The next contribution in our thinking about conferences. See Part 1.
Two years ago, in a very Jane Tompkins moment (if you have read A Life in School) you’ll know what I mean, I made a radical change in how I approach Parent/Teacher conferences.
I just stopped talking about grades. Just didn’t mention them.
Instead, in the day or so before conferences, I went through my class rosters and made some brief notes on every kid in my classes. My notes focused describing the current state of their thinking, reading and writing skills, as relates to the larger goals of the course.
The notes are pretty brief, and, because I have a pretty deep background in both this course and 11th graders in general, the notes were somewhat repetitive. In other words, many of my students are at similar points in their growth, so I didn’t really need to invent a new comment for each of them. I try to keep my comments either observational, or goal oriented.
Here’s a sample:
Bobby is very effective at observing the features of literary texts. Currently he is working on assembling those observations into more complex analytic statements about the texts. When he feels comfortable doing that we will focus on supporting those analytic statements with specific references to the text and articulating how those references relate to his larger statements.
That’s is pretty normal type of comment for me to make about an average kid near the beginning of the year in my 11th Grade Honors level English class. I also found myself jotting down comments on specific issues the student were struggling with in their writing or thinking, or if students were struggling with the basics of school (turning in homework, for example), and how what I described played out in specific instances (for example- Bobby showed that he had read this book very carefully in his paper, but did not have any interpretive or analytic statements about those observations). I tried to keep these comments observational- here is what I currently see.
I didn’t mention grades, or the grade book, at all.
The most interesting part of this has been the overwhelmingly positive reaction on the part of the parents. They are thrilled that I have something specific to say about their student, and my observations often led to interesting conversations that gave me insight about the students and what I could do to help them. I think in several cases it also gave insight to the parents, mainly because I am in the business of figuring out how kids think, so was able to articulate things about the students that the parents knew intuitively, but hadn’t been able to articulate.
Mostly, approaching conferences in this way kept the conversation really focused in the student, what he or she is learning, what struggles they are having, and where I think the student will need to go next in terms of learning.
Several times during this year’s conferences conversations arose that were extremely revealing to both myself and the parents. When the student joined their parents at conferences, which is not required at my school (though I am starting to think it should be), I turned the conversation over to the student, said pretty much the exact same things, and then invited the parent into the conversation.
Overall it felt much more collaborative with parents, it invited them into the conversation about their students, and kept us focused on learning rather than performance of “school behavior.” Over the course of two nights this year, in which I talked to about sixty parents (I have about ninety students total right now- hey, I’m part time) exactly three asked about their student’s grade. What that told me was that the only reason parents are so focused on grades is because lots of the time that is all we give them to talk about. If we find letters and numbers to be inadequate in discussing student performance, it behooves us to start a better conversation.
This does nothing to change the larger social/cultural dynamic around testing, or data, and our over-emphasis on letters and numbers, but one parent at a time, it made my conferences much better and more meaningful for me, for my students, and for their parents.