Alec talks to Ron Berger about student-led conferences: what they are, why they’re powerful, and how to make them a success at your school.
The kindergarten student-led conference videos Ron refers to are here:
RON BERGER: When I go into schools, I often see that this one structure has been a catalyst for a transformation of culture in the school.
ALEC PATTON: This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. And in this episode, Ron Berger is talking about student led conferences– what they are, why they’re powerful, and how to make them a success at your school. Ron is the senior advisor on teaching and learning at EL education. He’s the author and co-author of several indispensable books on education. And he was an elementary school teacher for 28 years from 1975 to 2003. That’s all I’m going to say because Ron’s insights speak for themselves. Enjoy.
What is a student-led conference?
RON BERGER: Well, maybe the best way to start, Alec, is to say how different student-led conferences can be to what I experienced growing up. So this is how parent-teacher conferences went in my youth. They only happened in elementary school. And they happened once a year. And once a year my mother would go to school after school to talk to my teacher– never my father. And I had no idea what they were talking about. And the only possible outcomes was either I was in trouble or I was OK.
And so my mother would go to school, and I’d be worried and waiting. And then she’d come home and she’d say, your teacher says you’re doing OK, you’re not in trouble. And then I knew I wasn’t in trouble. That was the extent of my involvement or understanding of the process.
In contrast, in the schools that I’m privileged to go visit, every single student, multiple times per year presents his or her or their work to their families and reflects on– these are the things I’m strong in, these are the things I’m struggling with, these are the goals I set, this is how close I got, this is what I’m proud of, this is what I am excited about, here are my next steps, here’s how you could help me better, here’s where I need help more. It’s an incredible, powerful, and reflective process.
Kindergarteners do it, tenth-graders do it, twelfth-graders do it, this is what’s so amazing. It keeps a connection between school and home all the way through twelfth grade in the schools I visit. It’s incredibly powerful. Many of our leaders– of all the strategies that EL education and High Tech High and other traditions like yours, of all the structures that we’ve offered many of our principals would say, student-led conferences was the biggest lever and the biggest engine for improving our school, and creating an understanding of our work in our community.
ALEC PATTON: Why is that?
RON BERGER: Student-led conferences become an engine for so many changes. So from a parent and community and school relationship context, when you have a student led conference, parents are much more motivated to come to school because they feel their child prepared, they are there they want to be proud of their student, they want to be there for their student, they want to hear their student present.
Now that may be their parent, it may be their grandparent, it maybe their guardian, it may be the older sister who takes care of them after school. Whoever that family member is, I’m using family in a broad sense, could be a foster family. But whoever is taking care of that child often at home, the motivation is very different when that child has prepared to present to them. And so many of our schools are getting 100% attendance from parents. And we can nag them because we can say, Alec you got to get to school because your daughter is presenting. It’s a different kind of message.
In traditional parent conferences some parents are reticent to come to school. They may have been intimidated in school themselves, they may have not done well in school themselves, they may feel school is a little scary, they may feel, I’m undocumented, I don’t even know if I should be in the school. Or I don’t have good clothes to go to school, or school has always been hard for me, or my English is not so good. For so many reasons, coming to school can be intimidating. And if they think their child is struggling, they think, I don’t want to go there because I don’t want to hear the bad news.
So attendance and connection between home and school is so much stronger when students are presenting their own. Parents are motivated to come, and they’re empowered when they get there because their student can say, this is what I’m doing well and this is what I’m proud of, here are the things I need to get support in. And parents can leave that and think my own child has just said to me, I need support in this, I need support in that. Even if they can’t provide that support, they now understand what their kid needs help with. So it builds a bond between community and family and school that is really different than existed in my day for example.
Another reason it’s powerful is that it’s an engine for the change of teaching practice. Because when your students are being obedient and just doing what you tell them as a teacher, that doesn’t mean they understand why they’re doing the work, what they’re working on, what their goals are, what they’re working toward. In order for your students to say, here are my targets in mathematics, here are my targets in character, here’s evidence that I reached them, you have to prepare your students to be metacognitive and reflective learners.
Your students have to understand where they’re trying to get to and what evidence they could have that they got there. So you can’t have student-led conferences as a teacher without being pushed in your own practice to have your students be more empowered, more leaders of their own learning, more metacognitive, more reflective, more proud of their work. So you start changing your teaching practice to empower your kids more. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to speak reflectively and thoughtfully about what they do. So it’s an engine for community school relationship change and it’s an engine for improvement of teacher practice.
ALEC PATTON: Is it an engine for equity?
RON BERGER: Absolutely an engine for equity. Because if a student is empowered to be able to share what she’s proud of, she can bring in more of her life, more of the things that make her identity and who she is– then if the teacher is commenting on. So one of the challenges in equity is that we can stereotype as educators who our kids are and what their potential is. And without even knowing it, we have picked up stereotypes from our society about, this kid is homeless, this kid’s racial background, language background, economic background, physical attributes. We could expect less of them.
And if we are running the conference, we could transmit those diminished expectations and our stereotypes through what we share and what we say. If a student herself is sharing, she can say, here are the things I’m working on, here’s what I’m trying. She has this empowerment to share who she really is. And that might include the fact that she’s multilingual. It might include the fact that she takes care of her younger siblings at home. It might include the fact that she’s proud of her cultural heritage. Or that she has overcome physical challenges or cognitive challenges. It empowers in an equitable way kids to be able to speak about the things they can do well, their true potential.
ALEC PATTON: Thank you so much for that. This is– you’re not a historian but as far as you know, where do student-led conferences come from?
RON BERGER: Well, I’m not an educational historian, but I can tell you I’m old. So I can bring back to it at least, right? I’ve been in education 46 years, so at least I have some past in this. As far as I can remember this whole movement started with Ted Sizer and Debbie Meier, who in the late ’70s and early ’80s piloted this idea of student– what they call student exhibitions of learning. At High Tech High, they call them presentations of learning. At EL, we call them passages in learning. But whatever it is, it’s students bringing their work and sharing not only the work they did but the process of creating that work and what they learn from that process. What they were working on, what they struggled with, what they succeeded with, what their goals are.
And Debbie Meier started that at Central Park East High School, and it was actually an incredibly exhaustive process. It was 18 hours of presentations in order for kids to graduate. She took Ted Sizer’s idea and made it real at Central Park East High School. I actually went down and observed that process, very exciting. I and many people learned from that. So in the early ’80s, I instituted that at my elementary school, my rural elementary school where I taught for 25 years.
And so every graduating student from my elementary school, sixth-grader, had to present formally to the community a portfolio of his or her work to the community. What’s so powerful about that, Alec, is that I was at that school for 25 years, I left that school in 2003, there’s been six or seven principals since then, and those presentations of learning are still going on since the early ’80s. For 40 years, they’ve been going on because the community loves them. The community loves coming in and seeing the children of their community present themselves. It’s a powerful structure.
The pivot point was realizing those exhibitions or presentations of learning as they were originally conceived happen at rites of passage at transition points– between elementary and middle, between middle and high school, at the end of high school. And the power of that really needs to be every year. Why are we not empowering kids to do that every year? And then why are we not empowering kids to do that more than every year? Many of the schools that I work with do it twice a year or even three times a year.
And so it expanded from presentations of learning to student led-conferences in the ’80s. And a lot of schools started adopting that. That has even been expanded to many of our schools have student-led IEP meetings, right? So students that are on special education plans lead parts of their IEP meetings. And I know a lot of people will think, you can’t do that. You were talking about a student with challenges, with disabilities, however they’re going to frame it, they need to be out of the room when that conversation happens.
And what we have found is they don’t need to be out of the room for that whole meeting. There may be parts of the meeting where it’s important to talk about family issues or medical issues, where the student should be out of the room. But for much of that meeting the student can own and lead her own learning. And present– here are the goals I had, here’s the progress I’ve made, here’s what I’m proud of in my work. And so student-led conferences and student led IEP meetings can be a really powerful force. So I think it’s an extension of that great Ted Sizer’s idea of graduation through portfolio exhibition.
ALEC PATTON: Could you talk me through how a student led conference would happen in an elementary classroom just beginning to end.
RON BERGER: I can tell you what I’ve seen happen, and I’ve been privileged to go into lots of schools and watch kids present to their parents. And I would say that presentations range from about 15 minutes to about 45 minutes. An average is about 20 minutes, maybe 30 minutes for those presentations. Typically, the teacher is there or if it’s a secondary school, they’re advisory leader or crew leader is their present, because in secondary school, you have all those teachers, which one gets picked? The best choice often is their academic advisor or we would call crew leader in EL is present.
The students themselves greet their family members, whoever can come from their family. It may be their parents or their parent, it may be their grandparent, and maybe their foster parent, maybe– whomever has that kind of caregiving role with them. The students greet them and set out the rules and outline of what will happen in the conference. Like they actually run the event. They welcome them, they explain what’s going to happen, they explain the protocols, they show what’s going to happen, and then they lead the conference themselves.
They often share their learning targets, we would say in EL, or the objectives or goals for their work. And say, here are the kinds of learning targets I’ve been working for this term, this semester, this year, and I’m going to show you evidence of where I reached them, where I’m struggling, and where I can make progress. And then using their portfolio of work, they talk about important learning targets for them, and they show examples from their work of here are my goals in mathematics, here’s the progress they’ve made. They might show assignments, they might show projects, they might show test they’ve taken. Here are my goals in reading, and here’s the progress I’ve made, here’s evidence that I’ve made progress on my goals in writing.
And then they often say, and I want to show you some projects that are meaningful to me or that I care about particularly. So things that they’re particularly proud of, these are the parts I learned about it. Importantly, they’re not just sharing their work, but they’re sharing what they learned from creating that work. So it’s not just, here’s my report on this topic, but here’s my report on this topic, here’s what I learned about research work from that, here’s the strides I made as a researcher in doing this report, here’s what I learned about creating a bibliography and doing citations in that report, here’s what I learned about the content from that report, here’s what I’m proud of, here’s what my next steps are, I’m still struggling with this in this report. So they’re sharing not just products but they’re sharing their learning and their process in that.
I also– personally, am proud to say that most or all, maybe even all of the conferences that I’ve attended, kids also talk about their character. Their academic character, their personal character. I’ve been working on my kindness, we had goals for responsibility and compassion, I want to show you examples of that. So that students are also talking about their growth as human beings as well as their growth in academics. And they should also feel proud to share work that’s beyond school.
And so just like in a presentation of learning or a passive presentation or an exhibition, they should be able to say, and I want to show you some evidence from what I did after school in boys and girls club. I want to show you evidence from what I did in my soccer, or my orchestra, or my ballet class, or my horseback riding. Or I want to show you evidence from what I do taking care of my grandmother after work, or working in my parents’ business, or taking care of my younger siblings. That’s my example for compassion. Every day after school, I take care of my two younger siblings. Every day after school, I go to my grandmother’s house, I make her dinner. Those things can be powerful evidence as well. They don’t have to be only in school because it’s who you were this semester. It’s part of what you learned.
ALEC PATTON: That description sounds a lot like a presentation of learning or a passage presentation.
RON BERGER: Yes.
ALEC PATTON: What are the big differences?
RON BERGER: So the big difference is for a presentation of learning and a student-led conference. First of all, the audience is different. So in a presentation of learning you’re inviting the community in. And in some schools, the parents are on the panel but in some schools, the parents are only in the audience and have to just watch if the panel is school board members, local business owners, local educators. So it’s a different stakes when it’s a presentation of learning. Also, presentations of learning tend to be covering longer stretch of work.
So for example, in EL education, we actually don’t do presentation of learning every year. We do student-led conferences multiple times per year. But our presentations of learning, we call passages, and they are– when you’re moving between elementary and middle, you do a passage presentation. It’s a rite of passage for you. When you’re moving between middle and high school, you do a passage presentation. We actually stuck one in between tenth and eleventh grade because that’s a really important change to college readiness, and career or community readiness. And then at the end of high school, you do a passage presentation as well. So those are cumulative. They might be multiple years that you’re even covering in those.
Student-led conferences are best when they’re shorter bits of work because they are actually in the work right now. It’s not as cumulative, and reflective and retrospective, it’s also prospective. Because in the student led conference in many of our schools, they happen three times a year. So you’re coming in October and say, here’s what I’m working on, here’s what I’m struggling with, here’s what I really need to work on between now and January. And so there are combination of reflective and prospective, and they’re right into the minutia of what you’re grappling with in the moment. And how can you help me at home? How can I get the help I need at home to do better? how can I get your help here at school?
So I think of them as very similar, but I think of presentations of learning as longer periods, more aggregate, and more retrospective for a different audience. This is just and your family and your teacher in there digging into the work you’re grappling with right now.
ALEC PATTON: And how many times a year do you do student-led conferences?
RON BERGER: Most of our schools that I work with do it twice a year, some of them do it three times a year, and a few of them do it once a year.
ALEC PATTON: As your ideal just from everything that you’ve seen, what are the times of year that you recommend?
RON BERGER: I feel like there’s not a right or wrong to this question. There’s not one way that always works, nor do I feel like it has to be 3 times a year or it has to be twice a year. I think the schools that do it once a year still get great benefit from it. The schools are doing twice a year get benefit. You can get benefit no matter how often you’re doing it. I do feel that it can be helpful to have conferences before the culmination of a term because it gives you a chance to work on what you could do for the rest of that term.
And the other big question is most schools still have to do a formal report card, right? A progress report form. If that progress report form is given out at the conference or right before the conference, I think it’s less than helpful. It’s not optimal because the conference itself can become a justifying what’s on the form. Why didn’t my kid get an 80? Why did my kid get an A? Why did my kid get a four instead of a three? That’s not what we want the conversation to be about. We want it to be about the actual learning and the evidence of it. So in some ways I think it’s helpful to have those conversations before any kind of summative report has come out.
Also, if it’s halfway or two thirds of the way through the trimester or quarter, you have the opportunity to say, here are the things I’m struggling with but before the semester ends, I can get better at these things, you can work on them.
ALEC PATTON: Yeah. And how do you support a young kid to succeed?
RON BERGER: We have two videos that I love. Actually, all of our videos are open resources. So if any of your listeners want them, you can just get them for free. We have two videos of kindergarten-led family conferences that are totally different structures.
The first is a single student named Trinity, who is leading a presentation for her mom and dad. And in that video, you see her teacher explain that they actually practiced how to lead a conference and did a fishbowl with all the kids watching kids practice leading a conference for their parents, just like they’re getting ready for a play. Kids learn to speak about the work, learn to use metacognitive phrases, they got sentence starters of how do you speak about your work, they practice sentence starters, they learned how to speak about what they learn from their work. So there was a lot of preparation about how do you present yourself in that and a lot of practice about it. And they built a structure and a ritual of how to do it.
And so in that conference you can see Trinity run the conference, but you can also see her talk about how she learned how to do her own conference. We have a different student-led conference video that was shot just North of High Tech High in Escondido, California at Conway elementary, where the structure is different. In this structure, all the parents came in on the same day at the same time. And they each met with their child at the same time and the child presented to them and brought them around the room to different stations and showed them about their work. And the teacher floated around checking in on the presentations. So once again they rehearsed it, but it was a group event, like an exhibition, versus an individual event. And much easier to schedule because they scheduled it all in one moment.
Both of those videos when I watch them are powerful for me. Both of them look like structures that are very effective and strong for different reasons. And I think both could work.
ALEC PATTON: And when you talk through the structure of the student-led conference, you talked mostly about the presentation of the kids and what they’re talking through, how do you incorporate questions from the family and the teachers?
RON BERGER: I think the very first year that a school adopts student-led conferences, everyone is a little overwhelmed and freaked out and unsure of how to do it and parents are included in that. They’re not sure what their role is. Teachers are not quite sure. That changes a lot after it becomes a standard part of the way the school works. And after a few years of doing this, parents are used to coming in for student led conferences. It’s no longer tricky for them at all. They get used to pushing, asking questions, drawing out their student, drawing out the teacher, it becomes a dialogue.
It’s important though that the adults don’t dominate the dialogue. So if you as a second-grader bring your work and you start talking about it, and then your teacher and your parent figure starts arguing about it and getting off on a thing, you get out of the loop, that’s not the way it should be. However, I think, with practice, people get very used to being in dialogue with the student leading that dialogue. And it starts to feel natural once it becomes a tradition at the school.
At first, I think, it takes a little guidance just like with presentations of learning or passive presentations, it helps to have a little parent handbook or guide sheets. So when parents come in the first time they’ve done it, you give them a little overview that gives you, this is the flow, these are the parts of it, this is your role, here the kinds of questions you could ask, please wait for your child. So having written guidance when it first starts or for new parents to the school, I think, is very helpful. Those things are less necessary once it becomes a tradition.
ALEC PATTON: Do you have a favorite question to ask kids in student-led conferences?
RON BERGER: I actually– when I go into a classroom, and I have the privilege of sitting in and getting time to spend, I’m very interested in the work that kids did that they’re proud of and why they’re proud of it. And quite often the first thing they will share is something that they got an external good grade on or a good mark on, and then I pushed them beyond that. Just saying, but what’s something you created that was better than you thought it would be? I keep digging in that way. And quite often kids will then pivot to, Oh, OK. We’re not just talking about external acknowledgment, right? We’re talking about– I’m really excited about this.
And then the real passion comes out. And that’s a beautiful thing for me to see kids that even if they’ve done something small, they’re really proud of it. That’s something I can build on with them. In a student-led conference, I don’t come in with a particular question because every conference, I’m intrigued by different things. So I often channel my good colleague– he’s a colleague and mentor, Steve Seidel, at Harvard Graduate School of Education, whom I co-taught with for five years. When I go out to lunch with Steve, he always says, what are you working on right now? Not what products are you creating but what are you grappling with? What are you learning? What’s your learning edge right now? What are you getting good at? What are you struggling with? What are you working on in your professional life? What are you working to get better at?
And that’s something that intrigues me about student work. When you see a student who’s writing a story or creating a report, they’re not just doing it, they’re working on something in particular. Are they working on dialogue? Are they working on tension? Are they working on a powerful ending? Are they working on a hook to open it? Are they working on creating a character that’s memorable? Where is their growth edge on this piece? Are they working on a different kind of research? What is their growth part of this? What is the thing that this work represents as a step forward for them? So that’s often what I will ask when a kid shares a piece of work. What are the parts of it that you are really grappling with when you created this?
ALEC PATTON: Thank you so much. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you think is important to mention?
RON BERGER: Well, I would want to acknowledge that for a school to switch to student-led conferences is disruptive and hard for the first year. It’s not what parents are used to, it’s not what teachers are used to. And I just want to say, I want to acknowledge it’s hard. It’s hard for teachers and for parents and for kids. And it takes preparation, it takes rehearsal, it takes getting kids ready. That doesn’t stay for every year. After a year or two, it really flows but in the beginning it’s a hard transition. I think it’s worth it. And I would encourage schools that want to try it to be patient with themselves and realize the first time you do it, you might find kids are not as prepared as you wish, not as articulate as you wish, not as metacognitive as you wish. Parents are interruptive, or they’re confused, or they’re not getting what they need. Those kinds of things, you can adjust as you learn.
I would also say that parents often come into this with some real fears. What if I need to talk about something that my kid can’t hear? What if my husband and I are getting a divorce and I need to share that news with you, but I need to share it in a way that Alec is out of the room. So we can’t do student-led conferences. In that case, you think– of course, you can. You just let the teacher know that you need five minutes alone at the end of the conference, and then you do that. It’s not a [INAUDIBLE]
The other issue that parents often have is, I want to know how Alec is doing compared to the other students. I didn’t hear that here. I want to know where does he rank because that’s really important to me. And there’s different ways to deal with that. One is to say if you need five minutes with your child not there, we can always arrange that. That you don’t need special permission for that, we can always arrange that if you need it.
But in the long run, what we need to help parents understand is where they rank with their classmates is not actually that important. It’s where they stand with the competencies that they need for that grade level that matters. And so if they are doing well in all of their competencies for third grade, where they stand in with the other kids actually doesn’t matter at all because they’re doing well. We need to know are they on track in their mathematics? Are they on track with their reading? And I never want to put parents down for having that concern. That’s a great concern to have.
But we confuse that concern with ranking often. So ranking in the class is not so important. What is important is does my child have, at the moment, the competencies that one would expect them to have at this age? And if not, what do we work on? That’s a totally legitimate question. If the kids themselves can’t speak to that thoughtfully, then some alone time can deal with that. But I have many examples of videos where kids are able to say to their parents or even to an audience from the community, here’s where my reading level was when I came to the school. I was about a year and a half behind grade level. And here’s the way I knew that, we did these assessments, we did a math assessment, we did this, we did this. Here’s the progress I’ve made. I’m now slightly ahead of grade level. It took me some work but here’s how I got there. So it’s actually possible for kids to be the ones who share that with their parents. But if that’s uncomfortable, it’s certainly something that can be done without the kid there.
ALEC PATTON: Are there mistakes that you see teachers make regularly that you can just say, hey, don’t do this and you’ll get a better outcome.
RON BERGER: You could say there are mistakes. But I think of them as best intent but inexperience with the structure. The main inexperience with the structure and how it plays out is not enough preparation. Is assuming that all will go well without a lot of prep and rehearsal and thinking. Once your students have done this for a few years, they can run it. They can be really powerful and in charge.
But at the first year you do it, it’s very hard. And I think having enough prep time really matters for kids. And rehearsing and practicing really matters with kids. So I think the main sign of inexperience is not preparing well for it. And the other is not trusting students to lead things, and speaking over the students or letting the parents speak over the students. And so more and more we want the student to actually lead her conference. And as adults, we can tend to interrupt and speak over them.
ALEC PATTON: On that rehearsal thing, how do you have that rehearsal and preparation without it turning into a scripted exercise?
RON BERGER: Well, actually there are parts of scripted exercise that doesn’t bother me at all. The parts of scripted that are fine with me are those sentence starters that help you be reflective and metacognitive. So phrases like, a piece of work I’d like to share with you is this because, blank. Here’s what I struggled within this piece, it’s this. Here’s what I learned in creating this piece, is that. Here’s where I think I grew as a learner from doing this piece here. This is what makes me particularly proud of this piece.
Those kinds of sentences are scripted sentences. They’re extraordinarily helpful. And they don’t create a script for everything the child says, they create the entry point to have them talk about something important to them. So I think it’s fine to script student-led conferences in the entries to discussing their work. So a sentence like, one thing I struggle with this year is, blank. One thing I’m particularly proud of is, blank. What made this piece important to me is this. The growth I made here– you can see evidence of here. Those kind of scripted sentences are great for kids because their default is to tell you what you’re looking at. This is a report I made on Alec Patton. He is the editor of Unboxed. Here’s the picture I took of him. I interviewed him. Here’s what I did. We can see that looking at the work.
What we wanted to know was, what was hard for you about this? What did you learn in doing it? Did you have interview skills? Did you have photography skills? Did you have writing skills? Did you transcribe it? What you learned from it is the important thing. It’s natural for kids to go there. It’s natural for them to tell you what you’re looking at. And so the scripted sentences can lead you into the metacognitive explanation of them.
ALEC PATTON: That’s a great point. Thank you so much. All right, this has been tremendously helpful. Thank you so much, Ron, for taking the time. I’m really excited to share this with everybody.
RON BERGER: Well, I so much appreciate just having a chance to share and talk with you about it because it really is one of those structures that I think can be transformational. When I go into schools, I often see that this one structure has been a catalyst for a transformation of culture in school.
ALEC PATTON: And that’s why it happens as you said in the in the middle of the term.
RON BERGER: Everything becomes more student-led, deeper, more powerful–
ALEC PATTON: Thank you so much, Ron.
RON BERGER: –because this structure becomes a provocation for everyone thinking. How much do our students actually understand what they’re learning? How much do they understand the goals of learning? How clearly can they articulate what they’re working on? Can they tell us what they need? Those things get provoked by this structure.
ALEC PATTON: Yeah. Thinking of it as an assessment not assessment in the kind of grades way, but assessment in the collecting evidence and understanding way. The frequency of it is really important compared to a passage presentation or a POL. That you’re getting that regular touch is really powerful.
RON BERGER: Exactly. Yes, and it’s informative as much as summative that’s an important thing. It shouldn’t feel just summative.
ALEC PATTON: Well, and that’s why it happens, as you said, in the middle of the term. I like that.
RON BERGER: Yeah.
ALEC PATTON: Great. Thank you so much, Ron.
RON BERGER: And thanks for doing a piece on this. I think it’s a great topic.
ALEC PATTON: High Tech High Unboxed is hosted and produced by me Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Hershel. Huge thanks to Ron Berger for taking the time to talk to us. You can find links to the kindergarten student-led conference videos that Ron mentioned in the show notes along with some other resources. Thanks for listening.