How to Hack Learning Conferences
Since going back to teaching after having a baby, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to save time, places to become more efficient, and strategies for better managing my workload. Well this fall, I may have designed my ideal intro-unit to Grade 8 English that I simply cannot keep to myself.
“What possibility am I creating for myself this year?”
We began the term with this provocation. I like it because it gives students the moment to pause and realize a few things:
- Oh, I’m in control of the kind of year I have
- I can be creative not just with the arts or stem or steam or steamy art, but with my life design
- All of this feedback that professional people have been telling me about myself might actually become relevant in a whole new way
Essentially, the unit builds towards students drafting a one-page statement about themselves, articulating what their English strengths, challenges, and next steps are. While it is not their report card, it is written in the same format as one (albeit a much longer one). Here is what students do in the first few weeks of school:
- Over the summer, students read two novels: one from a list of 10 books and another free choice book
- We start school by doing some surveys about ourselves: a reading survey, a writing survey, an interest survey, a survey about our mindset, a survey on multiple intelligences, and a survey about our character strengths. We spread this over a few days.
- While we are debriefing and discussing our summer books, we use these personality surveys to better understand ourselves, but also the characters we read about (“Ah yes, Katniss does have a strong naturalistic intelligence and her character strengths are persistence and bravery, but she could really work on her interpersonal intelligence, as well as perhaps forgiveness.”)
- We also take a class and learn to read our report card from last year and reflect on our learning skills
- Within the first few weeks of school, I like to take a few baseline assessments. This year, I had time to do two quick reading assessments (a letter essay on their summer reads book as well as an in-class site reading assessment).
With all of this data collected, students organize their data and start to look for trends, patterns, highlights, challenges, successes, and trends in their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. They draft their one page statement, get feedback, and then revise and redraft (sometimes adding in insights gained from the revision process). Their statement becomes the cover of their writing portfolio website.
But here’s the best part:
Students distilled their self-report down to a few key points and ideas and shared this with their parents in their learning conference.
Our learning conferences are 10 minutes. Traditionally, I would usually talk for about 7-8 of those minutes and then we would have some questions at the end. But this year was so much better! I started with the student sharing their insights in the first 2 minutes. I would pepper in observations, specific successes / challenges / next steps when I thought the student needed to go a little deeper, and then parents shared their observations and questions from home.
“I did the least amount of personal prep for these conferences and they turned out the most productive learning conversations I’ve ever had.”
What I noticed this year was that students understood this process and seemed more prepared. I never felt like I was putting them on the spot when I asked them about themselves and their learning. On top of this, I was able to prepare by printing out a report from FreshGrade and making a few short notes on each student. I did the least amount of personal prep for these conferences and they turned out the most productive learning conversations I’ve ever had.
That said, there were some drawbacks that need to be acknowledged:
- Not all students have parents that come to the conference: We have a healthy population of students who live at my school and their parents often do not come to the interview and are not able to Skype in. For these students, I am asking that we schedule a similar conversation with an important adult in their life (e.g. their homeroom teacher, a boarding advisor, a coach
- Not all parents wanted their children present at the conference: for parents that gave me some heads up, I tried to explain my different approach through email, but some just showed up and said their child couldn’t come. The conversations, I find, are just not fruitful when everything about the child is going through middle management, so I plan to have the students do a separate conference, similar to the boarders.
- Telling the students that they were being evaluated in the conversation may have freaked them out: I want my students to know that everything is fair game for assessment and this actually increases their chances of success. That said, I think some students were taken aback that I would insert my red pen into the sanctity of a conversation with their mom.
Despite those challenges, I do feel like I know my students on a deeper level this year and that I am well situated to start writing report cards shortly. When students share the insights themselves of their learning challenges and their own next steps, it seems that hearing other ideas from their teachers may be more welcome and possibly even understood once they have done that work themselves.
Looking forward to future years, I would still use this intro unit, but I’m wondering:
- How might I more deliberately weave reading literature and drafting more pieces of writing into their learning?
- How could I better prepare some parents for a slightly different learning conference?
- How could I loop back on this learning through the year and create more accountability for the things students said they want to get better at?