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Student-led conferences push leadership, reflection

November 19, 2018
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Toki Middle School seventh-grader Janiah Koon looks to her mother, Martha Koon, after reading her goals: "To have no missing assignments, work even harder and study more." They took part in a parent-teacher conference with seventh-grade teacher Hillary Wilson.

Toki Middle School has discovered a way to get more students to attend parent-teacher conferences — invite them to be part of the preparation and conversation.

The student-led conferences are designed to have the middle schoolers prepare, present their work and progress, articulate their goals and lead the conversation instead of parents sitting down and listening to the teacher talk about their children.

“They want to showcase their work,” said Kristine Bobb, instructional coach at Toki. “This process makes them proud.”

Nicole Schaefer became principal at Toki in 2007 and the student-led conferences officially started with the sixth-graders in 2009. Another grade was added each year as those students advanced until the whole school became involved.

“It’s not just the teachers talking,” seventh-grader Aidan John said about why he likes the model.

Students have an idea of what they’re struggling with and for him it has been reading, he added after his conference a week ago. But he also realized that he does better when he gets more sleep so he is working on that.

“Just the idea of self-reflection is such an important piece,” said Aidan’s father, Ben John, who works as a soccer coach at several levels. “It is such a small thing but could have a significant ripple effect.”

John said he learned the important skill of critical thinking in college but doesn’t think he got practice with that in middle and high school.

“If they take that leadership role, they care more,” said Hillary Wilson, who is in her first year at Toki, where she teaches the humanities to seventh-graders.

Schaefer said the idea for student-led conferences came from a national school model for learning, now called EL Education, that led to some workshops and professional development that looked at practices such as student ownership of their learning.

“I really think it gives kids a sense of knowing what they did, what they accomplished,” she said.

Sometimes the grading process makes students feel like someone gave them a grade without them really understanding why, she said. In addition, Toki is looking at students’ futures and how this process might help with job interviews, Schaefer said.

While in general the teachers embraced the new model, there was some apprehension, which was why it was phased in, she said. In addition, some teachers piloted it in 2008, which helped so they could model the process, she said.

“Students had to prepare and get ready for conferences as much as the teachers did,” she said. “This is much more of a shared responsibility.”

This year was the first time seventh-grader Janiah Koon helped lead her conference because she was at a different school last year. She said it was “a little bit more nerve-racking” and she felt “kind of on the spot a little bit” but figured it would be easier next time.

Matt Hanson, father of Alyssa Werner, a seventh-grader, likes the student-led conference because his daughter takes more ownership in her grades and learning. “If she comes up with it on her own, she’s more likely to try harder,” said Hanson, who works in management.

Alyssa likes the control it gives her and agreed the conferences can be motivating.

“If you are talking about your (need for) improvement, it’s harder because you have to do something about it,” she said.

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