Student Led Conferences
Student Led Conferences (SLC's) might seem to be new but they've been around for awhile, at least 18 years - that's when I first encountered them as a newbie teacher. Since that beginning, I've had the professional pleasure of working with a number of school staffs and communities in adopting and growing SLC's. In my current position, this was our 3rd year with SLC's. Our school, a newly amalgamated K - 12 facility in a rural community, has an evening conference time and a morning conference when parents and their children can come to the school for the SLC. In my opinion, the best way to facilitate the SLC is to have them in the evenings/after school when both parents will be able to attend - as many families have both parents working.
Contrary to what many people seem to believe, SLC's are much more time intensive and require a great deal of preparation on the part of the student and the teacher. Especially in a high school setting where a student will have more than one teacher, there is a greater need to communicate the purpose of the SLC.
So what is the purpose?
For me, as a teacher, it began with a portfolio of student work, some I selected and some the student selected. We'd sit down with the parents and "discuss" the work. At the time, there were so few schools doing this type of work that our staff was working to develop these pretty much on our own. What emerged over time, was a realization that we needed to redefine the whole SLC from an event that took place at a particular time and date to a process in which we engaged students and parents and the date and time was just a formal meeting to discuss the process. Whoa- talk about a mindshift! Much as we talk about such things as Differentiated Instruction being a process and not something we do or RtI being a process, so are SLC's. They are a process that involves parents, students and teachers in the learning process and are valuable learning experiences in and of themselves.
SLC's need to be discussed beginning in September. The process of developing a relationship with parents about student learning should begin when the school year begins and the SLC will be a point in time to review, with the student leading, what has occurred. It also needs to be clear that regular communication with the home is essential. Parents need not wait for that conference to discuss concerns.
Spreading the Message
A good way to begin the discussion is inviting parents to an Open House and discussing the report cards, SLC process and other learning initiatives. Notice that I said discuss. Don't just tell parents what you will do but come up with ways to involve them in the discussion - topic tables, parking-lot discussions (a type of way to elicit questions) and teacher-led focus areas are some ways to involve parents. The first few times you have these Open Houses you may have a poor turnout but if you are truly open to what is being said, listening and then responding, your attendance will improve. People want to know you are listening.
Social media provides another avenue for you to elicit feedback from the community. Whether It's a school web page, a blog, a wiki, FaceBook, twitter, a Ning, Google+ or some other service, you can provide parents with an opportunity to be informed about what is happening and a way to provide you with feedback. A blog post, wiki page, Google+ entry, Ning page would be just some of the ways to provide information and elicit some feedback. A third way, which might not work in some places, is a simple mailout. Now, before you skip over this and dismiss it, my experience, being in a small community for a number of years is that this is by far our best option for communicating to the community. In fact, since we began mailing out our newsletters to the general community, everyone who lives in the towns our students come from, we've had more feedback and comments from ALL sectors of population. The community wants to know what is happening at the school and a large percentage do not use social media - yet. We've had more businesses talk to us about supporting our student-led initiatives than before and more of our seniors contact the school about events.
This helps set the stage for the SLC's. I would encourage staff to continue with the contact with parents either through small information inserts in the school newsletter, updates on the school webpage or FB or whatever is being used. These reinforce the message that learning is continuous and helps parents be aware of what is happening in the classroom.
The SLC "Event"
The actual conference can take a variety of formats and this depends on the age of the students and their familiarity with the process. As I mentioned, we are in our third year with SLC's. This year the K and 1 teacher have been recording their students' growth and progress using a blog. During the SLC, students were able to show and discuss their goals and what they had done through the digital images and recordings. They also had learning stations set up in the room where parents and students were able to explore the learning that students had been doing in the class. Feedback was extremely positive. Our other classes use a portfolio to highlight their learning goals and some use learning stations. In the elementary grades, feedback is positive.
It's in the middle years and high school that the SLC's aren't always as successful at the start. As a school, we need to better prepare all parties. Again, this comes with time and experience. As students become more familiar with the process, parents are more open and teachers become less apprehensive. People begin to discuss more openly earlier in the year and, eventually the lingering effects of the traditional Parent/Teacher interview fade away. Some parents, especially with students in the senior grades don't ever embrace the format and that is okay. We continue to provide them with more information through the many ways we communicate than they previously had and we are always open to parents coming in to talk about their child's learning.
In the MY and HS, we have adopted a scripted format to begin the discussion process. This helps to set the stage. Because we want the discussions to be led by the students and them to focus on their goals, providing them with a starting point relieves some of the pressure they feel. Some of these students still are not very comfortable with discussing their learning. We began this year with asking teachers to have their students set learning goals in each of their classes and then, periodically, reflect on those goals. This was the basis for the discussions at SLC's. We still have work to do to help everyone to see that this is a part of learning and being able to present one's work, thoughts and ideas are essential skills.
In my experience as a classroom teacher, it was during our fourth year that we really noticed a change in the way parents and students interacted during the SLC's and just a general change in the whole home-school communication when it came to student learning. The 7th year, my last at the school, was very different in so many ways. However, one of the keys was, up until then, a small turn-over in staff. We had worked in PLC's to improve our SLC's and this continuity was important in growing this process.
SLC's are not new. We have new means to communicate with parents and students have some different mediums in which they can discuss their learning but the interpersonal skills that are needed and so key haven't changed and the need for teachers and parents to invest in this process is still vitally important. Most of all, it takes time for all parties to work through the process.