Thursday, May 22, 2008

Student Led Conferences

My school was recently authorized as an International Baccalaureate School. One of the requirements of IB schools is to hold Student Led Conferences each year.

At a student led conference, parents are invited to school for a conference where the student is in charge. The teacher does not lead or guide the conference, this job belongs to the child.

As an educator, I was excited about this event. As a pre-k educator, I was a little bit nervous. How would I teach children, especially children ages 3-5 with disabilties to lead their own conference? How would I ensure that the conference was student driven, but supported enough that it would be meaningful for 3-5 year olds?
We just finished our student led conferences. They were wonderful and worth every minute of planning involved!

I explained the prep work and student led conference experience to my husband (not a teacher) with a roller coaster analogy. You wait in line for an hour and the ride is over in 2 minutes. But, if you are a roller coaster junkie, it is well worth the wait. You'll wait time and again. Year after year. That's how our first student led conferences went. An incredible amount of planning time went into them, and they were over very quickly. But they were well worth the time invested and we'll willingly schedule them again, year after year.
Tips for successful conferences:

1) Keep work samples throughout the year.
We kept 2-3 pieces for each major theme and then let the child choose which piece s/he wanted to talk about. When they chose the piece for their conference, we completed a student reflection worksheet with Boardmaker icons. The reflection worksheet helps to guide some of the conversation with parents and children.

(Note: The students did not talk about every theme that we taught nor did they talk about every piece that we saved. They spoke about 4 pieces total. Three that they chose and the fourth was a book of their oral language samples about photos of class activities.)

2) Structure and organize the work samples in a way that is easy for students and families to use.
My students are familiar with Boardmaker icons. We created a "worklist" of 4 icons about work samples they were going to talk about. A matching icon was taped to the work sample. Students removed the icon from their worklist, matched it to the work sample and then talked about that piece (very similar to TEACCH task baskets).

Parents had clues from the reflection worksheet and the work sample to talk to their help prompt their child if s/he stopped talking.
(The picture on the top is the "work list." The picture in the center is a bucket that held the work samples and the work list. The picture on the bottom is the student reflection form.)

3) Walk away!
As the teacher in the classroom you are an authority figure. Walk away from the table! This leaves the parents as the only authority figure in close proximity. If you walk away, it minimizes role confusion between the authority status of the teacher and parent. (who will prompt, who will ask a question, when to wait, etc) It also minimizes the "on the spot" climate for the student. We observed more authentic conversation about work samples when the teacher was not at the table with the parent and child.

4) Let go!
The goal of our student led conferences was to generate meaningful conversation between the child and the parents about topics they had learned. The tools and the structure were in place....let the rest go. Let the conversation emerge.

5) Listen from a discreet distance.
You'll be amazed at what the children explain and how they explain it. Student led conferences are truly a rewarding experience for the child, the parent and the teacher.


Mrs. V said...

How did the parents like the conferences? I'm not familiar with IB, so I may have to do a little reading on it. I know we have a school that just opened a couple of years ago in our community, but I don't know anything about it. Knowledge is power, right?

Michelle_special_ed_teacher said...

Overall, the parents emjoyed the student led conferences. Most of my students' parents want to be involved in their child's education, so they respond when the invitation is sent. They truly got a chance to hear their child explain the reflection forms and use some of the "learner profile" words to describe their learning (i.e. thinker, communicator, caring). Part of the process requires the parents to fill out a reflection form, as well. I can't remember all of the specific comments but, in general, it they focused on skill development, being at school with their child and vocabulary development.
I was a little hesitant about the IB philosphy when it was first introduced, however, as Shrek sings (or is it Donkey? anyway,) "I'm a believer!" The IB philosophy in the Primary Years focuses on learning through inquiry and integrating the learner profiles. It is really powerful when it is in action. :-) Check out the IBO website for more info.

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