Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In It For the Long Run: Thoughts on Student-Led Conferences

Preparing for student-led conferences is like training to run a marathon.  Both require weeks of preparation to endure the physical and mental demands of the experience, and there is often quite a bit of let-down when it's over. Having just finished our fall conferences, I'm feeling a mix of many things- proud that my students did a fantastic job sharing their learning, relieved that progress reports and Highly Capable Plans are finished, and energized by the conversations I had with parents regarding our program and classroom activities. The marathon metaphor keeps returning as I reflect upon my experiences. Here are some thoughts as I start to plan for the next round in Spring:

Wear the right shoes. You know that saying about walking a mile in someone else's shoes? This is an especially important reminder during conferences. Having the right perspective can make all the difference between a successful conference and an uncomfortable one. For me, I strive to make sure my "conference shoes" provide the right balance of support, professionalism, understanding, and humor for each family.

Each mile is a different experience. I have twenty-five wonderfully unique students in my classroom this year. Talking with my students' families (rather than at them) about successes and concerns continues to be one of the best and most enjoyable decisions I can make. Remembering each child is an individual with their own needs and passions makes conferences much more meaningful and productive. The journey is the reward, so take time to look around, appreciate your surroundings, and keep the conversations moving forward.

Don't focus on the numbers. While there's a time an place for student data, making it the primary focus is (usually) a bad idea. I give students the first 15 minutes to share anything they want in the classroom related to their learning. This year, every single student mentioned Dot Day, Mystery Skype, Google Apps for Education, and calendar math as activities in class that assisted in their learning. Students shared the book we created on our field trip as writing evidence, explained where their plant was in the life cycle, demonstrated how to record their fluency using an iPad, and showed how their art piece was related to geometry principles. They were excited about school, and you could tell! Rarely did we discuss AR points or the number correct on their last math quiz. Kids are not numbers, and it's important to keep the focus on student learning during conferences.

Be prepared for anything. I've had some strange things happen over the years. I've learned to keep the tissues nearby, call for help when you need it, know what to say if a student overshares, and have a few tricks up your sleeve to get nervous kids talking.

It helps to have people cheering you on. Take time to check-in with your colleagues and debrief. Remind your friend to eat lunch. Remind yourself to go to the bathroom while you can. Walk past a colleague's room to make sure things are going alright. Share a funny story that came up, or even talk through a conference that may have not gone so well. Similarly, when a parent tells you that you're doing an awesome job, say "thank you." Take the compliment because you're a rockstar. Finally, don't be afraid to tell a parent you think their child is wonderful and appreciate their support. Ask about a sibling you had years ago. Find out what their weekend plans are. Families need encouragement, too. When we all cheer each other on, the day seems a bit more bearable.

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