Parent-Teacher, Student-Teacher, or Student-Parent-Teacher Conferences (page 5)
Narratives are only one way to share comments about student work. Even better, when the opportunity arises, is to talk with the students and parents about student achievement because then you can listen and have a dialogue. Parent conferences require that teachers use the same observational, summarizing, and goal-setting skills as do narrative assessments. In this case, however, oral communication skills and relationship skills are the vehicle for working with parents instead of writing skills. Student conferences can be a regular part of some classes, typically concerning individual assignments before students turn in the final product.
Set A Purpose
In some cases you won’t have much choice about whether or not to hold parent conferences. Many school districts require one or two parent conferences be offered each year, especially for younger students. Decide what evidence you’ll need to collect, and in what form, to show to parents at the conference. It may sound silly now, but I remember doing parent conferences with middle school students years ago prepared only with the gradebook. It never occurred to me that systematically saved pieces of evidence would give me a good conversation starter or focusing tool. Even if you are just doing individual student conferences about one assignment in your classroom, set a purpose. Don’t start talking with students until you know what you want to accomplish with the conference.
Plan The Logistics
For conferences, planning the logistics can be complicated. Schedules and appointments must be made, and appropriate space reserved. The space needs to provide privacy. You shouldn’t, for instance, conduct conferences in your classroom with one family while another waits for their turn in the same room.
Collect The Evidence
There are several different ways you can prepare the evidence for conferences. Portfolios can be shared at conferences, as can checklists, anecdotal records, narratives, or grades. You can collect individual pieces of evidence to show as illustrations of the general level of student work, and reasons students received the kind of grades they did. Students can assist in the selection of evidence. How exactly you should do this depends on the purpose of the conference.
Interpret the Evidence, Communicate the Information, and Listen to The Response
The interpretation and communication process for conferences is similar to that for narratives and portfolios, with one important difference: You will be talking directly with students or parents; therefore, it is extremely important that you actively listen to what they have to say. Involve them in interpreting the evidence from student work or from your observations of students in class.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The major advantage of conferences is the opportunity for dialogue. This, of course, requires good listening and interpersonal skills. Another strength of conferences is that they help develop home-school relationships. Face-to-face communication allows for better understanding between parents and teachers, the two most important sets of adults in the child’s life, and among parents, teachers, and the student.
Weaknesses of conferences include the time-consuming and difficult nature of scheduling and other logistics, and the related problem that you can’t hold conferences very frequently. Dysfunctional or antagonistic parents can be a problem. When confronted with these situations, respond professionally. Your job as the child’s teacher is to understand the child’s environment as best you can, not to become the family’s counselor, and certainly not to become afraid or anxious.
I once had a conference with the father of a seventh grader who refused to do anything in my Language Arts class; instead, he played with a toy truck on his desk. When I took the truck from him, instead of stopping, he would make a “Vroom-vroom” noise and pretend his hand was the truck, steering around the top of his desk. Roy’s reading and writing were very poor and not getting any better. At my conference with his father, I met a very angry, unemployed man. He yelled at me, saying that teachers made too much money and that his son didn’t have to do what I asked in class. Apparently, the father’s response to his troubles was to withdraw and become belligerent–just as his son did in class. I did not try to argue with Roy’s dad. Instead I tried, not entirely successfully, to stick to a discussion of Roy’s work and behavior. I did not fall into the trap of talking about teachers’ salaries or personalize the attack and get upset because he was yelling at me.
Relationship skills required for parent conferences include communicating genuine caring, building rapport, listening, empathizing, reflecting parents’ feelings, and clarifying (Perl, 1995). Perl’s list of relationship skills for parent conferences about students with disabilities applies as well to parent conferences about all students.
Often, schools will have a school-wide parent conference day set up during the fall, typically sometime in October after the school year has started and the teachers have had a chance to get to know their students. Another conference day may be scheduled in the spring. Make sure not to confuse these with “open house” times, which are not times to share specific information about individual students. Parent conferences should be scheduled individually, and information should be kept confidential.
Typically, student-teacher conferences are about smaller “chunks” of work, specific assignments or groups of assignments, than are conferences with parents involved. Students can receive specific feedback from teachers, and students can help teachers understand their particular needs or points of confusion and the accomplishments of which they are particularly proud. One good way to integrate assessment with instruction is to engage in student-teacher conferences during the course of independent work. A classic version of this is student-teacher conferences about students’ writing. Teachers meet with students about drafts of specific work, and together size up the effort to date and set goals for improvement.
If your school does not permit students to attend parent-teacher conferences, Stiggins (2005) recommends using student-teacher conferences as preparation for parent-teacher conferences. Go over with the student the evidence that you will present to the parents. Make sure the student understands what you will be telling his or her parents, to eliminate a sense of “they’re talking about me behind my back.”
An idea gaining some momentum at the present time is a version of parent conferences that has the student not only present, but also taking a leading role (Stiggins, 2005). These conferences require preparation both in terms of the meeting itself and in the work students do in their daily classwork. Two scenarios follow. You will notice that in both examples the students are responsible for understanding and describing their work as a whole, for describing their strengths and weaknesses, and for setting goals. Response to this kind of conference is generally positive, although some parents still prefer teacher conferences without their child present.
Elementary School Example
Elementary school teachers in Coronado Unified School District, California, devised a student-led conference for first graders (Bennett & Kovac, 1995). Students “share a portfolio of their work as they explain personal and academic strengths and discuss academic goals for improvement. They are given the opportunity to take control of their own learning while practicing confidence building skills and leadership abilities” (p. 1). The conference itself functions as a performance assessment, with students, parents, and teachers jointly evaluating what the students demonstrate and together setting goals for the future. Teachers facilitate, but the schedule is arranged in an overlapping fashion so that teachers do not attend the entire conference with each student and parent. Students work through a format of demonstrating their accomplishments in literacy, numeracy, social development, and psychomotor development. They read to their parents, share writing and math portfolios, solve a math story problem, reflect on their own social and emotional strengths, and demonstrate skills like hopping, jumping, throwing, and catching. Parents listen and then help students with goal setting. Teachers facilitate the discussion and help with goal setting as well. Parents then complete pre- and post-conference questionnaires.
Middle School Example
At Center Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri, faculty developed a student-led parent conference model to serve the following purposes (Hackmann, Kenworthy, & Nibbelink, 1995, pp. 4–5): “to encourage students to accept responsibility for their academic progress; to encourage parents, students, and teachers to openly communicate as equal partners; to facilitate the development of students’ oral communication skills and increase self-confidence; and to increase parent participation in the conferences.” Students participated in a special course called Seminar that included study skills, career exploration, and interdisciplinary work. Students developed Individualized Student Plans with the help of their homeroom teachers, identifying goals in five areas: academic, personal responsibility, leadership, community service, and physical/wellness. They also developed action plans for their goals. In Seminar classes, students role-played student-led parent conferences based on their individual goals and a packet of materials they had accumulated.
The actual conferences were held in 20-minute time blocks. The teacher advisor served as the facilitator. Students shared with parents items they had prepared: their “Goals for Growth” folder, including their Individualized Student Plan and an activity log documenting progress; a “Coat of Arms” they created depicting their skills, successes, and influential people; an assignment notebook documenting completion of assignments, tests, and other academic work; a grade sheet including expected and actual grades for each course and ways to improve or maintain their grades; and two portfolios, a best-work portfolio and a career exploration portfolio. Students made thank-you cards for their parents for coming to the conference. After the student presentations, parents had the opportunity to question student and teacher. Student, parent, and teacher each had an opportunity to make concluding or summary remarks. Parents were able to schedule follow-up conferences with the teacher alone, if they wished.
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