When we opened our new K – 8 school in Fort McMurray, long before worrying about hiring staff, I knew that I wanted students involved in the assessment and reporting process. Having experienced Student Led Conferences (SLC) at the primary levels for many years, I couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t continue throughout the upper grades. But how do I start the journey with staff and more importantly, with students and parents? At the district level, our Assessment for Learning direction dovetailed perfectly into SLC. I started the process of interviewing and hiring staff, keeping in mind where I wanted to go.
Our first year involved providing the time for staff to research, share and develop how their SLCs would look, sound and feel. The following is an outline that we used with staff during our first two-day meeting.
Administration developed a best practice handbook on SLC based on work from other schools and during one of our PLC days we had the primary staff set up a mock SLC afternoon. Elementary and Jr. High staff went through all the different classes. This process was excellent and two results came out. First it made the staff who had no experience more comfortable; they actually saw the set up and SLCs in action. The other result was that it created more questions related to how this would look at the grade 7 and 8 level. We weren’t lost on our journey, but had to take a detour to make sure our map was accurate. Questions which were raised, were:
- When can we meet with parents whose child is on an Individualized Program Plan (IPP)?
- What about the parents who don’t show?
- Will Jr. High have enough time to fit all families in?
- How will this be communicated to home?
We then had a staff meeting to look more closely at these questions and to develop a number of strategies to address the questions. The communication to parents started the year before we actually held our first SLC. This was done through three letters home, newsletters and parent meetings. The other question was answered after we went through our first SLC evening. One area for which I took responsibility was to develop a home edition kit for those families that couldn’t make it during SLC. Our parent turnout for our first SLC was 92%. I was blown away. Our second term SLC parent turn out was 81%. I thought to myself “I want 100% of my families to at least get a taste of SLC even if it is at home. So our Student Home Edition Kits will go home this year for the first time. We also addressed the issue of IPPs with scheduling the last hour of the second night for individual IPP appointments. The reality is that these appointments were few because most of the major IPP conferences would take place during the day when substitutes were available. What the Jr. High teachers found out during their first SLC was that they had over-planned and that they had too many centres and activities. By the second term they had tweaked their SLCs and the evening went very smoothly. We decided as a staff that having a full day and an evening would not be the best for our school community as a large number of parents work shift work and are not available during the day.
One of the concerns raised by a few parents was that they found an hour too long, as compared to the 15 minutes of the traditional conference. Our response was that we find that this process, and the impact it has on students, far outweighs the time spent at the conference. As one teacher stated “the students wanted to participate in student-led to show off what they can do.”
I had a personal experience with one student who wanted to share his SLC with me because his parents weren’t involved in his education. This really opened my eyes to how important this is to our students. This particular student was a coded behaviour student. Well, to say he impressed me would be an understatement. He took me through the process using proper terms and had a great grasp of assessment for learning. His last sample in his portfolio was a writing sample. He explained in detail the rubrics and what he had to do to increase his quality of writing.
In talking with my Vice Principal, she noted that administrators typically don’t have many visitors during Parent-Teacher or SLC evenings. So she took the opportunity to videotape and photograph SLCs in action. She was utterly amazed by the innovation and creativity demonstrated by our teachers in taking the theory of SLCs and implementing it into practice. There were a variety of centres in each classroom delivered in a variety of formats.
Teachers embraced SLCs by putting their own stamp of originality into their classrooms. Each classroom had a different look and feel to SLCs and this is exactly how it should be! This promoted a high level of engagement from the students and their parents. Teachers had already given their students time during the days leading up to SLCs to practise helping their parents through the various centres. This practise time was also instrumental in the high levels of engagement that students exhibited. With staff turnover every year, we decided to make a DVD of our SLC so new staff could see what it looks like in the entire school. Along with this, we made time available for new staff to plan and seek out resources from our seasoned staff.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Clow has been in the education field for over 20 years. He has experience at all grade levels and has been in administration at the K-8 level for 15 years. Jeff is currently principal at St. Martha School in Fort McMurray, which he opened in 2006.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s January 2009 issue.