Student Led Conferences…are they?

Originally posted in my blog https://empower2b.wordpress.com

Wow…so last week I was in a spin! Student led conferences are NEXT WEEK! As usual (as I am sure many of you can relate to) this made me shudder a little. You see student led conferences have always been a fine tuned production. The full week leading up to them is filled with whole class discussions in which I LEAD the students to remembering all the different tasks they have done, places they have seen and units they have studied. Once we have remembered everything it is time to make sure we have reflected…portfolios…are they done? Have the students been using their time wisely when they have had time to work on them? Then we finish the week with rehearsing. What are the students going to do and when are they going to do it? How will they explain it all to their parents? Will they show growth?  Will the parents be happy?

When I stopped and thought about all this I realised one very important point…none of this is about the students! None of it allows for me to find out what they think…what they are proud of….what they want to reflect on…what they want their parents to know. Isn’t the purpose of Student Led Conferences to allow the students to take their parents on a journey that helps them understand just a little of what their school year has been? How does this happen if I am the one telling them what the journey needs to be?

How can I possibly guide the students through a process that will do justice to what they have been working on this year? Phrases and words like “student agency”, “student directed learning”, “reflection”, “self-awareness”, “goals”, “scheduling”, “ownership”, “responsibility”, “accountability” and “growth mindset” are not just words anymore! They are part of the classroom vocabulary. The students use them to describe their school day and what they are doing well and what is a challenge for them. So if we have worked so hard on these things all year how can I change how I have approached “student led conferences” in recent years to reflect who we are as a class now?

IMG_3705Helping each other come up with ideas on what to share and how to share it? These two boys ended up coming up with a task that they would do together for their parents as they are scheduled at the same time.

Then a blog post is published about exactly this! On the Making Good Humans blog I read a post about “Upping the Agency is SLC’s”!!!  Woo hoo!!!!  Just what I needed! Once again Taryn is guiding me to the light that will allow my students to be in the drivers seat. I loved when she said “Instead of giving students our why for SLCs we supported them to come up with their own personalized why.” And she shared a template that they used. I had a starting point!

To cut the process down so I am blog friendly….The students have spent time discussing what Student Led Conferences are and why we have them. Why do they need to be the ones to take their parents? Why are they important? Then I asked them….if you could do them anyway you liked how would you do them?

Once again it surprised me how hard some students found this question to answer…what did I mean, how would they like them to be? Didn’t they have to do them all the same? In the end the students each wrote their program for their 40 minutes in the classroom. They had work out from the start of the year and were comparing it to now, they were preparing reading workshops that they had led their peers through so they could repeat it with their parents as the students, they were writing equations so they could do a number talk with their adults…the ideas they were coming up with were endless! And the buzz in the air was exciting! And one thing was clear…they were nothing alike! Every students plan was different to the others, both in what they were sharing and reason why they were sharing it. 

IMG_0152We are ready to go Ms Mel!

One student said he wanted to share a mistake he made…what this ok? The other students were surprised! Why would he want to? Isn’t he embarrassed? You see, we tell our students all the time that it is good to make mistakes but when do we give them the chance to celebrate them? Now was their chance! It became a challenge for some of them and pushed many of them out of their comfort zone but all of a sudden mistakes were being written into the program!

Snip20180417_7 An example of the Student Led Conference program for my beginner EAL student.

As they finished they started talking amongst themselves about the differences between this years Student Led Conferences and those they had done in the past. Observations about the lack of “sameness” and the fact that there weren’t any “stations” set up were made. When we discussed this as a class my resident wise reflector said “You know Ms Mel I just feel like this is my conference, not just me doing what you want me to do. It is like our year has been!” Some asked if they could blog what we had done…all of a sudden they all were!  So, I asked them…convince me! “Convince me on the way that I should do Student Led Conferences next year with my class.” It was when I read these that I noticed how powerful the changes had been…

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It is currently Tuesday afternoon and Student Led conferences are tomorrow. I am not worried about my students. I am not scared they won’t impress their parents or that their parents will be concerned about what they have learned. But more importantly I am not worried for individual students who are nervous and scared to show their parents. You see at the end of the school day today my students have left feeling PUMPED! They have smiles from ear to ear. When we had our closing circle time this afternoon we talked of being proud of our work, of what we have learned about ourselves as learners. Students who were a little concerned were convinced by their peers that they are good and ready…that they have got this! Will there be blunders and mishaps tomorrow? Most probably but I am confident the students will roll with it.

 

Student Led Conferences should NOT panic the teacher! They should EMPOWER the student! They should be a time the classroom teacher is in awe of their incredible class of students. A time where classroom teachers are amazed at the learning that has happened…and some that hasn’t but that has led to a self awareness of what needs to come next! Student Led Conferences should be a HIGHLIGHT for the school year where teachers and students are so proud of the year that has been so far and students are celebrated and praised for their ENTIRE journey! Fingers crossed that tomorrow is the day of celebrations that my inspiring group of learners deserve!

IMG_3710 The class telling me how stressed they feel about the impending Student Led Conferences – 1 = NO stress just excitement –> 5 = huge stress won’t sleep tonight

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SLCs and parent communication

My inquiry into student agency began about a year ago, after coming back from my first international conference, where I was inspired by some workshops run by experienced educators who had been experimenting with these ideas.  I have learnt so much about teaching and learning this past year, I barely recognise the teacher I was 3 years ago, when I first began my PYP teaching journey.  I have also never felt more challenged, conflicted or confused.

For our latest student-led conference, I abandoned my usual ‘I choose the activities and students lead them’ in favour of asking my students to plan their own conferences. We had experimented for the past few months with planning our own days, so it couldn’t be too much harder, right? I was wrong…

I used a similar set up to our daily planning, with  ‘must do’, ‘should do’ and ‘want to do’ sections.  I tried my best to step back during the process and have students make the decision of how they would structure their conference time (unfortunately, our SLC timetable meant that there were time constraints). After a lot longer than I had anticipated, discussions, questioning and justifying the ‘why’, each student ended up with their own little piece of organised chaos.

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After practising and preparing their things, an email to the parents explaining our different approach, both the students and I left feeling pretty good about the day ahead.

Then came the reality.

Now, some parents are completely on board with innovative educational practises, or are at least coming around. I even did a bit of team teaching with a father of a student who works at a local university, as part of our unit on Innovation. But then there are the ‘more traditional’ parents, the ones who are still asking their children questions like, “..but where is your maths textbook?” The ones who believe memorising spelling words and timetable facts is the best way to learn. The ones who are more focused on the product or answer, rather than the process.

I thought I was being transparent about what and how we were learning in class; using Seesaw as a platform to share photos and videos with student reflections, sending emails about our experiments with student agency, choice and voice. However, observing some conversations between students and parents that day, I couldn’t help but feel that parents were expecting something a little more ‘academic’, for lack of a better word.

And that’s when the self-doubt started to set in….

This student didn’t choose to show any math, I should have advised them better on this.

The parents were expecting more ‘products’ of learning…

The parents aren’t getting a true picture of what students know and understand.

Oh no, I didn’t give the students enough scaffolding for this.

Did I do the right thing by students or did I throw them in the deep end too early?

Am I even going about this ‘agency thing’ the right way?

Then came my last student of the day. I watched him confidently lead his parents through a short meditation, a thinking routine based on an image he selected and an explanation of a math concept he had recently mastered. He had total conviction in the choices HE had made to show HIS learning. His conference went way over time and at the end, both the student and his parents were exhausted but beaming with pride. Observing all this brought me to the realisation that, while I may not be there… yet with student agency, we are at least taking steps in the right direction.

Student agency = empowered learners.

I wouldn’t call these conferences a glowing success. I definitely need to provide more scaffolding for students and improve my questioning techniques to guide them through the conference planning process, like this great example: https://makinggoodhumans.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/upping-the-agency-in-slcs/

This experience also made me reflect upon some important questions related to my communication with parents about our steps towards more student agency:

  • How to approach student agency, voice and choice with parents, when I’m still working it out for myself?
  • How to show parents the true value of this approach and the benefits for their children?
  • How to involve parents more in this journey?

Perhaps this requires a more individualised approach, reaching out to parents separately to have discussions in person. After all, we strive to individualise learning for students, why not do the same for their parents?

Would be great to hear your feedback or experiences of agency in student-led conferences and how you got parents on board.