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Student-Led Conferences - Like Learning to Ride a Bike
Stephanie Bahus, 4th Grade Teacher

When my son was ready to learn to ride a bike, he picked out a shiny red mountain bike, we made the purchase, and it arrived in a large box filled with parts. My husband and son eagerly set out for the garage to assemble it. My husband spent the afternoon carefully teaching our son how to select the correct Allen wrench, connect the handbrake cables and attach the chain. Then, they lifted the bike off the stand and my son hopped on. 

We did not buy him any books about bikes. I forgot to give him a lecture about how to operate a bike or bike mechanics. I didn’t even pull out a worksheet to have him complete before trying his new bike. He just hopped on. At first, he wobbled from side to side, trying to keep his feet on the pedals, and slowly made forward momentum. There was some stopping and starting at first, but before long, I was running down the street after the giggling red streak.

It might seem like an obvious statement, but most people learn best by doing – we need to actively engage in the behaviors or experiences to learn. Just like each of us has learned to ride a bike, to learn something new, we need to hop on, dig in and experience. In academics, we often call this experiential learning or hands-on learning.

Helping Students Become Life-Long Learners

As educators, our goal isn’t just to teach curriculum, but to help students learn about themselves and their own learning styles. Our ultimate goal is to help students become life-long learners. In order to do this though, students need to actively engage, make observations and reflect on their learning. 

When children learn to ride a bike, they actively engage in the experience, make observations about what worked well and what didn’t, and reflect on what they need to do to be more successful next time. For example, a child may think, “When I slow down my pedaling, I wobble more. Maybe I should keep pedaling,” or “When I am going uphill, it helps when I stand and pedal.”

One way students begin to become more active participants in their own learning is through student-led conferences. Here at Stanley Clark, we start them in 4th grade.

4th Grade Students working at their desks in class

Pre-Conference Self-Observation and Reflection

In the weeks leading up to conferences, we ask students to make observations about their learning.

  1. Organization

    • Is my planner filled out most days?
    • Do I turn assignments in on time?
    • Is my desk messy or tidy? 
    • Can people read my handwriting?
       
  2. Work Habits

    • Do I usually put forth my best effort or am I content to rush through assignments? 
    • Do I check work carefully or turn it in without looking it over?
       
  3. Study Behaviors

    • Do I work best alone or with a partner? In a quiet place or with music playing?
    • Which subject is my favorite? 
    • Which subject do I find most challenging? Why?
       
  4. Classroom Behavior

    • When you walk into our classroom, you would see me acting like this...
    • During class discussions, I am typically...
    • When I work in a small group, I am...
    • During transition times or in the hall, I am typically... 
    • When we are given directions in class, can I follow them or do I need to ask someone what we’re supposed to do?

After making the observations, students then take time to reflect on their learning by filling out a form that assesses what they feel are their strengths and ways they want to improve. Students list their strengths and write down goals for the rest of the school year.

4th grade students preparing for student-led conferences

The Student-Led Conference – A Powerful Step

When students come to conferences with their parents, they use this self-reflection to guide their conference.  They can concisely express what they do well, give their parents examples of their successes and share their goals.

Being able to express the insights students have gained about their own learning with their parents and teachers is a powerful step. The information students have gained about themselves doesn’t remain simply a moment of self-discovery; rather, they share what they learn about themselves with their learning team.

The Learning Team

Most people have heard the African Proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

I tell students their education is actually possible because of a team – their parents, their teachers and themselves.  

Students spend most of their day at school with their teacher and they spend the rest of their time at home with parents. However, they rarely see their teachers and parents interacting. Having students in a room with both their teachers and their parents helps them actually see their team working together. 

We hope this a strong, visual reminder to students that we are all working together to support their learning. We are eager to hear what they have discovered about themselves, the goals they have set and in what ways we can support those goals.

4th Grade student preparing for student-led conferences

But, Does it Really Work?  

Moment of pure honesty … I was nervous the first time we attempted student-led conferences. Conferences are a time to express to parents what strengths their children have and it’s an important moment for us to discuss areas in which we would like to see their student grow. What if students don’t dig deep enough and aren’t ready to understand their own strengths? What if their goals are not appropriately aligned with the areas they need to work on? Isn’t it my job as a teacher to help impart this information to the students and their parents? I am the trained professional, after all! I had many concerns, but I was completely wrong. 

Students are impressively introspective. If anything, they are more critical of themselves and more eager to share areas in which they want to improve. With students’ willingness to share their “strengths” and “goals,” I am able to form a stronger partnership with my students. We can have open discussions about their progress, such as “I know you are worried about math homework, would you like to do the first problem with me at school before you try some independently?” or “I know handwriting is challenging for you, but look at this beautiful cursive!” 

Student-led conferences are not developmentally appropriate at every age, but when they are ready, it is our mission to help each student discover his or her strengths and passions*. 

Like riding a bike, we want learning to become second nature to students. And even on days when they feel like they have fallen, they can always hop back on and start again.

*“The mission of The Stanley Clark School is to inspire and challenge students to achieve excellence in academics, the arts, athletics, and character in a nurturing environment that fosters critical thinking, creativity, accountability to self and others and the discovery of each student’s strengths and passions.” 


About the Author

Stephanie Bahus 

4th Grade Teacher 

sbahus@stanleyclark.org

  • academics

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