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Students as Leaders of Their Learning

Meg Riordan

Project Director
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Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Gabrielle Smith, Dean of School Culture and Community at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School.

At Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in NYC, a father, daughter, and teacher sit together at a table. Unlike a traditional parent-teacher conference, the spotlight here is on seventh-grade student Gabriella Perez as she explains the standards-based learning target she is working on and shows evidence of her progress.

"I'm really proud of explaining what context clues are," she shares, and points to a piece of work from her portfolio that supports her self-assessment. Her father, Miguel, identifies this student-led conference -- and his partnership with his daughter and her teacher -- as critical. "It's very important to have these conferences, especially to learn -- to see -- where our student stands as far as academics are concerned," he says, "and it also helps us get involved in the education of our kids."

Student Ownership and Family Engagement

The student-led conference (SLC), which takes place three times per year at WHEELS, engages students and their families in conferences at which students communicate their progress toward both academic learning targets and habits of scholarship (such as persistence or time management). During SLCs, students share portfolios of work and discuss progress with their families. The students facilitate the meeting from start to finish. These conferences provide a consistent hub to bring families into the school environment to learn about their students from their students. They also provide the opportunity for families to contribute to students' achievement, because the conferences position family members as key supporters in their child's schooling. Differing from the traditional parent-teacher conference, the SLC places students solidly at the center of the conversation to talk knowledgably about areas of growth and challenge, and to collaboratively set goals with their teacher and family member(s). The conference recognizes students as agents in their education supported by teachers and family.

How can schools like WHEELS, a K-12 with a high English-language learner population, create powerful and consistent family engagement in student-led conferences? One priority is to be very clear about expectations with faculty, with students, and with families. Because teachers and students diligently prepare for SLCs in advance by reflecting on projects verbally and in writing, culling work that represents progress or challenges, and giving and receiving feedback, the investment from students can have a domino effect on family participation. Teachers and students are excited about family engagement because it represents the authentic experience for which they've prepared. Families recognize their value as co-pilots in students' education, realize that the school values them as partners in their child's learning, and come to see themselves as contributors to the overall success of the school as well.

SLC Strategies and Goals

Specifically, to support 100 percent family involvement in SLCs, WHEELS' teachers and leaders intentionally prioritize the following:

Ensure that language is not a barrier.

With a high percentage of ELL students and families, WHEELS identifies volunteer translators among grades 9-12 students for those teachers who don't speak the home language of families.

Use the term "family" intentionally.

As students' parents are not always their primary caretaker, we're sensitive to the likelihood that other family members will attend the SLC.

Identify one teacher (advisor) as point person.

At WHEELS, the Crew leader, like an advisor, works throughout the year to develop friendly relationships with a small group of students and their families. This relational trust supports communication before, during, and after the SLC.

Practice flexibility and persistence with families.

If a student's family has an extenuating circumstance, teachers encourage an extended family member to attend the conference or offer to schedule it for a different time. SLCs have even taken place over the phone. Teachers do not stop calling families until the SLC occurs.

Promote opportunities for families to ask questions about a student's progress.

During the SLC, families have the chance to offer their insight into their child's development, providing the teacher a more holistic understanding of the student to better support him or her.

Provide resources and suggestions.

The SLC is an opportunity for teachers to share how families can support their child's development at home. Families want to support their child outside of school and welcome new ways to engage in their learning.

Instill a sense of shared ownership and pride.

Families are proud to see their children present work and talk about their learning. As Miguel Perez maintains, "I think the SLC boosts the kids' confidence because it shows how they can talk to their parents about their work."

Students Take Charge

Student-led conferences offer a key structure for families' involvement in their child's learning. Through SLCs, the adults who care about these children engage in a process that honors their growth while simultaneously honoring families as partners in students' progress and a school’s success. As WHEELS senior Erica Cabrera affirms, "During SLCs, I take charge of my own education and progress. Through SLCs, I have learned that my family members and Crew leader [advisor] can support me along the way if something feels challenging."

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Meg Riordan's picture
Meg Riordan
Project Director

Gabbie and I would love to hear how other educators and schools promote families' engagement in student led conferences and/or how students and families are impacted by student led conferences. Please share your insights and learning!

Tygreh's picture

Thank you for this post. It sounds like the students of WHEELS are quite invested in creating the learning portfolios to share with parents and that the students are mindful of their progress toward the learning standards.

In some classrooms at my school we've had students fill out conference reflection tools and gather accompanying work. The reflection tool contains information about progress toward AR goals and assignment completion rates, as well as a star and a wish for each subject area. This allows younger students to think about and share their strengths with parents, as well as the areas where they need support. There's space for goal setting in each content area as well.

This is not universal at my school or district, I think because there are conflicting opinions from parents and teachers. Some parents want to be able to talk about their students and only hear from the teachers. Some teachers don't want to relinquish the control of the meeting. It sounds like WHEELS has has fostered a conference culture centered on student pride, reflection, and meaningful goal setting, allowing the student, teacher and family to be active participants in the student's success.

Shamarra R.'s picture

I like how much ownership students have of their work in the SLC's. Students are showing evidence of their learning to the teacher and parent. Isn't this how all assessments should be? Assessments are supposed to measure what students know. Imagine if we stopped giving assessments that students many times guess on and replaced it with an SLC. A student who does not know the content will show that in their conference. They will also show what they have learned, which is a better representation of their knowledge. I'd love to try something like this in my class as an informal assessment. I believe that with an assessment like this, students will feel more confident and will work even harder to learn.

Meg Riordan's picture
Meg Riordan
Project Director

Tygreh: Thanks for your thoughtful comment! At WHEELS, teachers across grade levels do use a shared reflection tool to promote students' consideration of their progress towards meeting learning targets. Teachers create opportunities for students to write their reflections (asking them to use evidence and details for support), and also practice verbally reflecting with peers. The SLC is also not consistent practice across NYC, though it is consistent across Expeditionary Learning schools. I know WHEELS' teachers make themselves available to speak to families outside of the SLC, and yes - they've certainly worked to create a culture that makes the SLC meaningful for the students, teachers, and families!

Meg Riordan's picture
Meg Riordan
Project Director

Shamarra: Thanks for your insights! Gabbie and I completely agree! We see the SLC as a way for students to illustrate learning and progress towards learning targets as well as identify areas for growth. You can absolutely transfer this practice to your classroom as part of a structure of assessment that includes clear learning targets, ongoing checks for understanding, and reflection. We see that students really own their learning when then need to speak to it with teachers and families!

Holly Emery's picture

I think that this is great. I teach at a Leader In Me school and having SLC is in the works for us. The students will use their Leadership/ Data Notebooks to show work samples, progress, achievements, etc... I have to say as a Special Education teacher of students with Intellectual Disabilities that I would love for my students to participate in this to the extent in which they are capable.

Meg Riordan's picture
Meg Riordan
Project Director

Holly: Thanks for your comment and excited that your school will be implementing SLCs! At WHEELS and other Expeditionary Learning schools, all students including SPED and English Language Learners engage in SLCs. And, as you suggested, there might be scaffolding or supports as needed, though the SLC offers the flexibility for students of diverse abilities and skills to share and speak to their work!

Gabrielle Smith's picture
Gabrielle Smith
Dean of School Culture and Community

Tygreh: Last year we had our brand new Pre-K and K students run their first student-led conferences. There were tears of joy in nearly every conference! Students felt empowered and eager to share their work and learning with their families, and families took such pride in seeing their children be the leaders they are. I've seen this across the grades (Pre-K to 12). Students (and families) truly look forward to SLC day. I hope that the SLC is something you can pilot at your school!

Gabrielle Smith's picture
Gabrielle Smith
Dean of School Culture and Community

Holly: How exciting that you are implementing SLCs at your school! One scaffold we use at WHEELS to prepare students for their conferences is to give them an agenda for the conference that includes reminders (in some cases sentence starters) of what they should discuss as they introduce and talk about their work. Additionally, we fishbowl and then rehearse conferences in Crew (advisory) and have students give each other feedback. This will be such an empowering experience for your students!

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