Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Shifting from Leader to Guide-Venturing into Student Led Conferencing

        For the first time in years, I was told that I did not have to hold parent/teacher interviews! I met this proclamation with eager excitement and barely contained joy. Why, you may ask? Because for the first time in years, the teachers at my school were given the opportunity to hold student led conferences. I know, my elementary school colleagues are saying, and so what? But by the time students reach high school, student led conferences have become distant, somewhat nostalgic tinged memories.
         In recent years, I have become increasingly frustrated by the rather institutional, assembly line nature of some parent/teacher nights. Traditionally, I am situated amongst a sea of teachers in a large gym, strategically positioned behind the safe barrier of a table, with two chairs placed on the opposing side.  At the appointed time, anxious parents are allowed to stream in and scan the room attempting to successfully locate their child's teachers. Some parents have mastered the process, and may send an envoy to wait in one teacher line up, while they wait in another. From my position, I see an endless line of parents, desperate to make it to the front of the line before the allotted time expires. 
        When they do make it to the front of the line, invariably they ask, "How is my child doing?" What they are really saying is, "What mark are they getting?" On rare occasions, the aforementioned child accompanies the parent, and I make a desperate attempt to engage all parties in a meaningful conversation about learning outcomes and specific goals for the course. These conversations are short, by necessity, as those next in line begin to shift and nudge forward in an attempt to make contact. By the end of the evening, I was feeling exhausted and disheartened by what felt like a largely futile attempt to engage with parents and students in an authentic and meaningful way.
         And so, it was with great excitement and anticipation that I welcomed the prospect of venturing into a new format. With a son in grade 5, I am familiar with the process and format of student led conferences. Our new administrator arranged a meeting with those teachers who expressed an interest, and a letter was composed to inform parents. I began the process of speaking to each of my classes about my intention, and in most cases, students seemed amazingly accepting of this "new"
approach. New to me of course, but not to them. Why is it that we feel that elementary school
students are mature and responsible enough to speak to their parents about their learning successes and goals, but that somehow, teenagers are not?
          In preparation for the conferences, I asked my students, in English 8, 11, 12 and Advanced Placement to choose two activities that they were proud of, and that they viewed as successes, and two activities that provided a challenge and that were examples of skills that they are continuing to work on. These ranged from informal journals, to art work on the classroom walls, to formal synthesis essays in their Writing Portfolios. With an hour in total  allocated to each grade, we were no longer constrained to brief, often ineffective conversations. On the appointed day, as the first parents and students arrived, I felt for the first time in years that I was going to have an opportunity to facilitate meaningful dialogues. Don't get me wrong, both students and parents were nervous. With my door open, a parent would peek their head in, and after an enthusiastic welcome, would hesitantly  venture in. Students were sometimes reluctant to direct their parents toward journals, or projects, and I had to occasionally step in as "guide" and initiate the conversation. You see, I think that this may not be a conversation that a lot of parents are having with their teenagers.
            "Mom, this is an essay that I'm really proud of because I worked on including some descriptive vocabulary." 
            "Dad, I presented this poster to my class and I was really nervous about trying to make eye 
contact." 
           And yes, some parents wanted to know about marks. But as I am in regular email contact with all of my parents and students, I simply reminded them that this night was about their child's progress and goals, and not about their mark. At times, I had several parents, students and siblings (and supportive administrators) milling about my room, and engaged in conversation. I felt happy and
 comfortable and energized even after a 12 hour day. I know that the implementation of student led conferences will be a learning process for students, parents and teachers alike, but I can assure those who are willing to venture down this path, it is a journey well worth taking!