idea was that students should be in charge of presenting information during the conference. We knew they would need guidance, so we developed a Google Slides template to help. The idea was for students to complete the template during a daily advisory period in which a group of about 15 students gather with a faculty member who acts as a mentor, but it didn’t go smoothly. Advisory was 15 minutes on most days with a 30-minute period once a week. It was too short a time to squeeze it all in.

We learned some lessons that first semester. The slides were dense and at times confusing. Students required much more guidance than we anticipated, and it was challenging for one advisor to address the needs of so many students in such a short time. It was especially difficult to support struggling students like Rob, who needed additional scaffolding to develop articulate, realistic goals and to create a presentation that accurately reflected their progress.

Rob’s conference, back in 2015, was part of what I consider SLC 1.0—the first iteration of this conference model. What worked was that instead of bringing home a report card, Rob was able to visualize and discuss his progress and challenges. The SLC made things a bit more tangible. However, as the year went on, it became clear that it hadn’t made an impact on his academic behaviors. When we had his final conference toward the end of the year, it felt like lather-rinse-repeat: similar GPA, same goals and limited evidence of growth.

I wasn’t alone. Other teachers were voicing their opinions on the state of the SLCs. A few tweaks were made to streamline the slides. However, it was not until 2018, when we established our postsecondary team including academic counselors, administrators and advisors focused on how to support the postsecondary goals and aims of our students, that SLCs became a serious focus for revision.

Moving Toward Version 2.0

After extensive work by the postsecondary team, SLC 2.0 launched in 2018. We realized what a unique opportunity it is for a student to have an “audience” of people who care about them, are eager to listen and help them foster and achieve their goals. There were a few problems though. There was a lot to conquer in a short amount of time, the first iteration of slides and guides was too obtuse and we weren’t providing enough guidance for developing goals. We also had to face the reality that even though SLCs were happening year after year, an ongoing conversation following each student from 7th through 12th grade was not materializing.

Our first step was to streamline the information included in the student presentation template. Academics remained a key focus, but we now included specific GPA and SAT requirements for various colleges. Seeing specific numerical requirements for schools ranging from Chicago City Colleges to the most competitive universities across the country, we hoped would help students create goals that were more articulate and realistic. For example, Rob’s heart is set on attending the University of Illinois, and at his most recent SLC, we were able to set very specific goals for how to do this.

SLC 1.0 Presentation 2015, Credit: Intrinsic Schools
SLC 2.0 Presentation 2018, Credit: Intrinsic Schools

Another change we made was to include space for students to reflect on experiences outside the classroom such as Networking Night, an event in which students met with professionals and talked 1:1 about their education and career paths, and grade level retreats in which students had the opportunity to bond with their peers and teachers through activities like ropes courses. We wanted students to showcase their strengths, interests and achievements beyond academics to ignite conversations that could help guide students towards postsecondary decisions that matched their talents and interests, as well as their academic abilities.

In every iteration, the SLC has provided students with opportunities to reflect on who they are in the classroom and who they are as growing individuals. Rob has always been an average student academically, known more for his classroom antics than his test scores, but this year has been different. He came to me a few months ago, right before the first SLC of his junior year and in a very sincere tone said how much he was looking forward to it. He said he realized it’s time to mature and that he planned to use the new SLC format to make some changes for himself. Rob’s teachers have also reported that they have noticed a difference in his level of engagement and maturity as well.

As I sat in my classroom on the day of Rob’s SLC this past October, I knew there was no need for a mantra or breathing exercise; I was just as excited for it as he was. While he still has clear areas for growth on his GPA and SAT scores to achieve his goals of University of Illinois, he loved talking about the people he spoke with during Networking Night.

There were less eye rolls from his parents and threats of video games being taken away, and more conversation and realistic planning about how we as a team could help Rob meet his goals. After three years, it finally felt like the SLC was accomplishing what it was intended to do. I hope that our school community continues to reflect on our process and revise the SLC so it’s the best it can be. I also hope to sport a University of Illinois sweatshirt in celebration of Rob at his final SLC next year.

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