Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Value of Student-Led Parent Conferences

I am indebted to my colleague, reader, and fellow blogger, Steven Zemelman, for this guest post. As a follow-up to my recent posts on the limits of grading, Steven looks at one very promising alternative to grades for student evaluation

By Steven Zemelman

Ina recent blog post, Russ wrote about the severe limitations of grades in communicating to parents about their child’s learning. It seems that while many teachers consider traditional letter grades to be problematic, they believe parents demand grades as a measure of how their child is doing.

This discussion reminded me of the many teachers and schools around the country using student-led parent conferences to give parents a more in-depth look at how children are doing. To define it briefly, in student-led conferences students show, explain, and sometimes even demonstrate for their parents or guardians the work they’ve been doing in school. This can take place on a parent night or successively scheduled teacher-parent-child meetings. Yes, there’s time and work involved. Effective conferences must be preceded by considerable preparation on the students’ part, but it is preparation that immerses them in review, reflection, and the writing out of explanations. So it’s not an “extra” task but rather a deep learning experience that can substitute for review time that both children and teachers often find tedious. Further, it helps parents understand how the teacher approaches instruction, as well as their child’s strengths and challenges, and how they can help at home. And especially important, it empowers young people to use their voices authentically and authoritatively, something that is all too rare for them.

There are a variety of ways that teachers have structured the conferences. Some set them up as individual meetings with the teacher, parents, and child all involved together. Others prepare “stations” through which the children and their parents rotate to cover each subject. Still others have students each set up a display of materials at a spot in the room so that multiple conferences take place at once, with the teacher circulating to answer questions as needed. Teachers who use student-led conferences have developed a variety of tools to support the process:
  • protocols and guide sheets to help students choose and organize their artifacts and draft their goals, explanations, and self-evaluations
  •  room arrangements to facilitate the conference process
  • lessons to help students prepare their conference presentation.
Some issues do arise with student-led conferences. Not all parents are able to attend conferences, so an arrangement may be needed for those students to present their work to some other adult. Administrators or teachers who are not otherwise meeting with parents may need to be called on for this role. Conversely, some parents may want more opportunity to discuss things with the teacher. Some children may not complete the preparatory work, for legitimate reasons or a lack of engagement – after all, teachers are not always able to succeed with every student, in spite of our tendency  toward perfectionism, wishing all would succeed. In this case a more traditional conference may be called for. Additionally, time available may be shorter than desirable, requiring that the session focus on just one or two subjects or just a few samples of the students’ work.

Here are some excellent resources available on the Web, to help you in implementing student-led conferences.

Ashley Cronin, “Student-Led Conferences: Resources for Educators,” Edutopia post July 8, 2016  -- a thorough explanation with links to many other resources on how to implement this strategy.

Wildwood IB World Magnet School, Chicago, “Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership,” Edutopia post Aug. 24, 2015 -- a practical and down-to-earth explanation of how one middle school does this, with handy tools and resources attached.

Several book-length explorations of student-led conferences are available as well.

--Steven Zemelman is Director of the Illinois Writing Project, author of professional books on literacy for teachers, and most recently, From Inquiry to Action: Civic Engagement with Project-Based Learning in All Content Areas. His blog on student civic action can be found at .

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