By: Bill Day, Math Teacher; Mary Gornick, Business Manager; Bethany Jenkins, Third Grade Teacher; and Treena Wynter, Assistant Teacher

As teachers, we have the peculiar task of making ourselves unnecessary.  When students enter our classrooms, they need our help to meet grade-level goals.  When students ultimately leave our classrooms, they will have achieved independence on these goals and can reliably meet the expectation without teacher assistance.  Some of these goals are content related, such as creating mathematical representations or writing effectively.  These goals may be assessed through written quizzes or problem-based assessments.  Other goals pertain to the academic character of our student, such as working hard or cooperating with others.  These goals are tremendously important to the growth of students into compassionate, responsible adults, yet they are tricky to assess.
To provide our students with the opportunity to prove their academic character, Two Rivers has developed the practice of student-led conferences in the middle school grades.  A student-led conference (SLC) is a meeting of a student, family members, and a teacher.  The student is speaking for the majority of the conference, curating their work in portfolios and reflecting on data from that work and standardized measures.  SLCs occur twice per academic year and take the place of traditional parent-teacher conferences.

​Two Rivers has embraced student-led conferences as a core practice because they enable students to demonstrate independence on three critical goals: student ownership of scholarly habits, self-advocacy, and preparation for future demands of college and career.

How do SLC promote the scholarly habits?

Proving academic character requires students to not only understand and explain their academic progress, but also to be aware of their developing socioemotional skills. To ensure our students’ socioemotional awareness, Two Rivers introduced the Scholarly Habits in 2011.  The four Scholarly Habits that are the core of our instruction are: I  work hard, I am a team player, I am responsible and independent, and I care for my community.  These Habits, first implemented in our middle school, teach students how to articulate character goals that will lead to students becoming responsible and compassionate members of society. These Scholarly Habits serve as a framework for SLCs: the students make claims about how they are living the scholarly habits and their work and data substantiate those claims.. The SLC allow students to realize the connection between habits and goals, allowing them to take ownership of the habits, and discover how the habits will influence life’s future opportunities.

In a study done by Jack C. Berckemeyer, Director of Member and Affiliate Services of the National Middle School Association, researchers visited a middle school to question teachers about SLCs. This study concluded that teachers saw the value in students rating their own performance throughout the school year; students identified subjects that they enjoyed and ones that they found challenging; and it forced students to look at their personal habits, including whether  they worked hard and completed their work on time and how well they got along with their peers.

The skills mentioned by the teachers in this study speak directly to Two Rivers’ Scholarly Habits. The benefits that the teachers mention require the students to self-reflect on achievement through effort (I work hard) and persevering when the work becomes challenging. It also makes them accountable (I am responsibly and independent) for how they are within the community (I am a team player and I care for my community) both as they work with their peers, work independently, and care for each other through intentional acts of kindness.

How do SLC promote self advocacy?

Author and educator Elizabeth Herbert in her article “Lessons Learned about Student Portfolios” notes that “the real contents of a portfolio are the child’s thoughts and his or her reasons for selecting a particular entry. […] We need to discover the ever growing metacognitive voices of our children – voices that we [teachers] train to become competent and thoughtful tellers of the stories of their learning” (1998, p. 584).

At Two Rivers, as part of the SLC, students talk about how they are doing and also create a plan for accomplishing goals based on the data they share. As part of the conference, students name steps for improvement and invite their parents to help them reach these goals. As our middle school Principal Elaine Hou described, students may ask their parents to help them set up a place to do their homework or help them manage their time better so they can meet with teachers after school. Students not only identify their areas of weakness, but also advocate for themselves by developing an understanding of what they need to do to accomplish their goals.

​How do SLC prepare students for future demands?

Two Rivers’ mission states that students should be “lifelong learners”. To be a lifelong learner it’s necessary to understand what it means to actually learn something and to know how you learned. SLCs give students the opportunity to talk about their work and reflect on it. They understand how they learn and take ownership of that because it is made clear to them through this process. Two Rivers parents and staff member Mike Jordan said, “I think that it opens their eyes to what they are really learning. They can see things on a larger scale and they realize that they have to make a plan for themselves and their learning.”

As students enter high school and prepare themselves for college and life after schooling, self-reflection and self-evaluation are an essential part of life. Sarah Richardson, a parent, founder of Two Rivers, and current staff member, commented that, “You always have to justify your work! The biggest piece of it is justifying it and explaining what you have done.” By asking students to examine their work from the year and justify their success and failures, students are prepared for the real-world demands of accountability. The skills that students develop during the preparation and presentation of their portfolios are skills that are essential to success in high, college, and the workplace.

The thought of handing over control of a conference to students can seem risky, but having students take charge of conferences has been immensely rewarding for all Two Rivers stakeholders: teachers, parents, and students. Two Rivers has seen success in our SLCs and feels strongly that it is helping us to fulfill our mission. SLCs are a critical practice in pushing our students towards the ultimate goal: becoming  empowered, self-advocating, goal-achieving members of society.