The following is an excerpt from Kelly Williams’ chapter “Making Student Learning Public,” from the book Hands And Minds: A Guide To Project-Based Learning For Teachers By Teachers. This excerpt has been lightly edited and updated to reflect the new prevalence of videoconferencing. Order the book from Amazon.
It’s mid-semester. A student, her teacher, and a family member sit around a table. The student’s laptop is open to her digital portfolio as she discusses her progress thus far in the semester. She celebrates a personal narrative she wrote for English class by pointing out her use of voice and reflects on how and why she is struggling with a particular project. She sets goals for the rest of the semester and establishes a plan for how to achieve these. The student is the leader in this discussion: this is his student-led conference (SLC).
Traditional parent-teacher conferences often only passively include the student, if at all. Student-led conferences are just the opposite. In SLCs, students lead family members and teachers in a reflective conversation about their progress grounded in artifacts and evidence from class. The discussion goes beyond merely showing assignments. Instead, it is a deeper conversation about areas of strength and growth as identified by the student, and draws on specific pieces of work selected by the student as evidence of his or her experiences in school. Traditionally, parent-teacher conferences are reserved for younger students or for those who are struggling in school. SLCs are for all students, as every student needs the opportunity to open windows into his or her learning experiences and lead a thoughtful conversation with important adults who will provide support for progress and growth.
SLCs are a vital way to empower students to take an active role in their learning and to communicate their experience and plans for the future to their family members and teachers. SLCs provide an opportunity for students to build personal agency and develop confidence in their academics and communication skills. In conducting SLCs, students also develop skills that will be vital as they progress through school and beyond. Like exhibition and POLs, students learn how to organize and present information, make a claim and support it with evidence, ask and answer questions, adapt their speech to the appropriate setting, make appropriate eye contact, and reflect and assess their strengths, challenges, and goals. SLCs function as a student-engaged assessment piece where students are able to make connections between their attitude, effort, practice, and increased achievement. They offer a way for students to develop a growth mindset and are an ideal way for students to demonstrate their learning to others.
SLCs invite families into an important conversation about learning. They bridge gaps between school and home by helping families understand the school’s values and what their student’s learning process looks like. Learning becomes transparent as parents are invited into the conversation with their son or daughter and the teacher contributes supportive dialogue.
It is important for teachers, students, and audience members to clearly understand their roles at a student-led conference. SLCs work best when teachers and parents take a step back and students take charge.
In addition to communicating the importance of SLCs and developing the schedule, teachers must work with students regarding their commitment to academic success. A teacher must establish clear expectations and guidelines for students, arrange time for student reflection, provide SLC guiding questions, and supply a space for SLC practice. Throughout all of these activities, teachers facilitate student leadership over the SLC with a few key practices.
How will I prepare my students for SLCs?
What will students share during the SLC?
Students are the leaders, presenters, and facilitators in a meaningful student-led conference. They have arrived at the conference with a collection of artifacts that illustrate their experiences in school, and they understand the need to speak to various questions about their education and guide a conversation with at least two important stakeholders in their lives: their teacher and a parent or guardian.
With teacher assistance, students select work they are proud of and articulate how the sample provides evidence of their progress toward specific learning goals or skills. Prior to the SLC, students practice with a peer so they are ready to lead the conversation. At the SLC, students answer open-ended questions about specific experiences in school or follow a protocol to ensure a conversation with appropriate depth and breadth. The questions, collection of work, and rehearsals provide students with the framework to lead an important conversation about their learning.4
The student is in charge. The structure of the SLC helps empower students and builds a sense of responsibility and accountability for their own learning. It shows students that they can talk to their parents about their learning, and gives them a framework for doing so. The student is expected to present his/her learning in detail and depth. They should not merely describe assignments completed in class, but rather reflect on personal growth and explain what was deeply learned through that work. The student can use the SLC to help teachers and parents understand what helps him or her learn, as well as what makes learning challenging. Finally, the SLC should be viewed as a communication tool. It is an opportunity for students to voice their needs, for teachers and families to help set up supports, and for everyone to celebrate accomplishments and growth.
SLCs help students:
SLC audience members are typically family members and/or guardians. The audience member’s role is to be present, listen carefully to the student’s presentation, ask thoughtful questions, and support the student’s learning goals and academic progress. SLCs place family members in an authentic, helpful role. The teacher should provide an opportunity for audience members to offer reflections and questions as a means of extending dialogue. SLCs can go awry should family members become fixated on low grades or uncompleted work, especially if the SLC lacks a safe space and structure to discuss supports and strategies for moving forward. Teachers can intentionally plan for this potential pitfall by providing family members with tools such as clear protocols for dilemmas (this may even be the opportunity to have a private conversation later), and supportive yet probing questions to ask of the student. These tools can be emailed home or provided directly to families at the SLC in the form of a pamphlet or handout.
Teachers may provide family members with the following questions to ask:
SLC’s can be done in person, via video conference software, or in a hybrid format.
When doing SLC’s in person, students and family members should learn where SLCs are taking place: in a classroom, conference room, offices, the school library, common areas in a grade level, etc. Teachers should consider comfort level, noise level, and the arrangement of the room itself. Most SLCs will take place in the classroom, but other spaces like a teacher’s office or a conference room may be used as well.
When planning fully online SLC’s held on a video conference platform, the same concerns apply, plus one more: in addition to thinking about comfort-level, noise, and similar issues, conversations over video can be much smoother if there is a clear speaking order. In SLC’s, that typically means that the student takes the lead in each section of the conversation, and the parents and teachers respond.
A third option is a hybrid: two of the key stakeholders meet together in person, and the third joins the conversation via video conference. That could mean that the student and teacher meet together in person, in school (maybe during class), and the parent or guardian joins via video conference. Alternatively, a student and family member could be together at home conferencing with their teachers via video. Regardless, the important part is to leverage technology and the potential for some in-person scheduling to connect students, teachers, and families.
It is essential that the SLC schedule is set up well in advance, similar to scheduling POLs, and that families understand the significance of SLCs and what to expect. It is also important that SLCs be scheduled for times and places that allow for the greatest turnout. Teachers should make appointments that accommodate parents’ schedules, have translators available if necessary, and make backup plans should parents be unavailable.
Questions to consider when scheduling SLCs include:
Ways to schedule SLCs:
If parents are unable to attend the SLC:
There are many ways to do SLCs and it is dependent upon teacher preference, grade level, school calendar, family needs, and available time. It is important that SLCs occur midway through the grading period or sooner to provide feedback the student can work with; students should have enough time to make adjustments and improvements before report cards are issued. Timing will help establish the agenda of the SLC and its implementation structure.
Potential structures for SLCs include:
Overall, SLCs’ focus on student ownership and progress helps build a better academic community. SLCs can dramatically change the attitude and behavior of all students, especially struggling ones, because they become part of the decision making. Family members, teachers, and students come together around a student-led vision for growth, which creates a better, more self-aware citizenry.
Greetings Parents & Guardians,
Welcome to Student Led Conference season for the Spring 2017 semester. Student Led Conferences, or SLCs, are a great opportunity to come to school to see your student’s work and talk about progress and goals for the semester and beyond.
The SLC schedule is attached to this email and available on our digital portfolio. The schedule can be altered to suit your needs.
We have set aside Wednesday and Thursday afternoon for families who prefer to come to school in the later afternoon or early evening. Earlier times on Thursday are reserved for those who need an early afternoon SLC time.
If your time does not work for you and your family, please contact ____________with one or two other time slots as suggestions. Please note that we cannot accommodate more than four families per fifteen-minute time slot.
You can reach us at ____________________
We look forward to seeing you in a couple weeks!
Saludos Padres y Tutores,
Bienvenidos a la temporada de conferencias dirigidas por los estudiantes (SLCs) para el semestre de primavera del 2017. Las conferencias dirigidas por los estudiantes son una gran oportunidad para venir a la escuela a ver el trabajo de su estudiante y hablar sobre su progreso y sus metas para el semestre y más allá.
El calendario de SLC se adjunta a este correo electrónico y está disponible en nuestro portafolip digital (DP). El horario puede ser modificado para satisfacer sus necesidades.
Hemos reservado el miércoles y el jueves por la tarde para las familias que prefieren venir a la escuela un poco más tarde. Las horas más tempranas del jueves están reservadas para aquellos que necesitan una hora de SLC más temprana.
Si la hora asignada no funciona para usted y su familia, por favor comuníquese con ____________ con una o dos horas sugeridas en las cuales estan disponibles. Tenga en cuenta que no podemos acomodar a más de cuatro familias por intervalo de tiempo de quince minutos.
Puede comunicarse con nosotros en ____________________
Esperamos verlos en un par de semanas!