Realizing the benefits of student-led conferences

Dina Marks has been named the new principal at Booth Hill School.

Dina Marks has been named the new principal at Booth Hill School.

Brian Gioiele / Hearst Connecticut Media

About a year and a half ago, I was asked to sit in on a conference between a student and her parents. This was not an unusual request, as I am often asked to sit in on parent meetings and conferences. This, however, was different.

The teacher sat back as the student spoke eloquently about the work she had done that year, ways her work had grown and improved, and things she still needed to work on. Finally, she spoke about her goals for the next year. The adults in the room, including me, were welling up with tears at her poise and confidence. I asked what she had learned about herself, and she replied, “I never thought I was smart before, but now I know everyone is smart in their own way, and I am, too.”

Well, that just about did us all in.

The teacher, though she did not speak much, played a large part in this meeting. She and other teachers were piloting “student-led conferences,” a method of conducting a conference in which the student discusses his or her work with a parent or other trusted adult.

Student-led conferences (SLCs) will be held in all Shelton schools this year. In fact, you might just be asked to participate in an SLC this year, so here is a primer to help you understand them.

Students, rather than being the subject of a meeting during which adults speak about them, will be the leader of the discussion. They will keep a digital portfolio of their work throughout the year through the use of the Seesaw Program or in their Google Drive. They can include any work they want, taking pictures of projects and assignments.

They will eventually curate their work to include specific examples in their conference discussion. They will be given an outline to follow, but write their speeches and produce their presentations themselves. They will invite their guests formally and help prepare the setting.

Although the student runs the conference itself, a lot of groundwork with mentor teachers has to occur prior to the conference date. The background work kicked off in November with professional learning for staff, who have to re-train themselves to sit back during the conference and allow the student to take the reins. The teachers will work with a group of students throughout the year, at first once a month, then increasing closer to the conference date. During these meetings, teachers will get to know the students well, helping them to reflect upon their work, defining strengths and weaknesses, setting goals for the future, defining possible career tracks, and choosing pieces of work to include in their presentations. The teachers work as facilitators in partnership with the students--providing guidance, but ultimately allowing the students to be the creative and driving force.

As for the families and guests whom the students invite?

Their job is simple — listen and enjoy the time with your child. This is not the time to ask questions of the teachers (you can always ask for a separate teacher conference), and they will redirect the conversation back to the student if needed. Feel free to ask your child probing questions, and get ready to pile on the praise. It will take a lot of preparation and courage to present to adults, even if you are their parents.

There are many benefits to student-led conferences, including:

• Improve parent understanding of not only how students are doing, but also the reasons behind the successes and failures.

• Gain greater understanding of student strengths and areas needing improvement.

• Create a stronger sense of student accountability and pride with evidence of work.

• Improve student-teacher relationships

• Develop student leadership skills, verbal communication, and critical thinking skills.

• Increase parental participation in conferences and student learning.

• Increase teacher focus on student growth and academic performance.

I believe the biggest benefit is the confidence and pride we see in the students when they have finished their conference with their folks. The look is priceless, and communication skills and insight they have made will serve them well in coming years.

Although not every student in every school will participate this year, that is the ultimate goal, for all students in all schools to conduct these conferences annually. Parents should inquire with their school’s administrators and/or teachers to determine if their children will participate.