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Using Student-Led Parent-Teacher Conferences to Build Relationships

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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Quite a few readers responded to my blog entry "In the Loop: The Payoff for Parent-Teacher Conferences." As winter approaches, the next round of conferences is just around the corner. I want to address some of your general questions and comments, and, hopefully, this will help with upcoming planning. For those who don't conference, consider building conferences into your calendar next year.

What is the difference between a conference and a portfolio folder? The only difference is that the work is shared at school, not at home. Granted, with a conference at school, parents are forced to look at their child's work; but because they care about their child's successes, they should be doing this at home anyway.

Yes, if a conference is just looking at a folder of work, it is a missed opportunity. A powerful student-led parent-teacher conference focuses on student learning goals we can set by examining the student's work. This is an active event in which the learner and those responsible for supporting her education identify her strengths and areas of growth and make plans to address these areas. Unfortunately, parents often do not know how to support their children in school, particularly if they were unsuccessful in their own schooling. The conference is one tool to help parents support their child's success.

Readers also commented on how to encourage more parents to attend these types of conferences. Because many parents, even at the elementary school level, often take a passive role in their child's schooling, what can a teacher do to make conferences more interesting so parents will want to attend?

One solution is to pair conferences up with something else going on that evening that may interest parents -- perhaps a concert or dance. Parents may be in the neighborhood to drop their child off, and this may make it more convenient for them.

At Envision Schools, we put aside an entire week of minimum days, which gives plenty of time and sets the priority for the school community. The incentive we use is that we hand out report cards, rather than mail them. If you don't attend a conference, you will not receive a report card. Each adviser follows up with each parent until they attend. Currently, 95 percent of our parents participate.

As students get older, especially as they begin high school, they yearn for a sense of independence and maturity. In this struggle, I find there is often a disconnect between students and their parents in regard to school performance. Because kids and parents don't often talk about school, we think parent-teacher conferences are imperative. By requiring this interaction, we are telling parents it is OK to get involved with their teenager's high school education. For students, we give them some cover; they really do want their parents involved.

Several readers addressed the issue of time management when teaching a large number of students. Those teaching 100 kids or more will have to get creative. Our teachers have responsibility for holding only 20-30 conferences. We believe that in order to achieve better results, we need to redesign secondary schools in order to foster these types of interactions.

I hope some of these ideas will support you in planning powerful conferences for your students this spring. Please post comments about your successes and challenges with student-led parent-teacher conferences.

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Susan Craig's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a 7th - 12th grade math and business teacher who has been teaching for 23 years, and my favorite parent-teacher conferences are the ones which are student-led. Our students are not required to attend, but I love when they choose to do so. If a student arrives with his or her parent, I will start the conference by asking the student to give the a summary or description of how things are going in class, what they've learned, how they feel about their performance, grades, and behavior, etc. This type of conference keeps kids honest and gives me a chance to praise the student in front of the parent while offering suggestions for any areas that need improving.

The unfortunate reality, in my experience, is that I rarely see the parents whose kids could most use the parent-teacher conferences. On open house night in the fall, we do offer a free spaghetti dinner sponsored by our PTSA and it's a great draw, but it would be interesting to see if a free meal would attract more people on conference night as well.

Jackie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am impressed with how you conduct your conferences. I especially liked that you keep your students involved in their grades. I also do so, but in a different manner. I have a data wall. I post grades for each subject. The students look forward to checking the data wall for improvement. Parents are involved in the data wall too.
I am curious to know what grade level(s) you teach. I liked that you had your students complete a self-evaluation form. Your way of conferencing certainly provides more meaning for your students, as it is always important to explain why each assignment/assessment is given.

kathy 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am impressed with the idea of having students lead the conference and pairing it with something else. I think these are great ideas.

Rebecca Luna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach fourth grade in Corona,California. Student-led conferences done school wide in grades 4-6. I am also conferencing with each student as we beging our state testing next week. We discuss 2nd and 3rd grade scores and make goals for this year. I think it gets them pumped up to test their best. What level do you teach? What goes on your data wall?

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with student led conferences 100%! At our school, we have a Data Binder Night 4 times throughout the school year. The parents are invited to come with their child to look over their progress for that particular quarter. This counts towards our conference hours for the school year also. I think the only negative thing about the Data Binder Night is if a parent does want to ask a question about their student, I don't feel it is appropriate to share when there are other parents and students in the classroom. Sometimes that is hard for parents to understand. Overall this has been a HUGE success in our school building and I would recommend it to any school! :-)

Karen Vogelsang's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 1st grade and I have used student led conferences for 3 years now. I love it and the parents love it! The last year I used a traditional conference format I had 3 parents show up out of 21 students in my class. The next year I used student led and had 19 out of 22 attend the conferences! I really felt it was a huge success and I was amazed how accurate my students were in assessing their strengths and weaknesses. I have since transferred to an inner-city school and I used student led conferences again. My turnout is much higher but it's averaging about 50% of the class. I love the idea of tying it in with a ice cream social or something similar! Parents love to come when there's food involved!

I am curious about those teachers that have done home visits at the beginning of the year. Are you in a suburb or a high-risk area. I would love to do that but to be honest I have safety concerns. Any feedback about high-risk areas and home visits would be interesting to learn about.


linda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm impressed that you can do student led with first graders, although I know they are very honest. I teach 7th grade and have been doing student led for about 8 years. My team piloted this method and now al 6-7-8 grade conferences are done this way. We have students fill out an assessment (what do I do well, what do I need to improve, how will I improve,etc), then teachers comment on each child's assessment sheets. It is a lot of work. The students have an opportunity to read the comments, and practice in order to keep to the 20 minute time frame.
Some conferences have yielded information that a teacher could never have conveyed- a student says, "I didn't study because I thought I knew it," or something similar. The student is the most important person at the conference, and we feel the child begins to take ownership of their school day, but like anything else, if it stays the same, kids figure out how 'to get by'.
We are currently looking at this method again, because by the time kids reach grade 8, they know the drill, and really are just reading their sheets and are savvy enough to put in the right words. We have them set goals but with each teacher having approximately 90-105 students we don't do any follow up. We are discussing adding some type of portfolio work, maybe one assignment of piece of work from each academic class.
We are all part of a grade level team, so we know our peers and can answer parents questions about other classes, at the same time keeping a list of call backs, questions, or concerns we notice or are asked about form parents.
The day after our conferences, we have 2, the team meets to de-brief any info that should be shared. My team anyway, different teams have different ways of tweeking this to meet the needs of their students.
Our turnout is between 60-75% of parents, but oftentimes we feel the ones who don't come are the ones who need to come the most. We do send home the paperwork with a short letter of explanation.

Nancy Matheis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a principal, I introduced student-led conferences in two international schools and had fabulous results. Initially teachers were hesitant as none of them had ever done something like this before. They hesitantly agreed to give it a try (gr. 1-10). After teaching the students how to conduct the conference, all the teachers had to do was sit and watch. Both teachers and parents raved about the effectiveness of doing conferences in this way. Students became more responsible for their work knowing they would be the ones presenting it to their parents. Parents confessed they learned more about their chlld and his learning in those 20 minutes than they had all year. We had 99% attendance of these busy parents. Teachers were pleased to see the confidence of their students grow as they became responsible for telling their parents about the progress they made.

I encourage anyone with hesitations about them to check it out, contact me, or just dive in and do it. You will be amazed at the results and proud of how your students will grow.

Janice J. Heid's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are starting to do student led goal setting conferences in early October next fall. Do you have any ideas to help us get started? This has been a district decision so it has kind of been forced on us but most teachers are interested and willing. Do you know of any forms that could be used with this kind of goal setting format? Thanks so much,.

Emily's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the idea of student led conferences. They should own their education. My district is really trying to find a way to make the standards user friendly. They want the kids to understand what it is they are supposed to learn; the standard should not just be some random number. This would lead right into student led conferences. If the studetns understand what it is they are supposed to know, then this would really help them chart their own progress. I know that when I chart my own progress, then I can really see where my weak areas are. This would be great for the studetns.

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