October 2018 Volume III Issue IX
Marcia Baldanza, the author of Professional Practices and a Just ASK Senior Consultant, lives in Arlington, Virginia. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.
Once More with Feeling:
The Power of Student-Led Conferences
Having been a principal, a supervisor of principals, and now a parent of a school-aged child, I notice carefully and purposefully meaningful engagement and involvement of families. I listen attentively when my son describes the community and culture of his school. At his school and others I visit when coaching principal candidates, I analyze the inclusiveness of events, both planned and unplanned. As I participate in activities, I assess the approachability of the principal and staff. I look for evidence that a school is open, welcoming, and inclusive. The leaders and staff at my son’s school (and at many others) demonstrate their understanding of the importance of creating this positive culture that includes families in real and meaningful ways. So far, families have had multiple opportunities to engage with school staff and one another. It has been a busy and exciting start to the year. Now, we’re turning our thoughts to the upcoming conferences.
Research shows that students with involved parents are more likely to:
- Earn higher grades and pass their classes
- Attend school regularly and have better social skills
- Not engage in drug use or other risky behaviors
- Go on to postsecondary education
When families, schools, and communities work together:
- Student achievement improves
- Teacher morale rises
- Communication increases
- Family, school, and community connections multiply
I made some significant observations early in my principalships relating to family/community involvement in the school. Here are some.
- People, even those without school-age children, care about having high quality education.
- Parents are involved with their children, although we may not recognize, understand, or appreciate the involvement. It is presumptive to assume that lack of “face time” in the school building equates to lack of involvement, concern, and support.
- Parents want to be better parents and want better for their children than they had as children.
- Grandparents are raising many children for a variety of reasons including parent substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration, and general inability to parent. Grandparents have different needs.
- When students feel good about their teachers and their principal, they communicate that to their families. The confidence the students show in us, encourages their families to get and stay involved.
- As the principal, the quality and quantity of the family and community involvement began with me. I needed to be approachable, clear, and inclusive.
- When my thinking turns to parent-teacher conferences, I immediately think of Terry Heick’s 19 Questions Your Child’s Teacher Would (Probably) Love to Answer.
As schools across the nation turn their eyes and calendars toward parent-teacher conferences, I wanted to take another look at this time-honored tradition by offering a few wonderings:
- I wonder why if we’re talking about student progress and goals at the parent-teacher conference, the student typically absent from the conference?
- I wonder if Hattie’s (2009) revised list of the most effective influences on student achievement identifies student self-reporting as the most significant indicator linked to raised student achievement, why do we still hold a 15- minute meeting where the teacher tells parents how their children are doing behaviorally, socially, and academically (although less now that most parents get grades online)?
- I wonder if reporting (as done at conferences) is about sharing information on student progress and achievement, how we can involve parents in real and meaningful ways.
- I wonder who is better at describing their learning successes and struggles, hopes and dreams, goals and aspirations than the most affected person in the equation—the student?
You may recognize my wonderings above because I have written about them in the past. You see, I have wondered for years why more schools do not involve students in parent-teacher conferences. Once again, I am using Professional Practices for the 21st Century Leader my forum to try to convince you to consider this approach as potentially more meaningful and meaning-filled parent conferences. Since I last wrote about this I reviewed some particularly relevant research on why and how to integrate student-led conferences. I share my learning and resources with you here, starting with an encore presentation of Yesterday & Today of Parent Conferences. Additionally, I learned about the Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT) that include and involve and includes parents in hands-on and data driven activities that are sure to keep them coming back for more. Real partnerships are formed among all parents in this model and real support is provided. Watch the impact videos and get started on this model today! I hope you’ll be convinced!
Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT)
Designed by Dr. Maria Paredes of WestEd, Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT) is a family engagement model that strengthens teacher-family relationships by focusing on student academic growth and achievement. The APTT Model elevates the effects of traditional parent-teacher conferences by inviting all families of the same classroom teacher to meet together rather than individually.
A 75-minute APTT meeting includes the following:
- A team-building activity to build rapport with and among parents and the classroom teacher
- The identification of a foundational grade-level skill that students are expected to master by the end of the school year
- An anonymous graph of every child’s status on the skill and one for your child compared to self, class, and state standards
- Teacher modeling of the classroom activities targeted to improve the skill (Cathy Kane at Starlight Cove Elementary in Palm Beach County, Florida, teaches parents in this video (www.vodcast.palmbeachschools.org/player/85UEW) how to play a card game that reinforces the meanings of Greek and Latin roots.)
- Parents practicing the activities together in order to use them with their child at home
- An individualized 60-day goal for their child on the skill and a follow-up 35-minute conference
- Materials for the practice activities to done at home
After 60 days, the parents are invited back to a second meeting to receive an updated graph of every child’s progress, share strategies that worked for them, and learn about another skill to focus on. Teachers and parents meet for APTT meetings three times during the school year.
The following videos of APTT’s impact should provide you with the determination to give lasparent-teacher conferences a much needed make-over:
- Family Engagement in Action: APTT New York City Department of Education
- What is APTT? Anchorage School District, Alaska
- Working Together for Students Palm Beach County, Florida
- Stanton APTT Workshop Flamboyan Foundation, Washington DC
- APTT in Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Ohio
Student Led Conferences: A Powerful Engagement Tool
(Note: I wrote about the next two resources in a previous issue. I consider them so valuable that I have repeated them here.)
Cherie Taylor-Patel put forth a usable definition of student-led conferences in her 2011 doctoral thesis Student-Led Conferences: How Effective Are Are They as an Alternative Reporting Method? She notes simply, “A student-led conference is defined as a conference lasting between 30-60 minutes run by students, for their parents to learn about their learning. During the conference, students present work in different curriculum areas. Students discuss the process of learning and the progress they’ve made, with reference to their goals and the criteria against which their work has been evaluated.”
Parent-teacher conferences have long provided parents with updates on their child’s progress and opportunities to see their work. They also opened communication between school and home. However, students were, and are today largely passive or even absent during traditional parent-teacher conferences. One way to fix this is to put students at the lead, as they are the ones who are responsible for their work and progress and can best affect outcomes.
Many of my secondary principal colleagues seek ways to continue to engage parents in their child’s education, especially after middle school. I believe that parents, students, and teachers would place more emphasis on conferences, if they were led by their son or daughter. In this era of immediate access to grades via online platforms, parents know where their child stands academically. What they might not know, however, are the academic goals set by their child or their unique reflection on their work and progress. What parents almost certainly do not know are any anecdotal remarks and feedback made by teachers and how their child responded.
In the student-led conference format, students and teachers prepare together, and then students lead the conference while teachers facilitate. The three may sit together to review and discuss the work and progress. The message is that the students are responsible for their own success. Student-led conference models vary, but the premise is the same: This is the student’s moment to share his or her reflections on achievements and challenges with his or her parents and seek assistance to meet their goals.
Adjusting to the new conference style can take time, but parents become more reflective about their children’s progress and understand how to help at home. The students also gain a better understanding of their strengths and challenges and the correlation between their effort, progress, and resulting quality of work. For the student-led conference to be most successful, roles and expectations must be defined and communicated ahead of time.
Below I summarize considerations to be given to new roles and responsibilities from the eight schools in Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century.
- From the beginning of the school year, students compile their portfolios consistently and thoughtfully. A portfolio for a student-led conference typically includes an agenda for the conference, a compilation of the student’s work in the class, and usually goal sheets outlining academic and behavioral standards for them moving forward, as well as how parents can help at home.
- After assembling the portfolio, students maintain them throughout the year. Usually, students use self-evaluation checklists or learning surveys to determine their areas of strength and weakness and set learning goals. Check out the resources from The Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning (WHEEL) School in New York City. Students must resist the urge to show parents their very best work and provide them with a clear picture of their school year and progress including their best work and their not-so-best work. Most important, students clearly communicate their progress and learning processes with their parents.
- As the conference date draws near, students rehearse while teachers model the process and give students time to practice in class prior to the conference. Students can rely on notebooks or notecards with their written reflections or talking points to help ease their nerves and remain on track during the conferences.
Additionally, students advocate for themselves during the conference. If they feel that their parents could do more to help them, such as keeping younger siblings out of their rooms or study space during homework time, they can communicate this during the conference. Because student-led conferences are reflective by nature, students must be honest with themselves and their parents when reflecting on their grades, effort, and study habits. They also should set appropriate goals for the next grading period or semester.
Parents accustomed to the traditional conferences and will likely want to ask teachers about classroom behaviors and performance. Parents may find the most difficulty listening to their student instead of asking teachers for clarification or explanations. During student-led conferences, parents focus the conversation on their children and reflect on their work with them. They look at samples and listen to their children’s explanations and reflections. Then, they ask how they can help and what the students need from them.
Some of the best questions that parents can ask center on homework environments and classroom efforts. This way they can participate in developing strategies to support their child and then remain consistent long after the conferences end.
- During student-led conferences, teachers take on the role of facilitator, rather than that of leader. Individual teachers or whole schools may determine the conference format; for example, one teacher might meet with students and parents, or a few sets of families might meet in one space with circulating teachers. Regardless of the format, teachers play a more direct role in conference preparation with the students than during actual conference time. For some useful tips, tools, and templates see The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) PowerPoint presentation on the next page.
- When preparing students for conferences, teachers outline student portfolio requirements. Often, teachers ask students to choose pieces illustrating areas for improvement, strengths, and personal choice such as work samples that make them especially proud. Teachers also prepare students for presenting their work. Ultimately, the goal is to help students communicate their learning and processes to their parents through work samples.
- Teachers also act as student advocates throughout the student-led conference. Parents may see lower than expected grades or hear surprising admissions from their child, so teachers need to guide discussions in a supportive manner that eliminates blame and promotes deeper connection.
- Some schools that implement student-led conferences, also offer parents an additional time to meet for any questions or concerns that they would like discuss in the absence of their child. I believe this could undermine the power of the “student” in the student-led conference and would avoid this, unless there is something of an urgent or a very private nature.
Preventing a Train Wreck
Lisa Westman begins her September 26, 2018 Education Week Teacher article “Fix Contentious Parent-Teacher Conferences in These 6 Steps” with, “Parent-teacher conferences can be some of the most rewarding – or the most stress-inducing—experiences of the school year for teachers.
If students are making progress academically and thriving socially, it’s a joy to discuss these achievements with families. But often, teachers may need to have more difficult conversations – discussing strategies for students who are struggling, or fielding parents’ questions about new school or district initiatives that teachers are implementing in their classrooms.”
Lisa recommends six steps for ensuring conferences with contentious (or concerned) parents are productive. She includes in her article available at www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2018/09/26/fix-contentious-parent-teacher-conferences-these-6-steps.html sample dialogue and insightful comments to expand on each step.
Step 1: Summarize what the parents say to ensure a common understanding.
Step 2: Acknowledge and validate the parents’ emotion.
Step 3: Ask questions instead of making statements to get a clearer picture of where the parent is coming from.
Step 4: Respond with evidence.
Step 5: Suggest an action, and ask the parents if this suggestion sounds reasonable to them.
Step 6: Follow up with the student and parents.
Have I convinced you to consider experimenting with student-led conferences?
Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only.
Please include the following citation on all copies: Baldanza, Marcia. “Once More with Feeling: Evidence for the Power of Student-Led Conferences.” Professional Practices. October 2018. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2018 All rights reserved.