George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Wildwood IB World Magnet School

Grades K-8 | Chicago, IL

Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership

Putting students in the driver's seat of their parent-teacher conferences creates opportunities for reflection, engagement, and agency.
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Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership (Transcript)

Marissa: Hi, mom, welcome to my Student-Led Conference. First, I'm going to tell you about my goals.

The conferences here are different. Most schools, the teachers talk to the parent, but in our school here, Wildwood, the students talk to the parents. We actually get to tell our parents what we're doing.

Rebecca: I think the greatest impact that I see is them taking ownership of their growth process.

Jonathan: Pretty much it just changes everything about parent-teacher conferences. They get to see all your work and everything that you're doing. And actually get to learn a few things about what you're doing. So.

At the beginning of the universe, creation of stars, creation of the earth. We mapped that onto a football field as a timeline.

Rita: Wow.

Mary Beth: I think student ownership of learning, and what that means is students being able to say, "This is who I am as a learner, this is what I'm learning, this is why it's important to me," you're building that sense of relevance and connection to the curriculum, sense of relevance and connection to each other, to the teacher, and to the broader work of the community. To actually make student ownership a reality in the school is very challenging. So what we did is we just started very small, and we just said, "Just figure out how students are going to have a little more presence at the conference," and I think just creating that sense that the student is the center of the conference, so the student gets to be the one that facilitates that conference.

Maddy: And here's the table of contents for my binder. So first, there's an introductory letter, to introduce you to thee Student Conference, and what I'd be talking about. Look at that.

Brigid: It's not about us. It's the kids' turn to conference with the parents.

Rebecca: It's their turn to shine. We provide enough resources for them, so that when they lead the conference, they feel confident.

Marissa: Well, this year we wrote an essay, to know what we're going to say to our parents, and not just keep pausing.

Now I will tell you my strengths and then my weaknesses. My strengths are math. So, for example, this is exponents. And this is long division.

Maddy: During the quarter, you really have to like work on each assignment, 'cause you know you're going to like want to tell your parents something about it.

Brigid: There's a lot of pre-work that's done before conferences happen. The kids have got to practice, and you also have to really let them think about what they want to be in their binder. It's a combination of things that they chose, and things that we chose.

Maddy: So when I was preparing my binder, you know, the whole time I was thinking, "Oh, I can tell my mom like all the new things I learned."

Probably my favorite thing is this. We like found three things for each document, and disconnected them.

The purpose of the student led conference is to who her where I was at, where I am at, and where I want to be at.

So, for Quarter 2, I want to get better at like literary devices and analytical paragraphs, and to better on the vocabulary tests that we have. So like you could help me study for those.

I really got to show my mom like the work that I was proud of. And I also included some work that I kind of struggled with.

And then here's a vocabulary test. I was very confused on this one.

While I'm doing the work, and towards the end of the quarter, I'm like kind of looking at like how I'm doing, because I know that I'll have to talk about, not just the teacher, but I will.

Jonathan: It gets people used to be able to like review their work, like a reflection.

Brigid: Reflection is part of our school culture. You know, as teachers we're expected to reflect.

Jonathan: I'm going to need to work on these traits. So, the first take, it would be like raising my hand more. Or like going into activities where I wouldn't feel like comfortable, like my comfort zone. Like working in groups, kind of.

Rebecca: That's a good reflection.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Rita: What Jonathan was able to showcase, makes me so proud of him. He also have a good grasp of what he's learning. And that depth is what I really was able to get today. And I couldn't have got from him at home.

Good job.

Teachers: Good job.

Jonathan: Yeah, thank you.

Brigid: It helps parents to see their kids in a different light, too. This is what my child is as a student.

Jonathan: Like you can see like the little details of how I draw.

Christine: Through Student-Led Conferences and through the reflection, and emphasis on applying what you know, and articulating what you know, and sharing what you know, it's been really cool to see the expression of what someone's learned about themselves.

Maddy: Loving events and people in my life have helped me become who I am. No matter how many things change in the future, I'll still be me.

Christine: I hope so. Good job.

Maddy: Thanks!

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  • Producer: Kristin Atkins
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  • Graphics: Cait Camarata, Douglas Keely


Students Take the Lead

Parent teacher conferences at Wildwood Elementary are actually a time when the teachers do very little talking. Instead, the students run the conferences, informing their parents about how they're doing, what their goals are going forward, and what kind of learners they are.

How It's Done

Start Small

It sounds like a cliché, but Wildwood teachers all say the same thing: "Start small." When the school piloted the idea of student-led conferences five years ago, a few of the teachers were simply asked to find ways to give the students a little more presence at the conferences, whether through a letter to the parents, a podcast, a poster or by just being at the conference themselves.

"We started slow with student-led conferences," says eighth-grade teacher Brigid Jennings. "It was almost like a gradual release to full student-led conferences. It's important to remember that not all teachers are at the same level of comfort with giving over this time to the students. We spent a lot of time as a professional community discussing ways student-led conferences could work, and then found whatever format was best for us as teachers and also our students."

As they piloted the change, these teachers saw a big difference in the levels of engagement for both parents and students. The teachers also liked the new model better, saying that it felt less like they were defending the grades they gave students and more like a conversation about the students' learning. The pilot group's success convinced the rest of the teachers at Wildwood to keep building on the idea, and within a few years, it had become a school-wide practice.

Designating a Time

Conferences at Wildwood happen twice a year. Each conference lasts ten minutes, due to the number of families that teachers have to see. While that time seems like much, setting reasonable constraints can help the students feel more comfortable presenting.

"We never get through everything," says eighth-grade teacher Rebecca Braun. "We actually include more work than time allows. This helps the students feel less anxious and also keeps the conversation flowing."

Students know that it's OK if they don't get through everything, and teachers know that the conversation doesn't have to end after ten minutes. Parents are given the option of taking the students' presentation binder or folder home for the night to continue reviewing and discussing the work.

Teachers also work around the time limits by rearranging their schedule to allow for 15-minute conferences, or by making sure that the time blocked off for student-led conferences isn't usurped by other issues.

"If I have serious concerns and need to have a conversation with a parent," says Jennings, "I reach out to those parents and schedule separate times. I still keep their regular scheduled time for student-led conferences because I believe it is important for all students to present their learning to their parents and spend that vital time reflecting as a family."

Preparing the Work

The students prepare some kind of presentation, which differs by grade and is scaffolded to their skill level. For instance, the eighth grade classes prepare binders with their work and reflection sheets, while younger grades may prepare a poster board or packet to show their parents. But all students keep and manage a portfolio of their own work. (For examples and more information on portfolios, see the Resources section.) When students complete something that they're proud of or want to keep, they simply file that item in their portfolio. When it is time to start prepping for conferences, students can then go to that portfolio and choose what they want to include in the conference binders or folders to show their parents.

"When we begin to prepare for student-led conferences," says Jennings, "I have a conversation with students around what they feel should be included in their binders. We continue the conversation then through different lenses: What would you like to see as the student? What would your parents like to see? What would your teachers like to see? The student is the primary driver of what goes into the binders."

Some teachers set loose guidelines about what must go into the binder or folder, but the students are given a lot of freedom over what to include.

"We don't get too crazy about guidelines," says Jennings. "Each subject area must be included, and the reflection pieces also must be included. But it's important for the students to have choice in what goes into their binder. It's all about their learning and what's important to them. When students are given ample time to reflect, you would be surprised that they won't just fill their binder with every A+ paper they have. They'll include places where they struggled, places where they improved, and places where they need help. This doesn't always happen easily, but this is where teacher/student reflection and conversation come in."

Preparing Students to Lead

In addition to preparing their binders or folders, students spend the weeks before conferences talking about how to present and lead the conversation with their parents. Helping the students feel secure in talking about their learning makes their limited presentation time go much more smoothly, Wildwood teachers say.

"It's important to make sure the students understand they are in control of the conversation," says Braun. "It's not a 'got ya,' and their very best strengths are the highlight of the conference."

Teachers do this by setting expectations, facilitating student reflection, and going over the necessary elements of a successful conference.

"The teacher should be giving mini-lessons and having conversations about quality work, good conferences/bad conferences, planning, etc.," says fourth-grade teacher Georgia Melidis. "Teachers must build the capacity of their students. After all, students are in school, they are learning skills, and conducting a student-led conference is a skill that must be taught . . . We start prepping about a week before conferencing, and we practice 10-15 minutes per day. I got creative and made the prepping a station in my Daily Five reading centers."

Practice is a large component of their preparation, and students practice their presentations with each other, their teacher, and students from other grade levels. "Typically, what we do is we get with a buddy, and they can read to their friend," Melidis says. "They're giving each other feedback on their paper, so it's really an authentic way to design and conduct a student conference. And the shy ones are able to practice with people and feel prepared and then feel confident."

While preparing for conferences does take some class time, teachers find that it's just as valuable as curricular lessons. "We view the prep work as a critical time for reflection," says Braun. "Students look back on their work for the quarter and write about their areas for growth, their successes, things they'd like to work on. Kids have a tendency to forget about all the wonderful learning they've experienced in a quarter."

For teachers that may have the time flexibility to prepare, "I would say to get creative," suggests Melidis. "They can start two weeks prior to the conferences and practice for the first five minutes of class, or they can tie it into their daily journal, daily goal setting, reflection time, they can make it their exit ticket, etc."

Not only does investing time in conference prep ensure a successfully led conference, it also encourages student and parent attendance. Students are excited to tell their parents what they've learned, and parents are more apt to attend because their kids are excited. "This year, I had every parent and student show up for conferences," Melidis recalls. "Conference time was not taken as seriously before, but now the school is full and lively on conference night. I mean, let's face it -- no parent wants to let his or her own child down."


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Eddie Fletcher's picture

I think that's a good idea for students to put together a binder pertaining to their progress in school and be able to show and discuss with their parents. The students are able to see what they need help in and what they don't. Also it give the students a chance to show the parents without the parents taking control of the situation.

Denise's picture
3rd Grade Teacher from Macon, Ga

I think this is a great concept, but I do think teachers should be communicating with parents before the conference on students progress. At my school, we send home student work on a weekly basis that way the parent is informed. And not waiting until conferences (which is normally done around progress or report card time, by then it can be too late to help the child pull up their grades. But I love the fact that the student basically ran the conference. I definitely plan on taking portions from what I've read to help improve my parent conferences.

Mrs. LaBos's picture

I am a first year full-time teacher and I am preparing my students for conferences that they will take the lead in. Each student has a binder in which they save samples of their work along with an agenda to follow when meeting with their parents. This strategy is to give the students a sense of empowerment and to hold them accountable for their work.

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