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Section Four: Student Led Conferences What would my students say if they facilitated their own parent conferences?

It was that time again, report card conferences. Typically, parents come to these conferences and the teacher explains how the student performed in class. The students are evaluated according to the grade level state standards on the report card and work samples are chosen by the teacher as evidence of the students current performance. Much of this was done in absence of the student. Parents and teachers think of goals and steps that will improve student academic and behavior performance. Teachers dread this time because the parents who they need to speak with usually dont come or avoid them completely. This common practice leaves students completely powerless. I wanted my students to feel they had a say in this process. According to Bringle and Hatcher, reflective experiences serve as opportunities of self-exploration and clarification of a students personal learning goals and progress in learning (1999). I wanted my students to believe their parents and I were partners instead of an abstract evaluation process being done to them. In preparation for our first November student led conference, my students and I spent a week discussing what they were proud they accomplished so far this year within the areas of reading, writing, math, and being a good friend. We talked about what didnt feel good yet and how they needed more support from their parents, me, and the class so that it would feel better. We called this our learning goal. Constructivist approaches to learning argue that students should be authors of their own understanding and assessors of their own learning (Zimmerman, 2002). We critiqued two exemplar student models of reflective art work and writing to guide us in our own pieces. As a class we discussed our reflective questions with a classroom buddy of their choice and they drew how they saw themselves in those areas with pastels. At the end of this reflective process, they wrote what they discussed and created through their art pieces. My role was to ask and listen as they represented what they shared within their art and writing pieces. I relied on some guiding questions during the student led conferences: Would you like to talk from your art piece or writing? What work are you the most proud of? What helped you get better at? What feels good about school right now? Why? What doesnt feel good about school? What do you think would make it feel better? How can your parents and I help you make it feel more comfortable?

I didnt volunteer my own evaluation. I wanted their reflections to solely come from them. As my students spoke, I wrote their ideas on a conference sheet and made copies for their parents and myself. My students signed their name on the top, then their parents, and finally myself. I wanted to show my students that what they said was

important to document. All of us were accountable to making sure we helped the student with what they wanted to get better at doing. After this, I invited my students to stay with their parents and I to look at their report card or they were welcome to explore the room while their parents and I talked more. My first grade students opted to explore. This gave parents the opportunity to ask questions or share items specific to their child or family situation. Parent voices needed to be heard too. All of my students families came to the student-led conference. 13 out of the 19 students came with their parents to lead their own conference. The students who didnt come with their parents stayed home. I had wondered if they didnt come b ecause this form of conference was a novel idea for our school. All four of my focus group students came to talk about their accomplishments and learning goals with their families. What did my hardest to reach students say? Andy: An Opportunity to Celebrate and to Grow

Andy wrote: Reading and Writing: I am good at reading and writing, reading sentences, and sight words and making a hard project. Math: I like to do math. I am good at doing hard math at math games and number subtraction. Being a Good Friend: I am good at helping friends by helping my friends by being good friends. My Learning Goal: I need to get better at math.

He sat with his mom and I at the table copying sentences he liked from James and the Giant Peach. When I asked him if he was ready to share his reflection with his mom, Andy put down his pencil and nodded. He used his art in his portfolio to speak in Spanish to his mom about how he felt about how he was doing in school. He was calm and pointed to his work in his portfolio as he spoke to his mom. He listened intently when I asked him questions during his conference and paused before saying what he thought. Andys mom listened without interrupting. I was excited to hear that although he was strong in math, he wanted to learn more. His mom then cried. She said she was worried they would have to move but she wanted him to stay with me because she noticed he was doing well. Andy always had the potential to do well and was reachable. Its as if Andy was waiting for opportunities like the student led conference to say what he felt good about and what he needed from us. When I asked him how he felt about the student led conference, he said, I like it. I like talking about math because I want to get better at it. Anna: Building confidence to share her voice in a safe setting

Anna wrote: Reading and Writing: I am good at reading. Math: I am good at math. Being a Good Friend: I am good at saying sorry to others. My Learning Goal: I want to get better at math.

Anna chose to speak from her art piece to her mom. She stated she was proud of reading her book at Family Project Exhibition Night. I was curious why she felt she was good at reading because she had struggled with this subject. If her mom and I had only talked about Annas report card, we would only talk about how academically behind she was. But this student led conference gave Anna the opportunity to show her mom and me she saw more to herself than that report card. Anna stated her learning goal was to read and write more. This revealed that Anna was fully aware of her struggles. Listening to Anna helped me understand that reading her written reflection would only give me a limited awareness of what she felt about her accomplishments. Her mom said she was quiet last year in kindergarten. After speaking to her kindergarten teacher, she said she noticed the same thing in Anna. Last year, a substitute teacher didnt notice Anna had left class, crawled under the gate, and walked home. Mom said she noticed she was speaking more this year. I have often wondered about why Anna was quiet. She was quiet in class but raised her had when asked to share what her partner told her during class discussions. She spoke when prompted by her parents. One night her aunt called me because her mother was too embarrassed to tell me Annas father ripped her homework out of frustration because she struggled with reading and writing. I asked Anna the following day how she would like to change her homework so that it would feel less frustrating. She said writing sight word sentences were hard. I asked her if it would be helpful if I added sentence frames so she could see how to write the sight words but if she wanted to write her own she could. Anna said we could try it. After adding what we talked about, I asked the whole class how they felt about the changes. They all liked the added supports too. I wondered if the family situation made Anna hesitant to speak. I knew I needed to create more opportunities where Anna could share her voice in a safe setting. My A-Ha Moment: My easiest to reach students are the hardest to reach! Charlie: Hesitant and unsure of what he wants and needs

Charlie wrote: Reading and Writing: I am good at writing my sight words. I am good at reading books. Math: I am good at filling a ten chart. Being a Good Friend: I am good at saying You want to play with me? My Learning Goal: I want to get better at sight word tests.

During Charlies student led conference, he hid behind his portfolio as he read his reflection to his grandmother in a low volume. Why was he hesitant to share what he thought and felt? I thought this would have been easy for him since he performed at or above grade level in all subject areas. I wondered if he was used to following what he was told that it was challenging for him to be responsible for leading the discussion to his grandmother and I. I thought Charlie was one of my easier students to reach, but now I was wondering if he actually was not being reached because he tended to only show me (and other teachers) what we wanted to see. Charlie represents the students who comply with directives. They seemed like they understood a lesson but dont know how to apply the knowledge to other learning contexts. I was discouraged and encouraged by learning this about Charlie. I was discouraged because students like Charlie are thought to be reached because they performed at or above grade level. But in reality they are unreached because when asked to say what feels good and not good about their learning, they cant or dont know what to say. They have been used to doing and saying what we, teachers, want. They have difficulty thinking on their own. When I asked him how he felt about the student led

conference he said he liked sharing it with his Lola (Filipino word for grandmother) but he didnt know why. This was the first time he came to a student led conference. Even though he couldnt articulate why he liked the conference h e said he wanted us to keep doing it this way. I felt encouraged because now that I understood this about Charlie and students like him, I had a chance to enable him to find and use his voice to tell me what he needed to learn with confidence. What would help Charlie feel more confident in sharing what he honestly felt and not what he thought others wanted to hear? The student led conference helped me recognize that Charlie needed to be reached. Abbey: Proficient students need support too

Abbey wrote: Reading and Writing: I am good at writing. Math: I like to do math. I am good at counting the days. Being a Good Friend: I am good at helping pick up blocks. My Learning Goal: I do not know how to do addition.

During Abbeys student led conference, she stated her learning goal was number sentences. She drew herself with 6+6=2 inside a thinking bubble for her art piece. Her parents and I were confused by this because she usually did well during math lessons. I then asked her to help us understand why number sentences didnt feel good. She said she had a difficult time figuring out addition number sentences that equaled more than 10 because she was counting with her fingers. We proceeded to talk about various strategies that she could choose from that would help her count beyond 10 so she wouldnt be limited by her fingers. This struck me because Abbey was the typical model

student who turned in everything on time, had supportive parents who helped her every night with her homework, and performed above grade level in all subject areas. These are the types of students who are typically ignored because they do well and dont demand our attention. But she had needs too. After the student led conference, I interviewed Abbeys parents. They stated they were surprised by Abbeys struggle with addition in math. After the conference, they checked in with her more often and asked her if she needed help. They noticed she became more confident. This statement surprised me because I thought Abbey would already have confidence because she was at or above grade level. Despite how well she did in school, she didnt feel confident in everything. If I dont take the time to ask how my students experience their learning, I wrongly assume what their experience is. This error affected choices I made for my students. I asked Abbey how she felt about the student led conference and she said, I like that my parents and you know if I do or dont need help. The student led conference enabled Abbeys parents to hear her voice and meet her needs more fully. Conferences are about more than report cards Even though there were surprises during the student led conferences, I was comforted that my students were aware of their own strengths and needs. Eccles states that children at the age of six tend to be optimistic in their ability to master skills that they will rank themselves at a high level of mastery even though their actual performance may be different (Eccles, 1999). I didnt see this. My students voiced accomplishments and learning goals that were pretty spot on with what I noticed in the classroom and with what their parents noticed at home, with the exception of Abbey. I believed this change is a direct result of our democratic classroom structures that emphasized personal growth and reflection. My first graders and I devoted time building trust in the beginning of the year. My students needed to trust me to model asking, listening, and responding so that they could do the same for each other. Eventually we became a community of learners where everyone had the potential to grow and succeed. During the student led conferences, my students were given an opportunity to talk about what they needed from us, parents and teacher. The parents were surprised that their children were fully aware of their own strengths and areas for growth. As the conferences progressed, I became more aware of my students home lives. These student led conferences became more than looking at report cards and academic progress. I had gained insight about my students home lives. There were three families in particular that revealed stressful financial situations and the effects of marriage separation on their child. I realized to understand my students voices, I needed to understand how the voices of their parents affected their own voices. This led

me to think about how to design a project that would enable my students families to hear and understand student voices.