As educators, we all have faced the challenge of motivating our students and empowering them to learn. If we are willing to let go of traditional parent conferences, student-led conferences are a powerful tool to have students set goals and take responsibility for their own learning.
Motivating the Unmotivated or Struggling Student
As teachers, each year we are faced with students who are a challenge to reach. Sometimes these students are the ones who willfully sit in the back of our rooms and refuse, despite our best efforts, to engage. In other cases, these are the students who turn in work just to avoid a zero rather than trying to do their personal best. We want to find ways to motivate these students and often having lengthy discussions with them in parent conferences. However, educators across the country have found that often parent conferences result in little to no change in student learning or behavior. It is time to approach those conferences from a student's perspective.
Engaging Students in Student-Led Conferences
Student-led conferences are a little different in that rather than asking the teachers to prepare their lists of possible reasons why the student is not succeeding in school, that burden is put on the student. Before a student-led conference, the student is asked to select some examples of their work to bring into the meeting to discuss with their teachers and parent(s). The student then walks everyone through their work examples, explaining what they learned from the assignment and why they think they scored a particular grade. The process is about empowering students to take ownership of their learning and their decision-making process in the classroom.
To make this process powerful, you can take student-led conferences one step further. Rather than just having them bring in examples of their work, you can ask students to chart their strengths and weaknesses, which can be academic or social. Sometimes these are referred to as areas of strength, 'not there yet' areas, or even new skills that may have been recently introduced. In this way, the conference is not just centered on academics. In some cases, the struggle could involve social or behavioral issues that may or may not be impacting grades. Using this type of strategy focuses the conversation on the areas where the student needs to grow to be successful in the classroom and beyond.
Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed, says ''What matters most in a child's development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we can help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.'' Student-led conferences can be a powerful way to build persistence and self-confidence in students because it gives them a venue to take control of their learning, and set goals that they are motivated by. Our goal is to help the child succeed, and student-led conferences can empower self-confidence by giving students the opportunity to drive the discussion about their own learning.
Enlisting Parents as Partners
For student-led conferences to be successful, you need two key components: parent support and student buy-in to the process. For parents to buy-in to the process of a student-led conference, you need to prepare parents for the new format. Some parents may be excited about the prospect of trying something new to motivate their child, while others may be skeptical about the process. Therefore, before the conference happens, you want to discuss the format the meeting will take and explain the reasoning behind it. Emphasize to the parent that it is important for the goals to motivate a child that the child writes them, with some guidance, and that everyone works together as a team for the student's success. It is disheartening to both the students and teachers if the parent doesn't appear supportive during a student-led conference, and that can become a serious hurdle for even a naturally motivated student to overcome in their life.
On the other hand, if the student is confident and articulate, the parent will be more likely to support the process. Students, just like parents, need to understand that this meeting is about helping them grow as a student and a person. Sometimes students who have had negative experiences in school, in particular, need reassurance so that the conference can be a positive, productive experience.
Therefore, it is not a bad idea to do a pre-conference run through with the student. They can review their goals, work samples, and reasons behind their explanations. By having students talk through the conference with the teacher ahead of time, it will give them some confidence when they need to run the meeting with their parents and possibly other teachers present. You can also make suggestions, and perhaps even provide some leading questions for them to think about in terms of their goals. Encourage the student to bring notes with them if they feel nervous so that they can refer to them in the conversation.
Another option is to give the student a prewritten script. Charity Preston suggests giving students a script to help them guide the conference. A script is helpful, especially if your student is in this type of conference for the first time. You can even share the script template with parents so they can see exactly what to expect, which will give them a greater buy-in as well.
Following Up After the Conference
It is important in the process of student-led conferences that the conversation doesn't end at the meeting room door. Rather, the conversation needs to continue in a variety of ways. The teacher(s) involved need to find time to check-in with the student periodically about their progress towards their goals. These meetings don't need to be long, but they provide an opportunity to make the student feel supported through the process and keep the dialogue going. After these meetings, you can follow up with the parent. Or even better, have the student write a letter or send an email to their parent letting them know the process they have had made, or even ask their parents if they need support in a particular area. Doing so will continue to motivate the student, long after the initial meeting has ended.