The Power of Student Agency

This school year I am working with my faculty and staff to launch student-led conferences.  Student-led Conferences (SLC’s) have been around for years but have not caught on as a promising practice with many schools and school districts.  It is truly a shame that more schools have not adopted the practice. To get started you could check out the variety of resources on Edutopia, Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest. Two Rivers Public Charter Schoolin Washington, D.C. has a great web page that outlines the benefits of student-led conferences for parents.

A typical parent-teacher conference finds the teacher reporting to the student’s parent(s)/gaurdians about the child’s academic performance and behavior. Often times these meeting can be contentious as teachers try to communicate how the student performs and behaves in school.  Meanwhile, parents can become increasingly defensive about the comments made about their child, especially if the comments are negative, as they perceive the teacher comments as a reflection on them as a parent or parenting style.   But what is the critical piece missing from these meetings? 

When properly scaffolded and supported, student-led conferences can be a powerful practice wherein students to develop agency in their own learning and set goals with their parents for future growth.

The Student! Doesn’t it make sense to actually include the student who is being discussed at the conference? In my time as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to teach first through eighth grade and I have found that when students are actually involved in the conference, the child and the parent take more ownership in the learning process.  When properly scaffolded and supported, student-led conferences can be a powerful practice wherein students to develop agency in their own learning and set goals with their parents for future growth.

            In a student-led conference, the students and the teachers work together to develop a portfolio to share during the conference.  The teacher helps the students prepare to lead the conference so the teacher can act as a facilitator and ally to the student.  The student-led conference is the chance for students to share his or her reflections on their academic progress, success, and opportunities for growth. While the formats may differ slightly from kindergarten to grade eight, the idea is the same.  Students are responsible for their own learning and success.

            A student’s portfolio often incorporates pieces where they have demonstrated mastery, show where they are progressing and share areas of improvement. Teachers provide discussion starters and scripts for the students to help them lead the conference and build their confidence. During the student-led conference, teachers act as an advocate for the student and often help the student plan the conference by sharing positives, areas for improvement and encouraging families to create strategies to help support student growth at home.

            A parent’s role in the student-led conference is a bit different than that of a traditional teacher conference. Rather than wanting to ask the students teacher about grades and behavior, parents must focus the conversation on the child and reflect on work with the child.  It can be challenging for parents to listen to the student instead of asking questions to the teacher. 

It is important to remember that learning is active, not passive. As John D’Adamo, a friend and fellow Principal once shared during an #Edchat, “Learning is something one does, not something that happens to a person.”  It has taken some planning on my end to prepare the faculty for this different model but many have found it valuable already. It has helped with student accountability and classroom management.  Students too have begun to see a value.  Students have become more aware of their strengths and opportunities for growth. We are only about a third of the way through the year but I can already see signs that students are beginning to see the relationship between their effort, progress, and quality of their work. I hear it in their conversations in the classrooms, hallways and when I meet with students individually. I see it in the quality of the work the students are completing, knowing that it might be an exemplary piece of work they will want to share with during the conference. 

John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” That is the opportunity student-led conferences provide, an opportunity for reflection.

The Power of Intention

At the beginning of the school year I spoke with my faculty and staff about the importance of presuming a positive intention when working with one another, working with students and communicating with parents.

At the most basic level, when we presume each person we interact with throughout the day has a positive intention, we free ourselves from any past perceptions of that individual and any baggage those perceptions may carry. Instead, we free ourselves to make each interaction we have with others about seeking what is possible. Rather than becoming defensive or trying to prove a particular point, we can become open to new and creative problem solving strategies which allow ourselves the freedom to actively listen to one another.

I won’t say it has been easy for me, my administrative team or my faculty and staff to adopt this philosophy.  But I can share it has made each one of use more mindful in our interactions with one another and our community. This mindfulness has had the residual impact of taking some personal responsibility for the manner in which we communicate with those we work with everyday.

Personal responsibility may be one of the most important characteristics of “owning” ones intention. 

As a school leader, often teachers darken my door to ask permission to try a new instructional strategy, test a new technology tool, or have a courageous conversation with a parent about their son or daughter. By seeking approval from the Principal, teachers are seeking validation in their decision making process and seeking cover if something goes wrong. However, this can have the unwanted consequences of removing responsibility from ones actions.

Consider the following scene. You are a Principal and a teacher knocks on your door and asks the following. “Is it okay if I try out the @SeeSaw app in my classroom?”  In most cases I would guess you would be inclined to say, “Yes!” You may even be excited that a teacher is trying a new strategy in their classroom, especially if that teacher has been resistant to change in the past. Basically,  the teacher is asking for permission to try something new in the classroom. On the surface, that is good thing, right?  But at the end of the day if the new tech tool does not work, it’s no big deal for that teacher.  He or she may say, “Just another app that didn’t work in the classroom.” Since there is no real investment from the teacher he or she could blame the technology for not meeting the classroom needs, the students for not meeting expectations, or even the Principal for pushing the teacher to try something outside their comfort zone.

But what if the conversation went differently?  What if that teacher came to your office and said, “I intend to curate student work in order to build their academic portfolios. I think it may help them be reflective in their learning process. I think I am going to try using @SeeSaw to start the process.”

In this case, the teacher is stating the ultimate goal of the instructional strategy and taking ownership of how they see it unfolding. And if the new app does not work for that particular classroom, the possibility remains open to try other resources and technologies. In both cases, the ultimate goal was the same. To compile student work in order to give the students an opportunity to be reflective. However, the teacher that shared their intention to curate student work is focused on the process and not the outcome.  By focusing on the process that teacher is “owning”  their action to create student portfolio’s.

What might happen if we stop expecting teachers to ask for permission and start asking them share their intentions? I think teachers would feel more appreciated for their professionalism and expertise. I bet more teachers would be willing to try new strategies in the classroom and take ownership of the results.  Good or Bad. And if a new strategy doesn’t work in the classroom…so, what? It is merely one step in the teachers learning journey, he or she has had one more opportunity to refine their instructional practice, and all the while, the students have seen an adult modeling a growth mindset.