2019 · Slice of Life

Learning from Student-Led Conferences

Last week, I had an interesting conference.

For the past few years, our parent-teacher conferences have been student led. Our students spend time creating a presentation for their parents, complete with evidence of their learning, examples of work they’ve done, and rules they get to set for the 20 minutes they are in charge of their families.

It’s an awesome experience for all, and even though it’s different, many families end up loving the structure. I am also able to meet with nearly every family on my team, which is usually around 90 students.

The personalization benefits our students and us. I am able to pop in for a minute or two, share a quick overview of my class and answer any questions. Sometimes, I stay a little longer if there is a concern or more intensive question. The way we schedule works well for our families, and it allows us to spend as little or as much time with each group as needed.

Since we started running our parent conferences this way a few years ago, it’s only gotten better. And I honestly love it more each year.

This year was no different. I was feeling the structure, making my way around to each of my students, and bragging on them to their families (my favorite part). What I didn’t expect was to have a very important learning moment. And after some reflection, I’m so glad it happened.

As I was chatting with a student, her mom shared some frustrations with me. This is common in conferences, as it’s usually the first time parents are seeing me in person. I typically allow the student or parent to share their concerns, listening fully, and then acknowledge how they feel. I’m careful not to dismiss or minimize their feelings, though I do make sure to address them.

But this post is not about how I handle tough conversations during conferences. It’s about what I learned from this particular interaction.

This one student has been increasingly frustrated with the fact that I do not write feedback directly on my students’ final drafts of their written work. I save my feedback for the rubric, because a few years back, I had a student tell me how disheartening it was to see his essay covered in pen marks after working on it for weeks. It’s a policy I believe in, especially given how devastated I felt getting bleeding papers back when I was in school.

I’ve staunchly defended my belief against writing on papers to multiple colleagues, on social media, and previously on my blog. In my view, it’s important to provide feedback, but there are better ways to do it that will not instill a hatred for writing.

This is not, however, this student’s view.

In the mind of this student, my feedback is difficult to follow because she doesn’t see where she is making these mistakes. She doesn’t know specifically where she is citing sources in the wrong format or where certain punctuation is used incorrectly. For her, my feedback would make a lot more sense and be easier to follow if I wrote it directly on her paper exactly where the errors occur.

Because of my firm belief against something, which works well for most students, I didn’t regard the students it doesn’t work for. And this conversation in this conference reminded me of that.

I’m here for my kids. I want to encourage, motivate, and challenge them to not only find writing useful but also to see its value. I want them to learn formal, academic writing, the kind they will need in the future, but also to view writing as a mode of expression and communication.

I can’t do any of that if what I’m doing doesn’t work for them.

I was reminded of the need to adjust my practice. To do what my kids need, what will benefit them, and what they advocate for. It was a powerful reminder, one I needed to become better.

While I won’t give up my belief—I still don’t want to cause that sinking feeling upon seeing a bleeding paper—we were able to reach a compromise. Prior to submitting her final draft, we will have a conference focused on editing her piece. I will provide feedback directly on the draft for her to use before submission.

This way, she gets what she needs and what will help her become a better writer. And I can continue to promote a love of writing and a positive feeling towards it.

Because that is exactly what matters.

And it was exactly the reminder I needed.

5 thoughts on “Learning from Student-Led Conferences

  1. Thanks for this great lesson in being sure we are meeting the needs of all students. I have colleagues in my middles school hat say they don’t write comments on rubrics because students don’t read them. I see my students reading them and have had some come up and ask me to decipher my cursive because they really want to hear the feedback. We have to make the feedback fit the students we have.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it’s terrific that you’re being flexible by responding to what this student needs to become a better writer. You can still carry out what you believe in for the majority of your students, but sometimes we have to tweak what we are doing to meet the needs of a child.

    Your post reminded me of one of my former fifth graders who refused to use sticky-notes to record her thinking. By late October of fifth grade, she had the courage to explain why she was refusing. She was a voracious reader and she felt sticky notes would slow her down. Once I realized she was taking in every text and was able to articulate her thoughts about a book in a reading conference, I realized it was time for me to back off and not push her with the sticky notes. We came to a compromise… she wouldn’t have to use them for independent reading, but she agreed to use them when she was in a book club to do the thinking work of the club. It was an awesome compromise that worked well for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love this, Stacey. It’s another great example of exactly what I experienced in this conference. Sometimes we have to take a step back as educators and recognize who we have in the room and what they need. Thanks for commenting!


  3. Having strong beliefs is important but being open to possibilities, flexible, and a listener of those we serve is the whole reason we hold beliefs to begin with! Great that you were able to reach a compromise and the conversation was had to help instill growth and a positive relationship for all of you.

    Liked by 1 person

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