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Aurora Institute

Student-Led Conferences Drive Deeper Learning—And Are Less Time-Consuming Than You Might Guess

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Joy Nolan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Joy Nolan

Done decently well, student-led conferences (SLCs, for those who love a good education acronym) transform the oddly brief parent-teacher conference (where’s the student in the traditional PTC? Often not even in the room where it happens) into a showcase starring the learners and their learning.

With an audience as small as one to two teachers and a parent or guardian or two, students show and describe work products from several classes, reflect on their progress, and set learning goals for the near-term future. Seems straightforward enough, but what a powerful driver of learning, student agency, metacognition—and that’s besides their ostensible main goal of communicating to families what each learner is up to, and how that learner is doing.

In a set of SLCs I recently witnessed, middle school students explained their school’s new mastery grading system to their families. Hearing the ins and outs of mastery grading from your child, in a setting where you can ask questions along the way, is a great improvement to a flyer home or five minutes during a speech from the principal that may also cover school dances, discipline policies, and field trips.

Here is a transcription of a student’s prep notes for a student-led conference (SLC) that I sat in on at Marsh Avenue Expeditionary Learning School (known locally in Staten Island, NY as MAELS). This written statement closely represents what Nate, a seventh grader, actually said, and the proof is in the pudding.

Good morning, Mom. Of course, you know. Ms. Alberino. Ms. Alberino, this is my mom. So, the reason we are here is because I want to show both of you my improvement that I’ve made in school so far, since September.

As you know, Mom, this year our academics are based on our mastery grade level. N for Not Yet Mastered (1); A for Approaching Mastery (2); M for Mastery; and E for Mastery w/Excellence (4).

The school also uses the Mastery grade levels for Habits of Success. There is Make No Excuses, which means what it sounds like; Reflective Learner, which means to be reflective on your work and progress, like in this SLC; Commit to Quality, which means to put a lot of time and effort into your work; and Perseverance, which means to be brave and try your best.

In my personal life, outside of school, I use these Habits a lot. For instance, outside of school, I play basketball and when I do, I always persevere and try very hard to get better. I practice a lot. You can relate this to my academics because in school, I also try my very best. I persevere a lot.

The next thing I want to talk about is the Character Traits in my school. At MAELS, we always or I always try to use the Character Traits every day. There is Compassion, which means care for your other friends and classmates and not jut yourself; Collaboration, which means to work together with your friends and classmates, whether you like them or not; Tolerance, which means to be patient and accept people that you like and don’t like; and finally, Courage, which means to be brave, similar to perseverance.

This year so far, I’ve displayed the Character Trait of Collaboration, because in classes such as math and science, I work together with my group to solve difficult problems and do experiments. I work together every day, and it teaches me a very valuable lesson of “Two or more minds is better than one!” That is why me, you, and everyone else needs to try and make more friends.

Every day, I try to follow each and every Character Trait, so, so far, there are no challenging traits for me because I have met my goal of last year’s SLC of being able to tolerate everyone.

Now I want to talk about the overall progress I’ve made with the Habits of Success. Throughout this marking period, my strongest habit is Perseverance. This is because, as you just saw, on my post-test, I got Mastery with Excellence because I studied and persevered. Perseverance actually does help me do better in school because it makes me work harder and persevere through challenges. My most challenging habit is Commit to Quality and this is because I’m not always neat all the time and sometimes I don’t worry about effort. This sometimes affects my grades because almost all projects and some homework, but not oftenly, requires Commit to Quality for a good grade. But after looking at my grades for Habits, Commit to Quality is still am M. Even though sometimes I don’t try and put in a lot of effort, my homework or projects still turn out to be good. I still try at least a little bit in everything, but not a lot. In my other habits, I also have an M, and some are close to E. A goal that I have for the next marking period is to try harder.

In the course of the conference, Nate reviewed several work products from different disciplines, explaining what each item was, and giving context for its significance as an artifact of his learning.

Note the ease with which this 12- or 13-year-old student:

  • greets adults in the room graciously
  • frames a clear purpose for the meeting
  • explains the mastery grading system at his school
  • defines and describes the Habits of Success and Character Traits used at his school, and how he uses them in school and in his life outside school
  • reflects on the progress he has made, focusing on the distinct kinds of effort he was able to put into his work, more than on his grades

That is a lot of ground to cover in 15 minutes. As you can see, Nate was able to demonstrate an impressive degree of metacognition and clarity about his own progress and process.

I sat in three other SLCs at MAELS that day, with different students, different teachers, different grade levels and levels of performance. In each conference, students described with striking clarity the grading system, the habits and traits that supported their learning, and their own progress and processes.

In December 2017, the time of these student-led conferences, Marsh Avenue Expeditionary Learning School was early in their second year of implementing mastery-based learning school-wide. I am frequently in this school talking to teachers and school leaders about mastery implementation. They are a thoughtful, dedicated, and effective group of educators. Along with teaching math, science, reading, writing, arts, phys ed; creating intriguing projects, purposeful groupings, and gorgeous bulletin boards (all in evidence in hallways and classrooms across the school)—they are collaborating to support students in building the work habits, critical thinking, and communication skills that underpin success in school and beyond.

In this environment, students were capable of connecting their learning processes directly with their progress, and to see value in both discipline-specific learning, and in building habits and character traits that would help them—already were helping them—in life.

How can a teacher in another school—or another school entirely—go about planning and running this kind of turbo-charged SLC? Teacher Samantha Alberino at MAELS generously shared her framing materials for SLCs, a version of the SLC supports created by and used by all the teachers in the school. These templates are basically a recipe for fabulous SLCs.

Preparing before SLCs: Here is a script for students to use as they prepare for their SLCs.

Reflecting after SLCs: Here is a reflection tool for students to use after their SLCs.

Students typically spend a few advisory (or crew, as it’s called in Expeditionary Learning schools) sessions preparing for SLCs using the first tool above. After SLCs, an advisory day or two go to reflection, using the second tool, which helps learners to assess their preparation and performance in SLCs, and to clarify goals for the rest of the school year. SLCs are not terribly time-consuming, and the payoff is immense for students and their families. Hats off to Nate, his teachers, and his school.

Thank you to MAELS Principal Cara DeAngelo, AP Tina-Marie Mara, teachers Samantha (aka Ms. Alberino) and Dina (aka Ms. Klein), and all the other topnotch educators at MAELS, one of the Mastery Collaborative’s Incubator Schools for 2017-18.

See also:

Joy Nolan (joy [at] masterycollaborative [dot] org) is Co-Director of New York City Department of Education’s Mastery Collaborative, a community of 40+ public schools across the 5 boroughs that are implementing culturally responsive mastery/competency-based shifts. Joy also has a background and abiding interest in student-centered learning and curriculum design.