School Scoop: Student-led parent conferences
In a change from the parent-teacher conferences that are standard fare at schools around the country, the Block Island School has introduced a unique variation from the norm: in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades, they are led by the students.
The innovative program has not come about without major behind-the-scenes preparation and direction from the classroom teachers, respectively Bonnie Swienton, Marlee Lacoste and Shannon Cotter Marsella, as well as from Principal John Canole.
Modeled on a similar program in South Kingstown, it was implemented for the first time at the island school on the afternoon of April 4, when parents and other responsible adults were invited to meetings at specified times.
When ushered into the classroom, they were seated across from their children, who had agendas laid out before them, at tables set up around the room. These instructed the students to thank their parents for coming, introduce them to their teachers and share the work they had selected to discuss. Students were encouraged to talk rather than read about it.
In their preparation for the conferences with their parents, students put together portfolios in each of five subject areas: English language arts, math, reading, science and social studies. These folders were color-coded for quick identification. They selected one assignment or project from each subject area to focus on and discuss.
Using work sheets they had developed before the meetings, they talked about their strengths and about the areas in which they needed to improve. For example, in the latter they might talk about setting specific goals and about outlining actions to help meet them.
After the students presented and evaluated their work to their parents, they all set about identifying, in writing, a shared goal — one they “pledge to work on together.” To make their goals achievable, they also identified actions they could take. Finally, they all signed their pledges.
In another self-assessment, the students filled out a form entitled Behavior Goal Setting, on which they reflect on the “one good thing I have been doing this year and want to keep doing,” and on the “one not-so-good thing that I have been doing and want to stop doing.” They commit to a goal to improve their conduct within and without the classroom and list the actions they will take to help reach it.
Homework for parents
The final component of the conference was “adult homework,” which the students assigned to their responsible adult or parent. The first part asked for “a brief positive personal note about the conference,” with some suggested prompts, such as the following: “I was proud of you for…”; “Keep up the good work on…”; “I know you have difficulty with… sometimes, but…” and “ I am impressed with your...”
The second part of the assignment was for parents to fill out a form providing feedback to the school. The students add, “My teachers will give me the note to keep as a memento of this important time we spent together.” The students signed off by thanking their responsible adult “for being there” and hoping they enjoyed the conference and discovering “more about my growth as a learner.”
High school English teacher Nancy Greenaway, who observed the conferences, found them very exciting. She said, “What was beautiful was the intensity of the exchanges, the focus on topics and the seriousness of the listening going on” between students and their parents. Greenaway was so enthusiastic about the conferences she called upon some of her high school colleagues to drop in to observe them as well.
Lacoste explained that at first it was something very different from what faculty members were used to in planning for previous conferences. Orchestrating a structure within which students could present current work projects in an analytical manner was challenging, but rewarding as soon as the students became engaged in the program.
She was particularly impressed with the seriousness with which the students took the lead role in directing the conferences. She pointed out, “It’s all about the students taking ownership of the work.”
Swienton agreed that the students showed great responsibility for their own part in developing the format for the conferences, and she praised the reflective way in which they evaluated their own work and working habits.