In Ohio, teaching third grade has become particularly challenging, as it is sometimes difficult not to be consumed with test scores and test results. We have an Ohio law called the Third Grade Guarantee, which requires every third grader to pass the state reading test or risk being retained. The year is full of standardized tests and other mandates that fill up far too much time. It is frustrating to have so many things we can’t control for our students and families.
It seemed that too many conversations we had with parents were about test scores and reading intervention plans.
Jen Schwanke (the school principal) said something one day that changed our stance a bit. She reminded us to focus on the things we could control and to not worry about the things we couldn’t. Feeling like we had very little control, we wondered what we could do to change the messages that children and families were getting about the importance of tests.
We began considering hosting student-led conferences, something we hadn’t done in years, so that students and families had time to share and celebrate the learning that was not about a number or a score. Even though we shared a lot on our websites, through newsletters, and in parent conferences, we knew that we were not doing enough to control the messages that our parents and students were getting about the learning that was happening every day in the classroom.
We wanted our students to own the learning enough to be able to articulate it to the people who cared most about them. We knew it would take time, practice, and organization, but we were confident it could be successful. Turns out we were right.
Here’s the twist in this story: In addition to being the principal, Jen had a son in third grade at our school who was facing the same scrutiny as other third graders in Ohio. That meant she was wearing two dueling hats: She was the person in charge of overseeing implementation of the Third Grade Guarantee, but she was also a parent considering how test scores, reading plans, mandates, and standardization affected her child. This meant that she was thinking as a principal who wanted parents to be informed and knowledgeable while feeling good about the learning and growth that was happening at school, and she was experiencing her own child’s school journey through the lens of a parent.
There were lots of us doing this together: There were teachers, who were thinking about the need to communicate the “true” picture of each child’s learning. There were students, who were oblivious to the nuances of the state law but doing a lot of great learning at school. There were parents, whose involvement ran the gamut from uninterested to overly concerned. And there was a principal, who was in charge of overseeing the mandate but, given all the other things she was managing, had to rely quite heavily on the teachers to manage it. In a lot of ways, considering student-led conferences was a great way to bridge the distance between these four perspectives.
So, how did we make it happen? And did it work?
Here are our some of our individual processes, approaches, and takeaways.
Principal’s Perspective (Jen Schwanke)
When the third-grade teaching team approached me about doing student-led conferences, they liked the idea . . . but they weren’t completely sold on the thought of actually following through. They knew they wanted to give their students a voice and teach them how, exactly, to communicate their learning to their families. On the other hand, they also knew it would be a lot of front-loading work with many hours put into preparation; they also didn’t know how interested parents would be in actually attending. The teachers seemed to waffle back and forth: We should do them. No, we shouldn’t. Yes, maybe we really should. I sensed that they needed to talk it through with someone who had an impartial view—which I certainly did.
My perspective on student-led conferences was a vague one. I had experimented with them years ago, but I had been working with much older students at the time. And because I wasn’t very knowledgeable about them, I wasn’t set on promoting or denying the idea for these third-grade teachers. I wanted them to find their own answer. To guide them, I began asking some some very pointed questions as a way to get them to think about what their true intended outcome might be:
- Why do you want to try having student-led conferences?
- What will be the effects on the students?
- What will be the effect on the families?
- What will you do for students who do not have a parent or family member to attend?
- Will the work you put into the process be worth it, regardless of whether you get a lot of families participating?
- We have acknowledged that there are a lot of things we can’t control in the messages parents are getting about their child’s “progress.” How do you think student-led conferences will help you alleviate your concerns? Will it help you capture some of the control you’ve lost about student growth?
With each question came a variety of thoughtful, honest answers. After they answered, though, they seemed to pause a moment before repeating some version of this: “Here’s the thing. We just need to make sure our kids have a voice. That they can talk with others about their learning, and about ways they have grown as thinkers.” When I heard them say this again and again, I knew their core focus was a sound one.
When we finished talking, we hadn’t come to any conclusions. The teachers left, promising that they’d think about it and decide whether they’d take the plunge.
Teacher’s Perspective (Franki Sibberson)
Leaving Jen’s office, we wondered together whether the time and energy that it would take to pull off these conferences would be worth it. Did we really want to voluntarily add one more thing to our already full plates? It was late April, and we had just come off a busy few months with progress reports and standardized tests, and we all felt overwhelmed by what we had to do before the year’s end. For the next few days, we had informal conversations back and forth about whether to go ahead with these conferences. Every conversation ended with “It would be such a great experience for the kids and their families.” In the end, we couldn’t not go ahead with our plans. We wanted our students and families to end the year celebrating the true learning that went on in our classrooms, and we wanted them to have time to celebrate that as a family. We knew that the children would benefit during the preparation phase by really digging in and seeing all the ways they had grown in third grade. We knew the parents would get windows into their children’s learning that they hadn’t had before. There were so many benefits for students and families that we went ahead with the planning.
A few weeks before conferences were scheduled, we sent a note to families inviting them to sign up for a 30-minute slot. We wanted students to lead these conferences, so we had three 30-minute slots available to families. We designed the schedule knowing that several families would be conferring at the same time and that we would not take part in any of the conferences. Our role would be to greet families and be a silent supporter for students. Families also had the opportunity to meet at home if the dates and times did not work out for them. We encouraged families to choose a time and place that worked for them, a time that they could devote to celebrating their child’s third-grade year.
We spent a few weeks getting ready for these conferences. For about 30-40 minutes each day, we’d spend time looking across work and reflecting. Because we had so much of our work from the year in notebooks, folders, or our Google accounts, it was easy to pull writing from September and May and note the differences. We guided the students during the first few days of the reflection, asking them to find and mark places in their writers’ notebooks they were proud of or pages that showed some new learning. Within minutes the energy in the room rose and everyone was excited to discover, reflect on, and share what they were noticing about their year. Once the reflections started, it was a matter of collecting artifacts and organizing them to share with parents. Students planned an agenda on a simple form. This form was a reminder in case they got stuck in the midst of the conference.
Welcome to My Student-Led Conference!
First, I will share my learning in __________________________.
Next, I will share my learning in ___________________________.
Next, I will share my learning in ___________________________.
Finally, I will share my learning in ________________________.
Thanks for coming!
When conference night arrived, students were excited but quiet. It is sometimes a little awkward for children to be in the company of both their families and their teacher. Most families entered the room quietly, not quite sure what to expect. There were several tables set up around the room, and students knew where their prepared piles were. Many also grabbed a device from the classroom cart before they began. I watched each conference from the doorway, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. I really wanted to respect families and not intrude on their time together. I watched over and over again as students timidly began sharing their work and parents quietly looked at the work and smiled.
But within a few minutes of each conference, something changed. I’d notice genuine smiles replacing the polite ones that parents had entered with. I noticed parents scooting closer to their children and asking questions about the things that interested them. Within just a few minutes, these nervous children became confident and proud to share this part of themselves with their families. Conferences lasted anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, and many families hung around afterward, not wanting their time to end.
As families left the room, many stopped to chat. One parent said, “Wow! Now I know why you don’t give very much homework. I had no idea how much they did each day in here! I loved seeing all of her work.” From the families who decided to meet at home, I received emails letting me know how much they enjoyed their conference and how much they learned. They mentioned specific pieces of writing or specific ways in which they noticed their child had grown academically. But on top of that, many parents said, “I can’t believe how confident and organized he was in presenting himself to us. We had no idea that he could do this level of work and share it with such self-assurance.”
Student’s Perspective (Jack, via His Mom, Jen Schwanke)
As we walked down the hall to the classroom, Jack’s dad on his right and myself on his left, he was timid and shy. He admitted that his stomach was “jiggly.” After all, it’s not easy, sitting down with your folks to talk about what you’ve done at school throughout the year.
But as we settled around a table with his portfolio spread out in front of us, he visibly relaxed. His grin came back; his voice grew loud and strong. He found his confidence and his voice. He talked to us about his writing journal, saying, “Look how different my writing looks from the beginning of the year to now.” He flipped through nine months of writing, pointing out improvements in the style, length, and depth of his writing. He was even proud of how his handwriting had changed from awkward to neatly legible. He shared his reading journal and spoke about how his texts grew more challenging and personal as the year went on. His math work also revealed an increase in complexity and depth over time. He flipped open a laptop and showed us several digital presentations that captured his research on some areas of particular interest to him: NFL football, insects, and natural disasters. I could tell Jack was pleased by our interest and pride in his work.
Parent’s Perspective (Jen Schwanke)
Our experience with student-led conferences began simply enough; Jack’s teacher sent home an invitation, and so my husband and I dutifully signed up and then showed up at our appointed date and time. We didn’t know what to expect. I think I assumed there would be some sort of teacher intervention or teacher leadership. I assumed we’d look at a few pieces of our son’s work, that the teacher would point out a few strengths and areas for growth, and then we’d be done.
For one thing, we didn’t really speak to Jack’s teacher at all. She greeted us at the door, but then she gestured to Jack to take over. He led us to a table and then retrieved a stack of materials from his cubby. He sat between us and began. As we listened to our son talk about his learning, we were astounded by the understanding our son truly did have about the process behind his growth. He hadn’t yet turned nine years old, and he was taking full ownership and responsibility for his learning. He pointed out places where he had not done well—his work on a particular math assignment had tanked, and his teacher had asked him to do it again with more attention and commitment—but he spoke of these challenges as a learning experience, not as a failure or an indictment of himself as a learner. Several times, my husband and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised in a kind of pleased and surprised way. We’d never seen this side of our son. Turns out that the kid we live with, who begrudgingly does his chores and fights with his sister and plays a solid baseball game as a second baseman, also thinks really deeply about his learning at school. He doesn’t just go to school, do what he is told, and then come home again. On the contrary, he really engages. He thinks about what he’s learning and how to get better. And sitting next to him as he led us through a conference about it, we were amazed to see that he was also able to articulate it to us in a careful, thoughtful, and thorough way.
The benefits we saw from the student-led conferences were the same for everyone in one key aspect: we were all pleased to see how students were able to communicate their learning in a clear, concise way, using real “educational” terms. They were able to pace the conversation so they could cover the highlights of their year’s learning in a short amount of time. They identified areas in which they had grown, and they talked freely about what they’d learned from areas of struggle. Clearly, then, these conferences were a home run for the students themselves.
But it also benefited each of us in additional ways.
Principal (Jen): After meeting with my own son, I stuck around awhile to see some of the other classrooms and student conferences. It allowed me to see, first-hand, how a student-led conference could work for students so young. I saw many parents come into the school and see the real work that was happening every day in our third-grade classrooms. I could stand proudly, watching teachers take a back seat while students were the amassedors of our school: they were showing their parents the awesome stuff that happens each day when they’re at school. There truly was no better endorsement for us; there could not have been a better way to display what we know about teaching, learning, and the students we serve.
Teacher (Franki): For us, student-led conferences helped reground us and highlight the real learning that happens—the learning that can’t be reduced to a level or a test score. With so much emphasis in our state on testing, we felt like this was our way of making sure we focused on the learning and thinking, the real day-to-day of our classrooms. We knew if we wanted our students to own their learning, we needed to focus on the learning that mattered to them. We loved seeing our students and families celebrate those things that we all knew were the most important things about their year. The real benefit for us was the genuine pride and celebration we witnessed with every family who participated. It was the celebration of a year of learning.
Parent (Jen Schwanke): Never did I predict the effect the student-led conference would have on me as a parent. When my husband and I sat down with Jack, he was nervous, but it didn’t take long at all for him to forget his nervousness and move into a place of confidence. Within just a few moments, he was transformed into a mature and articulate student, proud of his accomplishments and proud to share them with us. I saw that he had come to understand himself as a learner. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but his metacognition far surpassed what I had expected—and I was his own mother! And a principal at his school! It was only by having the time set for me to sit down and do some focused listening that I gained a deeper understanding of my son as a student. If I think about a long-term effect, I can say that the 15 minutes we spent listening to Jack talk about his journey will make us better parents, because we’ll understand our son’s strengths and skills as a learner.
Student (Jack, via Jen): Once he got over his initial nervousness, Jack admitted he’d loved being part of the student-led conference. “It was so cool to show you everything I’ve been doing,” he said. “I liked looking back at my work at the beginning of the year, and showing you how much more I know now. I also liked showing you the types of books I read at school, what kind of research I’ve been doing, and how good I’ve gotten at making digital presentations.” He’d talked to us less as a child-to-parent, and more like a student-to-parent—and he liked how that felt.
In the end, it was more than worth it: all of the people involved declared student-led conferences a thorough success. It was worth the investment and time to prepare and oversee the whole thing because of the effect it had on teachers, parents, students, and the school leader. It just took a bit of planning, teamwork, and the investment to make sure the students were prepared to speak for themselves as the learners they are.