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Twice a year, each school year, we have formal parent-teacher conferences scheduled at my school. In my years of teaching so far, I have seen a variety of formats for these events. The format with the most institutional feel (from my perspective) has all of the teachers arranged alphabetically by last name in the gym while all of the parents who want to make the trip come and line up and wait for a chance to speak to each teacher for 5 minutes. The results are predictable – in this unfriendly environment, I’ve often heard teachers complain (and been guilty of complaining myself) that the parents they need to see and speak with are not the ones they see, that it is a loud, impersonal environment not conducive to good conversations or effective interventions. I don’t recall many ah-ha moments coming out of those types of conversations, but the biggest take-away is that students rarely attended those types of interviews with their parents. 

Looking at it from the teen’s point of view, it’s hard to imagine a worse environment in which to try to have a conversation with your parent and your teacher (two adult authority figures in the teen’s life who may or may not have met before that moment) about your progress in school and what to do about it. You are in a large, impersonal space with hundreds of other people having similar conversations, and because of the time limit it boils down very quickly to talking about (a) is my child behaving in class, and (b) is my child being assigned any homework because I never see him/her doing any. There is no authentic connection, and the conversations are rushed, shallow, and in most cases are a one-time event, at least within that semester. There is a line-up of other parents waiting, and other kids feeling equally squeamish, and there is pressure to keep moving.

I’m thinking of my experience on both sides of the table here – as parent and teacher. I have two boys, one in high school and one in elementary. I always miss out on my high school aged son’s formal conferences, because he attends the school that I teach at, and so I talk to his teachers at other times. I do get to attend my younger son’s conferences, and they have a very different look and feel to them. In his school, as in many other elementary schools, they use the student-led conference model, in which the student has a checklist of things they need to do to show their parent what they have learned. As a parent, you go into your child’s classroom and see them in their authentic learning environment with their teacher, and you see firsthand the interaction between the two. If nothing else, that is far more informative than any gymnasium conversation. The key player, the child, is there and is leading the parent through some examples of what they are learning, as well as introducing them to the classroom in which they spend a lot of their time.

I see a lot more value in the student-led conference model than in the gymnasium model, and in recent years have transitioned to the student-led model as the framework at my school shifted to become more accommodating of such possibilities. I have seen a higher level of engagement of my students as a result, and more parents coming with their children. This year, after a conversation with a colleague about what she does at her school, I knew it was time for a change. I started talking about some possibilities with one of the members of my department at my school, and it wasn’t long before we had completely re-imagined what we had both been doing in our respective classrooms.

Instead of holding interviews in our classrooms, we decided to invite other teachers from our department to hold our student-led conferences together in the library. It was a common space that was smaller than the gym, much more comfortable for kids, and offered many opportunities for personal conversations between parents and kids, kids and teachers, teachers and parents, etc. We could also showcase a lot of the technology and cultural elements we’ve been using in our classrooms and show parents firsthand what the tools in our classes look like or talk about why we use them. There are a total of 7 teachers in the department, and four of us plus one student teacher got together to use the library.

student led conferences

We had French music videos playing on the Apple TV, examples of books and magazines that we use for reading, student artwork samples relating to the culture of the language they are learning, a checklist of things for students to do when they came with their parents so that they didn’t have to remember what to do, iPads available for them to show their parents their digital portfolios, articles on the benefits of learning a second language, and the most important part – cookies! We asked our students to invite their parents to drop in and see us whenever it was convenient for them within the four hour time and had no scheduled appointments. If a parent wanted to schedule a follow-up conversation, we made sure to offer that opportunity as well. It looked a lot different from the traditional model, and more like a celebration of learning.

It was by far the most fun I have ever had at parent-teacher conferences. The night felt like a celebration, and we had a constant stream of people coming in and out. There were a few parents and students who weren’t in our classes who popped in to see what was going on, and to have a cookie. There was dancing, and laughing, and lots of good connections. The night wasn’t about us, the teachers, but it was about us giving parents and students some language to talk to each other about learning, a private place to do it, and a light fun atmosphere that encouraged interaction.There should be conversations every day between parents and kids about learning, and they won’t all be special events like this one, but doing things like this once in a while really helps. Talking to students the next day, many who had not come regretted having stayed away, but all of them were keen to help plan and look forward to next year. If we are able to implement all of their ideas, the next session will feature a scavenger hunt, kids teaching parents language concepts, a balloon arch, a word association game, a race between parent and child to follow assembly instructions for a toy or other object, and kids teaching parents the words to their favourite second language songs. I can’t wait!

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