Mia Christopher
Mia Christopher

The following is an excerpt from “Deeper Learning How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century,” by Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath.

A particularly vivid example of putting students in the driver’s seat of their own education is the way they handle what traditional schools refer to as parent-teacher conferences. At these time-honored encounters, it’s not uncommon for students to stay home while the adults discuss their progress or lack thereof. But at schools built on Deeper Learning principles, the meetings are often turned into student-led conferences, with students presenting their schoolwork, while their teachers, having helped them prepare, sit across the table, or even off to the side. The triad then sits together to review and discuss the work and the student’s progress. The message, once again, is that the students are responsible for their own success.

The specific dynamics of these conferences vary widely. At California’s Impact Academy, three or four different sets of students and their families meet simultaneously, as teachers circulate through the room, making sure parents are getting their questions answered, and only intervening if the student is struggling. Yet in all cases, the basic spirit is the same: this is the student’s moment to share his or her reflections on achievements and challenges.

At King Middle School, the twice-yearly student-led conferences are “one of the most important things we do to have students own their own learning,” says Peter Hill, who helps prepare kids in his advisory class, or crew, for their meetings. “And yet, the students’ first impulse is to tear through their folders to find every best thing that they have done to show their parents.”

Instead, Hill encourages students to reflect on the connection between the effort they have made and the quality of their work. To this end, he asks them to choose three examples that help them tell their parents a deeper story: one that shows they have recognized both a personal strength and an area in which they are struggling. Most students, he says, have never thought about their learning in this way. Nor have most of their parents.

Indeed, many parents need some time to adjust to the new format, Hill acknowledges. Often, he says, a mother or father “just wants to ask me about how their child is doing, or how they are behaving. Sometimes I have to nudge the conversation back to let the child lead. We also have to teach the parents how to be reflective about their kids’ work and how best to help.”

Eventually, however, most if not all parents appreciate the new process, teachers told us. “They come to realize that report cards don’t tell them anything very useful,” says Gus Goodwin, Hill’s colleague. “And over time, the parents begin to set a higher bar for their students at these conferences.”

As crew leader, Hill has his students practice how they’ll discuss their work products with their parents. We watched as he spoke with one eighth-grade boy who initially shyly lowered his head as he confessed that he felt uncomfortable showing his work to anyone, including his mother and father. Hill told the boy he understood how he felt, and then offered some strategies for discussing his work in math, which both of them knew was a problem area. “You have done some good work of which you should be proud,” he told him. Together, they then picked out a paper that demonstrated the boy’s effort, after which Hill suggested: “When we have the conference, why don’t you use this assignment and begin by saying, ‘I have done a good job in math when I . . . .’ ” The boy wrote the phrase in his notebook, and visibly began to relax, after which Hill used the rest of the advisory period to find more examples of work that showed his effort.

As kids learn to advocate for themselves in this way, they discover how to let their parents know more specifically how to support them. Hill tells the story of one student who was clearly intelligent, but struggling with his independent reading. Rambunctious in class, the boy surprised Hill by sitting straight and quietly in his chair when his father, a seemingly stern man, walked into the room. But what surprised him even more was when the boy spoke up for himself during the conference, telling his father: “I realize now that I need to spend more time reading on my own and I need your help with that. I need my three brothers out of the room at night so I can read in silence.”

Such exchanges empower both students and their parents, Hill noted, adding: “When I checked in on the student a few weeks later, he was very pleased that his dad was keeping his brothers out of his room so he could do his silent reading.”

At Science Leadership Academy, health educator Pia Martin coaches her students in how to communicate with parents about difficult topics, such as why they might have received a C in a class. “How will your parents respond?” she asks. “What are the things that will trigger your parents and how will that play out? Will this lead to lost privileges or other forms of punishment? How do we minimize this?”

“In conference, I’m your advocate,” she always reminds them. Like Hill and several other teachers we spoke with, Martin said she usually helps begin conferences by encouraging students to talk about what they are good at, to prevent meetings from turning into blame-fests. She tells the students to start the meeting with two questions: “What do I do well?” and “How can I build on this?”

“I always tell them, ‘Own what you got,’ ” Martin says. Only after students spend a moment to recognize what they’re doing right does she encourage them to tackle the challenges, with the following questions: “What have I not done well?” and “How can I improve this?”

Copyright ©2014 by Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath. This excerpt originally appeared in “Deeper Learning How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century,” published by The New Press Reprinted here with permission.

  • Joe

    As a parent, teacher, and business owner I love this on every level. I would not have a team review w/out all team members present and active. Nor, would I go to one of my daughters’ (ages 2,4, and 7) pediatrician w/out them. I want them to feel confident enough to speak about their needs and ask questions of adults. Why would school be any different? Two of my daughters have sever peanut and tree nut allergies and my wife and I empower them to talk to their teachers, friends, friends parents, etc. about their allergies and what they can and cannot have. Of course we are there to support and redirect when necessary, but as a result of this action they are confident and are learning how to advocate for themselves. As the piece points out, having students lead the T/P conference does the same. Helping students connect success, effort, mindset, failure and struggle to learning and how to talk about these things is huge.

    I used to teach middle school and always invited/quasi-required my students to participate in parent/teacher conferences. One of the benefits not mentioned in the piece was that more and more parents started to attend. I would love to know if other teachers have had the same experience. Don’t get me wrong, it took time and the 1st couple of conferences were train wrecks. I’m sure for the very reason Pia Martin coaches her learners. Thank you for the piece.

  • Meg Taylor

    At the independent school where I am Head, we have been conducting student-led conferences in the spring for ten years in grades K – 8. There are some key ingredients to this process to make it really worthwhile.

    Students set goals for themselves at the start of the term – and even the youngest can accomplish this. A few weeks before the conference students make decisions about which pieces of work they want to include in the conference, and then write a reflection on why they chose that particular work. For example, in second grade they are prompted to choose a favorite piece and one that shows their growth. The teachers have developed questions that prompt students to really reflect, not just say what they think the adults want to hear. Then the students practice the conference with a peer, and then with an adult, in preparation for the conference with their parents.

    The conferences have improved over the years and the key seems to be the reflection piece – and the practice. Thank you for your article that illuminates the value of student-led conferences!


  • Dave

    I con

    • Meg Taylor

      Thanks Dave. You are so right about reflection being a muscle that needs to be strengthened. It takes time, but so worth it!

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  • Tara

    Love this idea. Student confidence and growth mindset can certainly benefit through presenting in an active manner their goals and where they can push themselves to.

  • Keith Creighton

    I think this article brings great light to the power of Student Led Conferences. I was very scared to re-implement student led conferences because I had only had one terrible experience with them. In that first experience, our school had 20 to 30 worksheet papers for the students to fill out in preparation for the conferences. The worksheets took so much time and had very little impact. Last year, while at a new school, we implemented SLCs and they were wonderful. We did not need worksheets, and the students naturally took to the idea of sharing their own learning. The major difference: we had been teaching all year by empowering students with their own data and goals. If your school embraces that kind of teaching, then SLCs are a breeze to implement. The students require practice and organization, but they don’t need to learn about their own progress. In my previous school, where we had tried SLCs, the students were kept hidden from that information. They did not know their data. They did not know their goals. As a result, they were not successful in talking about those things at a Student Led Conference. I would encourage all teachers to try SLCs as they are exceptionally powerful, but in an effort for students and teachers to find success, schools need to question if their overall pedagogy supports a successful shift to SLCs.

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  • Fenny

    I am wondering is there age limitation for student-led conference? Anyone has done with preschoolers or kinders. Thank you!

    • Deborah Davids

      Our New Entrants – who in New Zealand are 5 years old, conduct their own SLCs Of course they need a lot of preparation and scaffolding, but they are still highly effective.

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  • Betsye Sargent

    We have included students in our conferences for over 20 years. in recent times they have taken charge of the conference. We find it helps greatly if they do some personal reflection in various areas, giving them a few prompts to consider. This has led to deeper thinking and more thoughtful things to share with their parents. It is very natural to talk about both sides–what I did well, what I need to work on. It’salways sad to hear that when they go into high school, they are no longer a part of their own conference.

  • Deborah Davids

    We have Student Led Conferences which are highly effective and bring the parent directly into the child’s learning sphere. The children are proud of their achievements and the parents look truly interested. To maintain the focus on the child at the end of the conferences I ask the parents to post a note to their child about their learning on the wall. This is powerful as the children then have their parents directly in the room with them working with me and them – a triad of interest in progress and learning.
    This backfires when you have a parent who ‘badgers’ a child as to why their work isn’t neat, enough, have commas, accurate… It is heart breaking to stand to one side and see the confidence that you have raised be decimated in minutes. However it is also enlightening to see the home dynamics played out in front of you.
    It would be interesting to know how educators deal with these moments and if they consider them an unavoidable part of the human relationship cycle?

  • Dena Kouremetis

    This is a step in the right direction for sure. But many children hesitate to mention things that bother them in front of their teachers — things like bullying, feeling singled out in class, being blamed for things not their fault, and it’s up to parents to de-brief their kids before these all-important conferences so that their child is not embarrassed. I recently wrote a PsychologyToday piece about how parents can prepare for this all-important conference here https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-unedited-offspring/201603/going-road-the-parent-teacher-conference

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