Engagement and Ownership: Student-Led Conferences

As we celebrate the Willows 25th anniversary, we’ve been reflecting on the innovative work undertaken over the years inspiring students to reach their potential and share their gifts with the world. From looping classrooms in grades 1-4 to our annual Intersession, a week-long period when the School explores one theme in-depth, our school leaders have never shied away from adapting new ideas in our student-centered often pioneering educational program (scroll through the blog posts below for many more examples!)

One recent innovation is student-led conferences. Traditionally, schools hold parent-teacher conferences two to three times a school year, with teachers sharing student work samples and reports on how students are progressing towards academic and social-emotional goals. For the last several years, many schools nationwide have tried an alternative format: instead of having teachers lead these discussions, the students are tasked with preparing and leading the parent-teacher conference. 

Certainly, parents value the traditional one-on-one time with the teachers provided by the traditional conference structure. However, our balanced approach at The Willows has led us to adopt the format of student-led conferences only for the mid-year conference – and only for grades third through eighth. By third grade, we expect students have matured enough to begin to take more ownership of their learning and better articulate their strengths and struggles in the classroom. Further, mid-year conferences were chosen to be led by students since this is an ideal time in the school year to prompt students to reflect on where they’ve come since the beginning of the year and what progress they hope to make by year’s end.

Our process of implementing this new approach began slowly and strategically. For the first year, we only piloted student-led conferences in 5th grade, and, buoyed by positive responses from both parents and teachers, we expanded to third, fourth, and middle school grades the following year.

Teachers informed our school administration that the key to making student-led conferences a success was allocating time for students to adequately prepare. Teachers typically meet one-on-one with each student and map out how the conference will be structured, asking the student to reflect on his or her general progress, (i.e. “So what’s going well for you in 4A so far?) and to analyze specific projects or assignments to be shared with parents.

Understandably, for some students (especially third graders new to our Upper Elementary building) facing the task of leading a meeting typically reserved only for adults can be stressful. To address this, teachers may use the RULER tools integrated into our program to help students deal with any anxiety. The student-led conference experience has been positive and ultimately empowering for our students. Parents also report that they enjoy seeing their children in a new leadership role, taking ownership over their learning and their goals in their classrooms.

At The Willows, we firmly believe one of our primary responsibilities is to empower our students for the changing world ahead of them, and student-led conferences are a perfect example of this belief put into action.

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