"Your son's average is a low C. His grade is not as high as it should be, primarily because he is not turning in his homework, and I am not sure he is studying for tests. I was hoping you could shed some light on whether you notice him completing his homework. Then, I thought we could brainstorm some possibilities to get him back on track."
"Wow! I did not realize he was doing so poorly in class. I'm not sure what's going on with him, because he always tells me he finished his homework at school or that he didn't have any. He says he studies, but I don't monitor him. Yes, we need to get him back on track. I will talk with him tonight."
Sound familiar? Traditional parent-teacher conferences can be uncomfortable experiences for parents and teachers alike. Both sides struggle to determine the cause of the student's behavior or academic problem. Wouldn't their meeting be more productive if the subject of the conversation were included in the discussion?
Student-led conferences—an alternative to the traditional parent-teacher conference—do just that. In fact, they give students the responsibility to prepare, organize, and direct the conference with their parents, emphasizing the academic and behavioral accomplishments they have achieved during the school year and targeting additional goals and areas for growth.
Giving It a Try in Kentucky
Campbell County Middle School in Alexandria, Kentucky, enrolls nearly 1,200 students in grades 6–8. The school had been using a traditional parent-teacher conference model, but parent participation had waned for several years. In fact, during the spring 2006 conference cycle, teachers conducted only 85 conferences.
Principal David Sandlin, with the assistance of Instructional Coach Kathy Gutzwiller, recognized they needed to change the status quo. After exploring the concept of student-led conferencing, Sandlin approached his faculty with the idea. Although the teachers initially met the new approach with some skepticism, they agreed to implement student-led conferences the following year and were optimistic that the experience would be positive.
Student-led conferences don't necessarily replace traditional parent-teacher conferences, but supplement them by providing another way for students and parents to be active in the education process.
Prior to the conference, teachers work with students to compile and develop their work into portfolios that highlight their accomplishments in all content areas. In addition, the portfolio might include behavior reports, goal-setting and reflection exercises, results of standardized tests, and other items the school considers essential for describing student progress.
Students then develop a scripted outline to guide the conversation during the 20- to 25-minute conference. The goal is to keep the discussion going and focused on academic performance and progress. Prior to the conference, students practice their scripts by role-playing with their peers. Although the teachers help students prepare for the conference, they are not directly involved with the actual conference unless their help is needed to answer questions and support students.
In its first year of implementation, students conducted 565 conferences during the fall conference cycle—up from only 85 traditional parent-teacher conferences the year before. Participation increased to 593 conferences in the second year.
"We all recognize the importance of athletics and other extracurricular activities in middle school," Sandlin says, "however it is exciting to see a full parking lot on parent conference night. Parents are coming to discuss performance of a different kind—academic."
Campbell County Middle School is now in its third year of using the student-led conference model, and by most accounts, the decision to implement the model was a smart one. Students share their portfolios proudly and engage in "adult" discussions about their academic performance. The primary focus of the student-led conferences is on academic progress, not failure or misbehavior, which is often the case at traditional parent-teacher conferences. Because the most important player—the student—is present, students and parents can address concerns directly and seek the intervention of the classroom teacher, if necessary.
Parents have been satisfied with the experience and report having a better understanding of their child's performance. One parent remarked, "You know, it's finally time for him to take responsibility instead of us always telling him. It was nice to see that." Another parent stated, "It was nice to have this conversation with my child because we don't ever talk about school."
Although most parents are satisfied with the new conference model, some still want a traditional conference with the teacher, and they have the opportunity to schedule one.
Challenges of Change
Of course, changing to student-led conferencing is not without its challenges. Preparation is labor-intensive for the faculty, especially the first time the conference model is used. Teachers must help students prepare their portfolios and write and practice their scripted outlines. Yet, when conference night is over at Campbell, most teachers are pleased with how the students performed. They also feel less stressed since they are there in supporting roles rather than leading ones. One Campbell teacher said, "I like the accountability aspect. It's not me telling the parents that Johnny is failing because he won't turn in his work. [Johnny] must explain why his folder is empty!"
Every student at Campbell County Middle School prepared to conduct a student-led conference; however, not all parents attended. Sandlin addressed this concern as well. The day after the student-led conferences, Sandlin, with the help of available teachers, administrators, counselors, and teacher education students from nearby Northern Kentucky University, met individually with these students and allowed them to share their portfolios with their "stand-in" parent. Students then took their portfolios home to their parents. Consequently, all students had the opportunity to participate in the conference experience for which they had prepared.
Although it is not the only conferencing option available to middle grades schools, student-led conferencing provides the most developmentally responsive approach for students and can benefit the school community. If schools are willing to make a commitment to the process, student-led conferencing can be a valuable experience for students and parents and prove to be one of the highlights of the academic year.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2009
Shawn A. Faulkner, a former middle grades teacher, is an assistant professor of middle grades education at Northern Kentucky University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher M. Cook, a former middle grades teacher, is an assistant professor of middle grades education at Northern Kentucky University. E-mail: email@example.com