I remember the first time I sat in on a student-led conference. Our youngest son was in the fifth grade, and it was conference week. We received a letter from the teacher informing us that students would be leading their conference. The big day came; our son was a bit nervous when he began, but his voice grew stronger as he shared several pieces of work that he was proud of. They were assignments he had worked on in class. One was for the book they were reading, and it was a diary with illustrations and entries from the main character’s point of view; another was a math problem-solving assignment where he had to show his work and explain his thinking, and the third was an art project. He also shared a couple of assignments where he felt he could have improved his effort, and he shared what his goals were for the remainder of the year. In subsequent quarters, our son’s report card included a self-assessment with new evidences of learning as well as his reflections on how he was doing on his goals. I was so impressed, and when I became a principal, I hoped we could include students in their own conferences. Several teachers decided to try it out with great success, and after hearing from these teachers, student-led conferences became part of the culture at our school.
Students as young as preschool were able to sit in on a conference and share some of their work with their parents. In the process, they were able to work on their communication skills, something which many of those preschoolers had difficulty with. Our teachers had flexibility on how they used the time allocated for conference week. Some chose to schedule twenty-minute blocks of time for each student and his/her family. Others had several families come in for a longer time period, and the teacher rotated to each group while students shared their portfolio of work with their parents. Other teachers scheduled two families for 40-minute blocks; students were able to “walk the room” for half the time with their parents, sharing the different activities in each area while the teacher sat with the other family and guided the student as he/she shared their work and reflections with their parents. Walking around during these conferences was a proud moment for me as a principal. Parents were beaming with pride, some with tears in their eyes. We realized how empowering these conferences were for their children. These student-led conferences showed us that it is the learner who is most important in school, and it is the learner whose voice needs to be heard.
Report card grades or a student’s score on a standardized test don’t necessarily tell us about what the child has learned or what the child is interested in. Reflections, sharing self-selected work, and goal-setting ensures that the student, the parent, and the teacher are invested in helping the child make progress towards their goals. We want our students to be self-directed learners and to set goals for themselves, and to know that the teacher and the parent are there to support them. That three-way partnership goes a long way to ensuring success for the student.