Student Led Conferences

Today’s blog post is from PLP Pathways Contributor Kevin Pioli-Hunt of Williston Central School’s Swift House.

Student-Led Conferences.....

…this practice is the biggest breakthrough in communicating about student achievement in the last century. When students are well prepared over an extended period to tell the story of their own success (or lack thereof), they seem to experience a fundamental shift in their internal sense of responsibility for that success. The pride in accomplishment that students feel when they have positive story to tell and tell it well can be immensely motivational. The sense of personal responsibility that they feel when anticipating what it will be like to face the music of having to tell their story of poor achievement can also drive them to productive work." Rich Stiggins, Phi Delta Kappan, November 1999.

Last Thursday, the PLP Pathways group had a webinar focusing on student-led conferences. During our conversation, we discussed systems for preparing (specifically the role of the teacher, student, and parent) and systems for conducting these conferences. As always, I left the webinar with more thoughts and useful ideas that I can apply to my own practice than what I entered with.

Here are some of my big takeaways:

Reflection, Reflection, Reflection

We spent quite a bit of time talking about student reflection and the role it plays with having a productive student-led conference. The PLP Pathways cohort shared examples and anecdotes of how they provide time for reflection, practice reflecting, and provide multiple ways of reflecting.

Time: A big takeaway I had from the conversation was how important it is for teachers to make time in their schedules for students to reflect rather than find time for it.

As we were talking about the various methods that we use to engage our students with reflecting (check out the webinar to hear about weekly goal reflections, mentor/mentee check-ins, and weekly emails!), there was one common thread amongst all of us, making the time for it.

Most teachers see the value and importance of reflecting, but have trouble finding time during the day or feel stuck in determining what needs to be ‘lost’ in order to have time. To those teachers who are feeling this way, my advice would be to give it a try.

Shave off 5 minutes of Math, Social Studies, or Science at different parts of the day to provide a weekly 15-20 minutes for students to reflect on their progress of their goals, and see if the end justifies the means.

Positive Outcomes: you’ll develop stronger relationships with students, provide them with time to practice a meaningful, life long skill, allow your students to get to know themselves better as a person and as a learner, and prepare them for leading their student-led conference. Negative outcomes: 5 fewer minutes of a core class.

Celebration vs. Event: During our discussion about student-led conferences, the conversation shifted to how we communicate what they are to students and families. The question at hand was do we view student-led conferences as a celebration of growth and learning or as an event, something that is on the calendar that we have to do?

This conversation really got me thinking about the power of language and how much weight someone’s perception of something can have. If we are preparing our students for their conferences and it feels like this big culminating event that must be completed, we are putting a great deal of pressure on our students and most likely causing unnecessary stress and anxiety around something that should be a joyful occasion.

We should be asking ourselves, “What’s my purpose for this conference and the conversations that I will have with my students and their families?” Most teachers would see this as an opportunity for their students to celebrate their growth and have the chance to advocate for themselves in a safe setting with a group of people who care deeply about them and are willing to listen to them.

If that is our purpose for conferences, we need to be mindful about how we are communicating that purpose with families and how we are setting our students up for success with this.

One easy to set students up for success is mentioned above: providing time for weekly reflections. By the time students get to their conference, it should feel like a conversation rather than a presentation because they have had ample practice with reflecting on their growth and finding evidences to show their progress.

What can teachers do?

Give students a voice in conferences as early as possible (ideally at the beginning of the year for goal setting). Always keep the conversation coming back to them, offering prompts such as “What would evidence of that goal look like for you?” “How do you feel about this goal?” “What went well with this goal? What was challenging.”

Make time for students to reflect and practice reflecting with them. Don’t turn reflecting into a long, laborious assignment. Let them use multiple means of reflecting (quick writing blurbs, Screencastify, voice recording).

Keep the conference about the goals and progress. If you want this to be a meaningful conference, give your student an opportunity to talk openly about their progress and listen. The PLP team (student, teacher, guardian/trusted adult) should all be able to contribute ideas and thoughts, but in the end, it is the student’s PLP and it needs to make sense and have meaning to them.

Use a consistent platform to create a portfolio of students’ evidence of growth toward goals. Provide students with ample time to familiarize themselves with the platform so they can easily navigate during their conference.

Be willing to be flexible with time. Meaningful conferences and conversations will not happen in 10 minutes.