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Students Take Center Stage

An Arkansas elementary school uses student-led conferences to provide developmentally appropriate and personalized learning experiences.
Principal, January/February 2016

As rigor has increased and as standards have changed, developmentally appropriate and personalized learning experiences are more important than ever. One of today’s instructional challenges is to determine students’ skill level, set appropriate goals, and then support them along the way.

Of particular interest to educators is the practice of having students lead their own parent conferences. Sometimes parent-teacher conferences miss the mark, but the student-centered version is an opportunity for students to exercise ownership and accountability of their own learning. Sonora Elementary School in Springdale, Arkansas, has transitioned from traditional parent-teacher conferences to student-led and student-involved conferences. According to Sonora Elementary principal Regina Stewman, the world has changed so much that we don’t even know the jobs that our children will encounter in the future. “Student-led conferences give students agency and prepare them to own their learning,” she said.

Sonora Elementary began this journey as a part of a districtwide initiative to accelerate student achievement, close the experience gap, and deepen student learning through personalized experiences. It turns out that student-led conferences— which take place in the fall and spring— have a bearing on all of the stated district goals.

Here’s how it works. Twice a year, the school organizes student-led conferences, which have replaced the traditional parent-teacher conference. Teachers work with students to develop portfolios and presentations to present during the conference night. The conference night is organized and promoted in many of the same ways as traditional parent-teacher nights—but with students presenting to their parents instead of one-on-one conferences between parents and teachers. These student-led conferences are scheduled four at a time, in 20-minute blocks, with the teacher rotating between the conferences and assisting as needed.

Teachers are now facilitators of conversations about learning instead of giving all the information to parents. “Instead of always having things done to them, they owned it and they were part of that process,” said Stewman. “We know that when a child can explain a concept to another child, or when a child can even reflect on their own learning, they gain more from that than from the adult telling them where they are and telling them what the next steps are.”

After two years of implementation, here is what Stewman has to share about the process.

On student-led vs. student-involved conferences
In the early elementary grades—pre-K through second grade—the conferences are student-involved. That means that the student is present and may have a small piece to share or explain, but the teacher takes the lead in the conference. At the upper elementary grades—third through fifth—the students lead the presentations. But we’re flexible because some upper-level students need more support. Teachers can make that decision based on the individual student.

On student preparation
We wanted to dig into teaching academic skills as well as soft skills. We have to prepare students for the professional business world, where you must have a firm handshake, be able to look someone in the eye, and be able to communicate in complete sentences. Part of the preparation is teaching students these key elements, like introducing parents to teachers.

Throughout the year, teachers set up portfolios where they keep samples of student work, connecting the data to grade-level standards and progression (we use the NWEA Map). The teachers use Google Classroom and send out the data to each student. (Our school is one-one with Chromebooks in the upper elementary grades.) Students are then able to enter their own personal data in preparation for their conference. Students practice with sentence starters and create a script. When the parents attend the conference, the child is able to explain and go over the information.

We want all students to be successful at this— including English-language learners and students with individual accommodation plans. Teachers create scripts for these students—and even scripts for the parents that include questions to help guide the conversation with their children. Kids need to practice, so we have had upper grade classes role-play with lower grade classes. The kids also practice with other adults.

On parent interaction
Parents had been used to direct interaction with teachers—so this was a difficult change for them. They liked to hear from the teacher about how their child is behaving and how they are doing academically. When we first started, they didn’t want to hear it from the child—they wanted to hear it from the teacher. But we assured parents that we could set up a separate meeting with the teacher, if needed.

The model actually allows parents more time because they don’t have to wait in a line while another parent takes an hour. The benefit is that a parent can come in, and then hear from their child. The teacher is flexible and can be pulled into the conference at any time.

During the conferences, I circulate in the hallways talking to parents. I let them know that student-led conferences are a way to let children be accountable for their own learning to make it personal to them, and that we want to parents to be involved. I also reassure them that they can request a conference with their child’s teacher at any time. Once they know that the traditional option is still there, they are perfectly fine.

Most parents tell me that they have heard their child talk more about school in that setting than they can get out of them at home. And it leads to more conversation within their household because now the parents know more about what to ask about and they know the child’s goals.

On personalized learning and student voice
Personalized learning comes into play when kids set their own goals in a personalized learning plan (PLP) that is set by the district. They are academic goals in math, reading, writing, science, or their own personal goals—but they must be based on evidence. So for example, a student who knows that she struggles with reading can set independent reading as a goal. At her conference, she can tell her parents that she needs to work on reading fluency, which means they need to practice reading for 20 minutes at home every night. Another student might make a goal about talking too much in class. The result is kids truly taking ownership of their learning, of their behavior, and their soft skills.

The key is to personalize the learning experience with PLPs. That is when the student voice is present, which is what we are trying to get at with student-led conferences. So many times these conferences are centered on teachers giving information to parents, and parents talking to teachers. So, for students, the conference has no impact. But with student-led conferences, you get the student’s voice and their reflection on learning as well as social behavior, which research has shown to impact student achievement.

On the benefits for students
Students like it because they are being listened to. They also like it because they are able to see the data about their performance and make goals based on it. I was in a classroom one day as students were preparing and reviewing a recent assessment, and I noticed one little boy start to look disappointed. It turns out that he could see the computer of the child sitting next to him and that child’s score was higher than his. He said, “I’m not very high.” I was able to help him see the big picture of the grade-level standard, and that he was above it. Together, we were able to set goals based on where he wanted to be. I left that room knowing that he had just been empowered because he knew exactly where he was struggling. In that setting he was able to see what his strengths and his weaknesses were. He was accountable because he shared it with his teacher and his parents.

On teachers’ experience
Like with any other initiative, teachers need some ownership. This is important because some teachers will find it hard to give up the traditional model of having parents come in one at a time. There must be a change in mindset on how they do things. So not only do they need training, but also they need to have some input in how they can tweak the process for their individual classes. The key is the time it takes to prepare, setting the kids up for success so they feel empowered about what they are sharing. At first teachers struggled with the timing and logistics, but now they love the process. They like getting the students involved and being very transparent about how they are progressing.

On best practices for implementation
As the principal, you can set the components of the conferences—but then let teachers have some autonomy as to how portfolios will be organized and what it will look like. Also, make sure that the portfolios and conferences are based on data. So, for example, document that a student wants to be a better reader with assessment scores and grade-level standards.

This shift impacts the amount of papers teachers send home to parents, especially as teachers become more tech-savvy in other areas. Be proactive about preparing parents so that they are aware that they will still receive information about their child—it will just be in a different format.

I have found that parents attend conferences at a higher rate if they know that their child is there, and that they will be presenting to them.

As told to Kaylen Tucker, editor-in-chief of Principal magazine.


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