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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

Student-Led Conferences: What Happens When Students Sit in the Driver’s Seat?

Do you remember what it felt like to wait at home while your mom or dad attended parent-teacher conferences — to know they were talking about you? What would the teacher say? What would your parents’ mood be when they walked in the front door?

There are moments when it is valuable for a teacher and a parent to have a private conversation. Yet there is also a tremendous benefit to bringing the student directly into the discussion.

As I shared in an earlier post, we embrace student portfolios because they place students in the driver’s seat of their own learning: reflecting on how they learn, how they have grown, and areas that still need attention.

Our seventh-grade conferences (which students attend) and our eighth grade conferences (which students lead) also support this aim. In spring of seventh grade, students join the parent-advisor conference — and not just as flies on the wall. We talk with the students, not at them. As we tell our seventh graders, “You will be one of three voices speaking (advisor, parent, and student), and while you do not have to do all of the talking, it is a good idea to do some thinking ahead of time.” In anticipation of this meeting, students meet with their advisors to review their progress report, fill out a pre-conference checklist that examines their academic strengths and habits, and create the agenda for the conversation.

In eighth grade, students are ready to move to the next level of autonomy: leading their own conferences with their parents. On an evening in February, parents and students come to the school and meet together — without teachers in the room to guide the conversation.

As we share with students, “The purpose of the conference is to provide an opportunity for you to showcase who you are as a learner and as a member of The Rivers School community. As you prepare to enter the Upper School, this experience will help you take ownership of your learning as you share your observations and insights in a formal way with your parents.”

How do students prepare for this challenge? With the support of advisors, humanities teachers, the eighth-grade dean, and me, students spend weeks poring through their portfolios and composing 10 written reflections. Here are a few of the questions they address:

  • Describe your work ethic and your work habits.

  • What does it mean to you to give something your “best effort”?

  • What does this look like?

  • What work proved to be a great challenge for you, and what did you learn about yourself as a result?

  • Identify areas where you have grown as a student.Where have you found joy in your studies? What subjects, skills, or topics of study have excited your imagination? Provide a few specific examples

  • As you approach the end of your middle-school career, think back to who you were as a learner in sixth grade (either at Rivers or another school). What three pieces of advice would give to your younger self?

On the big night, eighth graders come to the Campus Center in formal attire, ready to present their academic journey to parents and answer their questions.

Every year at the beginning of this process, some students wonder, “Will I really be able to lead a 45-minute conversation?” Here’s where the scaffolding work that we do pays off. Students have spent so much time curating their portfolios and thinking and writing about themselves as learners that they have a surprising amount to say. I love reading through the parent feedback forms at the end of the evening. Here is a small sampling of representative remarks from parents after this years’ conferences:

“We learned that he is much more self-aware than we originally thought. We also were impressed at learning that he highlighted the things that he did well and also the things he needed to work on.”

“I learned that [my daughter] has an even higher expectation of herself than what I had thought.”

“We had no idea how much our son enjoys writing and how he has a genuine eagerness to improve.”

“I did not know how much self-knowledge and maturity my daughter has.”

“This is the most I’ve heard him talk in months. And he was directing the conversation. This was awesome!”

“We always knew [he] was confident, but we were impressed with his ability to show areas of vulnerability and how he can use these feelings to grow as a student and member of the community.”

“This should happen every year!”

What a marvelous reminder about what can happen when students sit in the driver’s seat! That’s exactly where we want them to be as they head into upper school.

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