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April 1996 | Volume 53 | Number 7
Working Constructively with Families
Lyn Le Countryman and Merrie Schroeder
Because traditional parent-teacher conferences were more frustrating than helpful, these teachers looked to their middle school students for a more student-centered model.
Our middle school students, like most, struggle between wanting adults to make decisions for them and wanting to wrest control from those in charge so they can be responsible for themselves. We wanted our students to learn to exercise choice, take responsibility for their learning, and do their best work. We saw an opportunity to help them reach these goals by implementing student-led conferences, enabling students to be directly involved in their assessment process.
At our fall and spring parent conferences each year, 6th and 7th grade students traditionally reserved for their parents a 15- to 20-minute time slot with their advisors. Typically, parents attended the conference without their child and discussed their child's performance with the advisor, who served as an advocate for the student.
At times, what the parents heard at home from their child was quite different from the picture the advisor painted from teachers' reports. Parents were then in the difficult position of either believing their child or the teachers. This generally placed them and the teachers on the defensive, blocking open communication and better understanding. If a student joined the conference, he or she often played the silent partner or a martyr chastised for little effort. Some students were truly surprised by the description of their progress. Regardless of the situation, the advisor, who represented all the student's teachers, was sometimes in the dark, interpreting assessments for classes he or she did not teach.
All of these factors increased our frustration with traditional parent-teacher conferences. After reading the current literature on student-led conferences (Guyton and Fielstein 1989, Hubert 1989, Little and Allan 1989), the 7th grade team decided to try a new format for our second conference in the spring.
We established three phases in implementing student-led conferences: (1) initial preparations, (2) conferences, and (3) evaluations. The team divided up responsibilities and implemented a time line from mid-December to mid-April to complete each task.
After visiting schools that were using student-led conferences, the team decided on (1) a guiding structure for the conference; (2) a way to prepare students to run their own conferences; (3) a method of communicating the new format to parents and colleagues; and (4) the procedural operations that we would need to develop.
The team agreed that the organizing structure of the conference should center around student portfolios. Recent research on portfolios stresses the necessity of student selection in assembling a portfolio (Collins 1992, Goldman 1989, Krest 1990, Mills 1989, Wolfe 1989, Reif 1990, Stevenson 1992). Although many portfolios are arranged around subject areas, we wanted our students to look at their work in relation to our school's five major student outcomes. These outcomes require each student at Malcolm Price Laboratory School to become
Because these outcomes are couched in teacher jargon, we brainstormed with students to see what they thought each outcome meant, and what concrete evidence they could look for in their work to satisfy each outcome. For example, they described literate communicators as those who mean everything they say, and can read, write, and talk so others can understand them. Self-directed learners take charge of their assignments and ask questions. They described complex thinkers as having lots of creative ideas and being careful observers. Involved citizens participate in school activities, try to find solutions to help others, and take action to do something about what they believe. Finally, students said collaborative contributors pay attention in class, offer ideas, and help classmates work together in small groups.
In a series of class sessions, we discussed portfolios and provided students with ideas of what they could place in their portfolios. They would use criteria to judge their work throughout the semester, but would select only a few items for discussion during the conference. In these sessions we also discussed the roles they and their advisors would play at the conferences. The students learned that they would do all the talking and that the advisor was there basically for moral support. (The team instructed the advisors to intervene only when students became bogged down or if parents overshadowed them.)
Students decided that during the conference they would introduce their parents to the advisor, show parents their work, talk about the different units they studied, describe favorite units, explain missing or poorly done assignments, and highlight their strengths and weaknesses. From this conversation we wrote the student's conference script (see fig. 1).
As students began selecting items to place in the portfolios, it became obvious that they needed a log to help them organize their papers. We set up a log sheet by subject, and asked students to select for their portfolios up to five pieces of work from each of their classes. One of the mistakes we made on this form was not to include classes such as art, family and consumer science, and modern languages. As a result, students seldom referenced work from these classes, relegating them to a position of little importance. Next year we will place all class names on these sheets, making an important statement to the students—that all classes are equally important.
Once their portfolios were complete, students rehearsed the script three times with classmates as stand-in parents. The team briefed advisors on all procedures, and advisors examined the portfolios of the advisees. Students also received last-minute reminders to organize their folders and double-check their contents.
To communicate information to the parents about the new conference format, the team composed a letter, which the students brought home. The school newsletter also featured an article describing the student-led format. Many parents were impressed with their conference invitation, handwritten and delivered by their child.
At first, teachers were unsure of how parents would feel about the conference format change. Some parents were apprehensive about having little verification from the advisor, so arrangements were made to allow parents to schedule a private conference with the advisor if they wished.
On Conference Day, students expressed anxiety about discussing their work in front of their parents. After it was over, however, one student commented, "I was a little nervous starting out the conference, but it got easier as I got farther through." Most found that once they began, the presentation was easy. Students followed the script in explaining the work they selected.
Included in their folders were their teachers' end-of-quarter reports. Unfortunately, because of time constraints in preparing for the conferences, students had no opportunity to review these reports beforehand. This placed them at a severe disadvantage.
During the conference, the students asked their parents to write any questions they had on an index card and to hold their questions until the end. This gave the students uninterrupted time to make their presentations. The conferences were scheduled for 15-minute time slots, but subsequent evaluations from the students indicated that this was not long enough. They said that they needed 20-30 minutes to complete the sessions satisfactorily.
Even though Guyton and Feilstein (1989) approve of holding many student-led conferences simultaneously in the same room, we decided to schedule each one independently. Because advisors are assigned from 10 to 15 students, we felt all conferences could be adequately conducted in one day.
The final phase of our plan was devoted to evaluating the effectiveness of the conferences. The team collected information on the conferences from students, parents, teachers, and advisors. The students responded to the following four open-ended questions: (1) What did you like about student-led conferences? (2) How did you feel during the conference? (3) What didn't you like about the conference? and (4) If you could change the conference to make it better, what would you do?
In response to the first question, over 50 percent of the students responded that they liked the freedom to select what to show their parents. Around 10 percent of the students were most pleased with witnessing their parents' initial reaction to their work. One student summed it up when he wrote,
I liked the positive comments my parents gave me, and it was great to see the look on my parents' faces when they saw my good work.
That's the longest time my parent has ever sat down and listened to me.
Yeah, my mother doesn't usually say much to me about school, but, since conferences, she is still saying nice things and how proud she is of me, and this is nice.
I liked being able to talk in my conference.
When asked how they felt during the conferences, about one-third of the students said they were "nervous" or felt "weird." One-third felt "very good" during the conference. Less than 15 percent didn't like the conference format, and the rest expressed no preference. Many of the students who disliked the format also explained they didn't "want to wake up early" or "have to come to school" on a day that previously was a day off for students.
When asked what they disliked about the conferences, their responses varied from "I didn't like sitting in the middle" to "I didn't like acting like a teacher." One student's response typified the most frequent objection:
I didn't like using scripts. They would mess me up when I was showing my parent my work. I also didn't like scripts because I would lose my place a lot. Another thing I didn't like was practicing the scripts so much. It got repetitive.
Next year there will be little need for a script if we implement Kingore's (1993) recommendation to attach caption strips to portfolio items. These strips would include a short description of the activity for which the product was produced, an explanation of why the student selected this item for the portfolio, and a space for a parent's response to the item.
Students suggested a number of other improvements to the conference format, such as fewer practice sessions and permission to take home copies of the materials after the conference. Our error with the end-of-quarter reports became clear when a student said, "Let us see what the teachers wrote about us before the conference." If we are to give students the responsibility of explaining their progress, it is imperative—and only fair—that they know how we evaluated them before the conference.
We sent parents a questionnaire a few weeks after the conferences (see fig. 2), asking them to compare their traditional fall conference and the student-led spring conference. Although more than 90 questionnaires were distributed, only 20 parents responded. Despite this low return rate, the surveys provided an interesting perspective. Three of every four parents chose student-led conferences. One parent wrote,
I felt my son understood better what he was doing in the classroom, and I was impressed with his base knowledge.
Since the student was there in each of his classes, he knows better what he studied. By what he selected to talk about, I got a better idea of what he remembers and enjoys. I feel the student-led conferences empowered students and helped them claim ownership of their education. In our case, it was a responsibility that our student enjoyed.
1. Which conference (traditional or student-led) gave you a better appreciation of
2. Which conference format did you prefer?
3. What are the benefits of student-led conferences?
4. What are the disadvantages of student-led conferences?
In response to the worry that students would paint only glowing pictures of themselves, one mother wrote,
I feel our child was more honest with us than most teachers would be.
Students seem more open and honest about their performance. I didn't get the sugar-coated reports from advisors, who tend to present negative aspects in a positive manner.
Some parents had reservations about the advisor's lack of participation. Although parents had the opportunity to schedule a separate conference with the advisor (and a few took advantage of this), they still wanted some verification from the advisor. Parents also viewed this format as discouraging them from discussing problems their child had with a teacher because they didn't want to discuss these kinds of problems in front of their child.
Advisors and teachers expressed full-fledged support for this format. One teacher enthusiastically said,
It builds great relationships between parents and kids and is a much more personal format.
There was a lot more truth to the kids' presentations. Some parents finally received a true picture of their child's performance.
We've found that student-led conferences do a better job of meeting the needs of the young adolescent and increasing student-parent communication. They give students, parents, and teachers a better picture of who the student is, what he or she has achieved, and what the student's future goals may be.
Collins, A. (March 1992). "Portfolios: Questions for Design." Science Scope 15, 6: 25-27.
Goldman, J. (1989). "Student Portfolios Already Proven in Some Schools." School Administrator 46, 11: 11.
Guyton, J. M., and L. L. Fielstein. (1989). "Student-Led Parent Conferences: A Model for Teaching Responsibility." Elementary School and Guidance Counseling 23, 2: 169-172.
Hubert, B. D. (1989). "Students Belong in the Parent-Teacher' Conference, Too." Educational Leadership 47, 2: 30.
Kingore, B. (1993). Portfolios: Enriching and Assessing All Students, Identifying the Gifted Grades K–6. Des Moines, Iowa: Leadership Publishers Incorporated.
Krest, M. (1990). "Adapting the Portfolio to Meet Student Needs." English Journal 79, 2: 29-34.
Little, A. W., and J. Allan. (1989). "Student-Led Parent Teacher Conferences." Elementary School Guidance and Counseling 23, 3: 210-218.
Mills, R. (1989). "Portfolios Capture Rich Array of Student Performance." School Administrator 46, 11: 8-11.
Reif, L. (March 1990). "Finding the Value in Evaluation: Assessment in a Middle School Classroom." Educational Leadership 47, 6: 24-29.
Stevenson, C. (Spring 1992). "Understanding Learning: Portfolios in the Middle Grades." The New England League of Middle Schools Journal: 8-13.
Wolfe, D. P. (April 1989). "Portfolio Assessment: Sampling Student Work." Educational Leadership 46, 7: 35-38.
Lyn Le Countryman is Middle School Coordinator and Merrie Schroeder is Middle School Math Instructor, Malcolm Price Laboratory School, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50613.
Copyright © 1996 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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