Smart, Dumb, Nice..What Messages Do you Send to Students' Families?

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It's conference time once again. I recently had the pleasure of meeting with thirty families in one day. I teach seventy students, so my team holds short conferences in a rotation style--kind of like speed dating, but less awkward--in order to maximize the use of each family's time.

With only six minutes with each child's family, I've recently been reflecting on a few questions:

  1. What do I want parents to take away from our conference?
  2. How can students have ownership over their learning, and how can we communicate about this in such a short time?
  3. What message do I want to send about each child?

I'll be honest; when I started teaching and held my first parent-teacher conferences, I had no clue what I was doing. I was afraid the teaching police would come find out that I was being vague not only because I had trouble keeping track of so much information, but also because I really just wasn't sure what to focus on. I would only talk about grades and missing work with one family, and then focus on behavior with another family. I often left conferences feeling like no family had gotten a full picture of their child's strengths and areas for improvement. I was exhausted after conferences and I wasn't sure it was even worth it.

But focusing on the three questions above has really helped simplify the conference process for me, and I think (hope) parents leave the conferences feeling that they have a strong sense of what their child can do, will do, and needs to work on.

1. What do I want parents to take away from our conference?

I want parents to know any relevant data about their child; what their kid is good at and where he or she needs improvement. I created a one page reflection sheet that guides my quick conferences. On it I list the grade, with a detailed assignment sheet following the reflection. I want parents to know if their child is getting all work in on time, and that their grades reflect their ability or, at times, their inability to get organized and turn work in. I share MAP scores (my district has chosen NWEA MAP to give us formative data on all children) and student-set MAP growth goals. I also want parents to know that their kids are cared for and are having fun in class.

2. How can students have ownership over their learning, and how can we communicate about this in such a short time?

I love student-led conferences. In the spring of sixth grade, we go all out. We get balloons, snacks, and have the children share their accumulated work in a "Celebration of Learning." At the beginning of the sixth grade, however, it's logistically challenging to do student-led conferences. But I can still empower students to take ownership, so I have them compile their work, fill out a number of reflections, and share something they're proud of with their parents. If the child is attending the conference, I ask for them to share a few pieces that they're proud of, and a few sentences from their reflections.

3. What message do I want to send about each child?

I want to encourage each child's strengths and areas of challenge, no matter their starting point. I make sure to discuss the student-teacher reflection for the most recent writing piece we've included; this is inherently differentiated and celebrates the stars and "stairs" for each child's writing. I also share the plan for what the student will do next as a way to launch into how I expect their writing to continue to grow throughout the school year. I make sure I praise not only the child for being smart, or polite, or kind, but also for diligence, using great sentence fluency, or having a strong writing voice. Including writing rubrics in the portfolio and referencing these helps keep my language and praise specific to what we've been working on.

How do you ensure your parents take away the right messages from your parent/student/teacher conferences?