By Jerry Beckman, Clay Elliott, Ryan Liese, James Maguire, Jennifer Ragsdale, Polly Robb, Cindy Shaw, and Laurel Shockley
“Inevitably,” says Clay Elliott, Dean of 7th and 8th Grades and the incoming Middle School Head, “when teachers are discussing student-led conferences, one will describe how the conference created a moment when a student was able to say something that needed to be said to the parent. They describe how a student had reached a critical point in development and displayed the maturity and self-possession to self-advocate. Other teachers will mention how parents teared up with pride at the realization that their child no longer needs them quite so much. These are wonderful moments, but their creation is serendipitous and not really the motivation behind the conferences.
“The power of student led conferences lies in the habits of mind that they cultivate in the student."
“Instead, the power of student led conferences lies in the habits of mind that they cultivate in the student. Through the preparation process, students must reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, build the self-awareness to set their own goals, and then must overcome the discomfort that comes with presenting this information to their parents. Ultimately, the conferences lie at the intersection of two critical educational goals – challenging students and pushing them to take ownership of their education and eventually their lives.
“Over the last 20 years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance that reflective practice plays a significant role in students’ development. By reviewing what they’ve learned and how they learned it, students come to understand their own learning styles and particular challenges. They also deepen their understanding of the material in their courses. Most importantly, the self-awareness they gain helps them make important decisions and adjustments in how they approach their education and their work. Finally, the research is clear in finding the most significant advantage is that self-aware, reflective students are more motivated and work harder to follow through on their goals.
"The preparation for the student-led conferences is excellent practice that can lead students to be more confident and reflective. It is one of the most powerful ways to help our students take ownership of their education through realizing that ultimately they should choose to excel as a result of internal motivation, not through external pressure or incentives,” said Mr. Elliott.
“We asked ourselves if, with regard to their learning, were our students owners or tenants? We had to admit that they were mostly tenants,” says Laurel Shockley, Assistant Lower School Head.
In order to make that move to ownership, Randolph piloted student-led conferences (SLCs) during the 2013-14 school year for grades 1, 6 and 8, and in 2014-15 launched for them for all of grades K-8, with a pilot in the Upper School. SLCs place the focus of the conversation on the student’s growth as a learner and the ability to reflect upon one's work and set goals. While grades matter and certainly reflect the quality of work being done, students need to take ownership for the process and the results, and learn to see grades as valuable feedback on the larger process of their own growth. SLCs are one way that the School hopes to promote intrinsic motivation in all students, starting in Kindergarten.
“In the year of the Lower School pilot, we had pushback everywhere,” recalls Mrs. Shockley. Just as we encourage students to take risks by embarking on something new, we needed to support and encourage the adults. We researched a lot of schools who do this, and teachers who had done these before gave us in-house training. Nichole Knapp, a 1st grade teacher with experience of SLCs from her previous school, helped her colleagues take the plunge. And sometimes that support came from the students themselves! “A 1st grader came to a full faculty meeting to demonstrate how the conference would look,” explains Mrs. Shockley. Second graders, who had experienced SLCs the previous year, showed this year’s 1st graders how to make trailers for their conferences.
Preparation and planning were key.
“We started the 2014-15 school year knowing we would do these in February, and that they would include a sampling of work,” says Mrs. Shockley. “Conferences were not to be a burden, but a celebration. Along the way we made short videos on common topics that would be included, the idea was not extra preparation, but to prepare differently.” Students included self-portraits with their goals, which was a way to bring art into the mix. In 2nd grade, the SLCs were anchored around a big project, which was the biography project. Students showed their parents work they had done to research and write about their famous person, including the prototypes they made for a Design Thinking project where they proposed a solution to a problem their person had.
Third and 4th graders prepared videos and websites as part of their conference materials. Students recorded their goals as a video and some included social goals, another important area for growth and reflection.
One of the other differences was being able to include the specialist teachers who have always wanted to be a part of this day. They each made videos about the work being done in their classes. These were linked to QR codes, which were posted in the halls. Parents could scan the codes to watch later or while waiting for their appointments.
In addition to preparing materials, Lower School students were also involved in setting up the classrooms for the conference day. This meant arranging the mobile furniture with their teachers and thinking about creating a welcoming space with display areas.
An important component of the experience is the life skills that students gain in preparing, organizing, reflecting, and presenting. Older students needed less support from the teacher, but an unexpected outcome of the day was that if a student faltered, the teacher offered guidance, and parents were able to witness and appreciate that interaction.
“It’s okay to struggle sometimes,” says Lower School Head Cindy Shaw, “I am glad some of our parents had the opportunity to see how supportive our teachers are.”
Jennifer Ragsdale, Dean of 5th and 6th Grades, led the Middle School pilot of SLCs, which, as she says, “put the focus where it belongs: directly on the student. Additionally, they include the students in the important conversation about their own learning. Instead of students waiting at home to hear how the conference went, they were directly involved in running the event. This powerful initiative has allowed our students to be more reflective in their work and growth, promoted deep and meaningful conversations with parents and teachers, and ensures that our students are more accountable for their own education. Parents were able to hear from the students themselves how they've grown this year, and about the challenges they still face, with the support and encouragement from their advisor right next to them. Perhaps the most meaningful part of the conference, however, occurs at the end, when students partner with their parents and teacher to create goals together, including action steps and support needed.”
Upper School will follow suit
The Upper School shares the desire to place students at the center of the conversation. They worked this year to determine how SLCs might look in their division. Six faculty members took part in piloting a new format for conferences during the third quarter. The faculty piloting these conferences met with both parents and advisees during these meetings in a process which might be better described as student-designed conferences. These were structured based on what the student felt was most appropriate. This also allowed the students to guide the conversation in a direction that would be most meaningful to them. Some students chose to discuss areas of growth and presented examples to support this, while other students addressed their long-term academic goals and concerns.
“The pilot program provided us with valuable feedback from faculty, students, and parents,” says Upper School Head Ryan Liese. “While the element of choice provided our students with some control of the conversation, we need to look for ways to maximize their role in the eventual discussion. Over the summer, we will also address how to implement the program appropriately across grade-levels and ensure that the information being shared is as impactful as possible. We see this as a unique opportunity for our students to be fully invested in their education and to foster a healthy dialogue between the School and our families.”
A teacher’s perspective
James Maguire, an 8th grade English teacher, noted that that the conferences about which he was most nervous in advance, were actually the most rewarding for all of the parties involved.
Mr. Maguire’s first conference “seemed to ride the rails at times. The student’s father would interrupt to question a particularly bad grade from earlier in the year and the son would seem momentarily paralyzed. Luckily, we had rehearsed a similar scenario, so with a little encouragement he was able to continue. At the end of the conference, my student’s father complimented him on the obvious time and preparation he had put into his role in the student-led conference, and everyone in the room exhaled.”
At another conference, a student who has had some struggles was able to talk animatedly about his successes throughout the year in each of his subjects without interruption, but when he began to dissect his own failures, his mother practically accused him of lying to her about his upcoming tests. It was clear they had had this conversation before. Being able to talk openly about his deficiencies as a student, without calling his character or personal ability into question, seemed to empower him as he went on to talk about his goals and ways that we—his parents and teachers—could support him in achieving them. This was a small, but significant, accomplishment made possible by the student-led conference format.
One of the most successful conferences Mr. Maguire saw was due to the student’s “ability to articulate his own triumphs and shortcomings and his parent's willingness to listen to and appreciate her son. The student needed little guidance in crafting a narrative for his school year and finding work to corroborate it. However, when he admitted openly that his writing, and particularly attention to detail, could fall short at times, his mother became visibly frustrated—no doubt, imagining the incredible standards he could achieve if he would only find and correct his occasional, small errors. By advising them both to focus on his numerous and impressive achievements, while acknowledging that his goal for the future could be to improve at preventing or fixing these detail-oriented mistakes, the conference ended on an overwhelmingly positive note, with the student and his mother planning together to determine his best route for success in his upcoming high school years.”
What the parents say
Allison Pitsinos has children in 3rd, 7th and 9th grade. A new parent this year, she had followed the news of the piloting of SLCs last year as a prospective parent. “I thought it was awesome,” she says, “and I had positive expectations, but the conferences themselves exceeded them.” As a homeschooling parent-teacher, she doesn’t believe this level of self-assessment would have been possible to achieve. “We can do wonderful content at home, but not the other skills, which are much more cutting edge.” She watched as her sons moved from apprehension about the SLCs to being prepared and excited, then disappointed when the conferences were postponed by bad weather.
“It was a tremendous learning experience,” Allison says. Seeing all sorts of work from major projects and hearing the reflections it drew from both of her sons was impressive. “It made me realize what a tremendous thing we had done for our children by sending them to Randolph,” says Allison. “We have a great school. I don’t think people realize the difference of the experience here. People tend to focus so much on content, but the skills our sons learned to prepare and lead these conferences are lifetime skills: communication, reflection and self-evaluation, being able to look back and see what worked, what didn’t, intertwined with the content was so affirming. To hear our own child talk about his work, be organized, have a sense of pride, was the crowning achievement of the year. Kids do well when they can look back on long-term projects with a sense of accomplishment; so often they are rushing from one topic to the next. I hope that my daughter gets to do this next year in Upper School. She said she was relieved she wasn’t doing one, but any time you have that apprehension, it’s something you need!”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Wendy Joseph, who has a 3rd and an 8th grader and is head of the Academic Parent Ambassadors for the Randolph Parent Association. What impressed her most about the SLCs was the ownership her children had.
“My 8th grader is a perfectionist and wouldn’t want me to see the struggle, but she was able to make connections between how she approaches something in one part of her life can connect to another. I was really impressed by that. And that she has the maturity to seek help if she needs it, and see something as an area for growth, not a disaster. I liked how they did reflections after tests, in all subjects, so they are building the preparation into the year. My 3rd grader had made a website—he’s visual, so that was exciting for him—and he was following an agenda, which is a good life skill to have. This is preparing them “for outside the gates. At work you have to submit a performance appraisal and discuss it. This is a life skill." Wendy added,
"When I mentioned this to friends with children at other schools, they wished their children could do something like this.”
Stephanie Schamban, the mother of five Randolph students, ranging from Kindergarten to 7th grade, saw a full range of conference formats, from the joyful reportage of her kindergartners to the honest, self-reflection of her Middle Schoolers. “I loved it!” she enthuses. “They all walked out feeling really good about it. In previous years, I come out and they’re nervous.”
What advice would she have for parents going into an SLC for the first time? “Do a pre-game. We did a run-through on the snow day when the first conferences were scheduled. That way you can ask the obvious questions and get those out of the way.” She adds, “It’s rare to have one-on-one time with each of my children and talk without interruptions. With older kids, help them see themselves and the classroom through someone else’s eyes. I asked my 7th grader, ‘If you were the teacher, how would you have given the assignment?’ That’s what I really like about Randolph, it’s about learning and the process. The best part of it is they look at themselves. It develops self-awareness. Isn’t that what it’s all about?”
Charles Johnson shared Stephanie’s appreciation for having that time to really listen to your child. “I have heard from so many different parents how good it was. Life gets too busy and this is very valuable. It’s good for parents and kids.” As the parent of a 1st grader, Charles and Wendy loved seeing their son’s excitement and confidence as he, rather than the teacher, showed them the different stations that had been set up in class. “When he explained about adjectives and adverbs, I had no idea he actually knew and understood about that. It was powerful.”
“Student-led conferences were, for us, just one more way in which Randolph inspires confidence and independence in our children,” says mom Juliet Wells. “Introducing kids to presenting information at such a young age—even to their parents—will help them be more comfortable presenting in the future. I will never forget the look on our kindergartner's face when we arrived at the classroom and he turned to us, stood up straight and said, ‘Welcome to my classroom...’ and launched into his presentation. We also saw the kids [K and 2nd grade] take ownership of their work during the conferences. It wasn't something their teacher told them to do; it was something they were in charge of at that moment - and they were both extremely proud of what they had accomplished.”
Says Mrs. Ragsdale, “We believe strongly that the benefits of student-led conferences will be long-term, as our students become reflective learners, with a perspective on their past, and their eyes on the future.”
“In moving forward with student-led conferences,” says Mr. Elliott, “we hope to realize this emphasis on student-centered education. The conferences present one of many challenges that we place in front of our students. In helping them to overcome and follow through, we look to create students with the confidence to take on further challenges in the Upper School here at Randolph and the many more that await them in their future lives.”