When Kids Lead Their Parent-Teacher Conferences

PITTSFIELD, N.H.—Pushing up the cuffs of his plaid shirt and adjusting his glasses, the ninth-grader Colton Gaudette looks across the small classroom conference table.

“Welcome to my student-led conference,” he says.

“Thank you for inviting me,” answers his mother, Terry Gaudette, sitting next to Colton’s adviser and biology teacher.

This meeting, which happens twice a year, has replaced the old format of parent-teacher conferences at Pittsfield Middle High School, a rural New Hampshire campus that takes a “student-centered learning” approach to schooling. With this model, students are given more freedom to connect their individual interests to their academic learning and future goals. Teachers are considered collaborators and coaches, and students are expected to shoulder more responsibility for their school lives—including organizing all the details of these twice-yearly conference with parents and advisers.

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Pittsfield began shifting to this student-centered approach after being rated one of the state’s lowest-performing high schools, and qualifying for a federal School Improvement Grant in 2009. It’s also part of a coalition of 13 New England schools that share another $5 million federal grant, and was awarded $2 million from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in 2012, specifically to foster student-centered learning.

“Kids have to be honest with themselves and I think that’s fantastic,” said Paul Strickhart, who teaches math at Pittsfield and is Colton’s faculty adviser. “They have to own up to why they’re not passing a class, or, if they’re doing well, they have to be able to identify what’s contributing to that and how they can keep going.”

The student-led conferences are also a way to teach skills you can’t learn from a textbook: organization, long-term planning, confidence with public speaking, collaboration and self-reflectioneven how to shake hands and make introductions in a more formal setting. That aligns with a larger goal for Pittsfield’s studentsto move beyond rote knowledge to develop the kind of critical-thinking skills needed for “real world” success, said John Freeman, the district’s superintendent. The unique conference format has helped to kick-start family engagement, helping the combination middle-high school to better serve its 260 students and the rest of the former mill town’s 4,500 residents.

Indeed, from New York to Washington State, student-led conferences have been praised for breathing new life into an otherwise perfunctory process. According to school officials and families at Pittsfield, before the new format was adopted a few years ago, turnout for the traditional parent-teacher conferences was dismal—less than 20 percent participated. Now, more than 90 percent of parents regularly show up.

Students are responsible for writing a letter inviting their parents or guardians to attend, coordinating with their faculty adviser to schedule the conference, and preparing a portfolio of their academic work. The conferences typically last about 30 minutes, including time for parents to ask questions and for the faculty adviser to give feedback on the presentation. Students are expected to discuss their academic, social, and emotional progress and outline their short- and long-term goals.

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At the classroom table, Colton lays out samples of his schoolworkshowing some of his strongest work and several assignments with which he had less success. In English class, Colton says he had an easier time crafting his literary analysis of Lord of the Flies than the subsequent assignment for The House on Mango Street. He’s working hard to keep his grade up in geometry, and intends to earn at least a 3.5 (out of possible 4) for both semesters. His geopolitical-studies class is going well, as is computer-assisted draftinghis blueprints for a set of shelves turned out better than his first effort designing a stone bench.

Colton also shares the results of several questionnaires the school uses to help him learn more about his personality and learning style. The results: “I’m empathetic, artistic, and kind of shy,” Colton says. His strengths include music, writing, and hands-on learning. The personality assessments bolster the plans he has for the future: He wants to study creative writing in college and potentially launch his own comic-book company. So his biology teacher encourages Colton to look for more opportunities to connect his artistic interests with his academic learninghe could have gone further with an in-class assignment asking him to describe the life cycle of a cell, for example.

“I felt down when I got that [assignment] back and you wrote that we could be more creative,” Colton says. “I want to try that.”

At the conclusion of the conference, Colton thanks the adults for participating, and says he is feeling good about where things stand for him.

“That was very well done, very thorough,” his math teacher tells him.

His mother is also impressed.

“You’ve been so nervous about thisI think you did an excellent job presenting,” she says. “And you know how to better prepare yourself for some of this academic work.”

examining school approaches to “deeper learning,” Martinez said the student-led conferences can be a powerful tool for improving students’ engagement with their learning process.

“How many of us appreciated, as a student, being talked about in the third person as if we were invisible?” Martinez asked. “When it’s just the teachers and parents participating in the conference it can end up as ‘we’re going to dictate what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.’ That’s taking away the power.”

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That being said, a student-led conference by itself won’t mean much, Martinez added. “The school must be really transferring ownership to the students and making it clear that kids have plenty of opportunities to reflect on their work.”

Jenny Wellington, an English teacher at Pittsfield, agrees. The schoolwide shift to student-centered learning is one key reason that the conferences work, according to Wellington. In class, students get a say in choosing their academic projects, which not only makes them more excited about working on their assignments but also about presenting them at the conferences once they’re completed. She added that parents can also still getting in touch with teachers at other times to ask questions or to request meetings.

Pittsfield’s teachers said the conferences are also an opportunity to observe students’ interactions with their families, and those moments can be an important window into understanding their attitudes and classroom behavior. Conferences don’t always go smoothly. Wellington said she’s observed meetings in which a student’s stated post-high-school career plans vastly differed from what their families had in mind. For example, one student was hoping to attend an out-of-state college, while her parent expected her to stay local or perhaps prepare to work in the family business.

“That can be heartbreaking,” Wellington said. “You see the parent maybe trying to push the kid in a direction that the kid doesn’t want to go in, and as their teacher you didn’t know that dynamic was happening at all.”

In such instances, Wellington tries to encourage the families to use the conference as an opportunity to talk through their differences. Ideally, the result will be a plan of action that incorporates the student’s goals while fostering parental support.

To be sure, those kinds of negotiations work best when teachers know their students well. And Pittsfield’s small size certainly helps. But Wellington, who taught middle school for six years in New York City, said she could also see it working in a larger school setting provided there is a reasonable student-teacher ratio.

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