Category Archives: Student-Led Conferences

Making pandemic student-led conferences work

Staying connected to one another during a pandemic can be hard. Like many of us, teachers and parents have faced enormous challenges keeping in touch over students this year. But we have this golden opportunity during our school student-led conferences to connect.

“I really enjoyed hearing more about my daughter’s future goals. She was nervous but presented the slide show very well. Also the PLP was very cool to learn about. I didn’t realize this was something that will be added to over the next few years!”

But why?

Educational experts agree that positive partnerships between family and school can impact student success. In Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engage Families in Student Success, Mapp, Carver and Lander identify five aspects of a family engagement event, program, or initiative that ensure its success. They are:

  1. Direct connection to learning.
  2. Builds relationships between teachers and parents, and between parents.
  3. Collaboration, with equal participation and input from teachers, families, and students.
  4. Honors families’ home languages, cultures, and experiences.
  5. Interactive, providing many and varied opportunities to learn together.

Now, we also know student-led conferences provide students with more agency and engagement than traditional parent-teacher conference. In fact, they can turn from student-led conferences, to student-led celebrations. Imagine that.


In our current context, nearly all schools will need to conduct their student-led conferences through one of the various video call platforms. For more help on the logistics and planning of an online student-led conference, read this vital resource. We can’t be in the same room as our students and their caregivers, but we can create the same relational experience.

Here are three tips to help you sustain the joy of a successful student-led conference during These Times.

1. Use a Pre-Conference Tool

Conferences usually happen twice a year. They take between 15 and 40 minutes. That’s not a long time! Therefore, it makes sense to reach out to families before the conference. Start the conversation. Get a sense of both their assets and needs. Kick off that feedback loop!

Before the conference, you might choose to send home a pre-conference questionnaire.

That may look like giving a paper copy to the student and asking that they serve as the liaison. In some cases, sending the questionnaire directly to parents via email might be appropriate. Do whatever you can to ensure that parents can access and participate in that questionnaire before the conference. Of course, find a logical way for them to return it to you, whether that’s by email or physical drop-box.

In that questionnaire, reach out to the student’s caregiver(s) and ask questions. Design these questions so you get to know their home environment, the strengths they bring to supporting their child as a learner, and to learn what they may need from you in collaboration during this year.

Here’s a sample questionnaire.

pandemic student-led conferences


2. Be flexible in scheduling conferences

School hours do not accommodate most families’ work schedules. Sometimes we schedule school events during the school day, which is natural and often necessary. But we don’t have to schedule parent events during the school day. One positive outcome of the pandemic is that many of us have gotten really good at videoconferencing. And if parents need tech support with their Zoom call, there’s certainly now a kid in the house with those skills and tools.

This year, for health reasons, we cannot invite our students’ families into our school buildings. If I were an administrator, I would encourage my teaching staff to conduct conference zoom calls wherever is most convenient and comfortable. For many teachers, that is from home.

“I really appreciated being able to do it so late at night.” –Fall 2020 parent conference participant

Given that we are connecting virtually with parents outside of school hours, we should invite parents to schedule conferences flexibly around their needs. In my years as a teacher, I can remember meeting some parents at 7 am before work, and I needed to meet others at 7 pm. Those were exhausting days! But given the opportunity to conduct conferences from your homes (rock the Zoom mullet, people), we should be able to find time for all families.

3. Build in interaction & involvement

During the conference conversation, be sure to build in opportunities for parents to respond to their child’s goals or performance. In some cases, teachers utilize an informal script that reminds them to seek feedback and thoughts from the parent. Let’s say, for example, that an eighth grader (I’ll call him Henry) has just shared his personal goals with his teacher and caregiver. The teacher could then turn to the caregiver and ask any or all of the following:

  • What do you think of Henry’s goals?
  • What questions do you have about his goals?
  • Do you agree with those goals based on what you see at home?
  • What are your goals for Henry for this year?

Even better, create a space to document the parent’s thinking and feedback. If students use a digital slideshow to share and guide their conference, you could provide slides that capture their feedback and responses. See this example here. 



Back in the beforetimes, I had the opportunity to interview some students at The Dorset School, in Dorset VT. They talked to me about the slideshows they’d prepared for student-led conferences, which they actually wound up recording as screencasts before the conference. Family conferences, even student-led ones, can be nerve-wracking for the student, and having the opportunity to record their presentation in advance can really help tamp those nerves down.

“My student should have practiced her part to be a bit more prepared.” –parent exit poll feedback

That said:

Y’all Are Doing Amazing. Really.

Rutland Middle School, in Rutland VT, recently completed a round of student-led conferences during this pandemic. They set out to include everyone, to make everyone feel included, supported and brought fully in to the conversation. They gave their students a slideshow assignment to prepare in advance, they gave families plenty of advance notice and a variety of early and late time-slots. And they gave parents an exit poll, so they could not just keep the feedback loop going, but use it to keep bringing families in.

pandemic conferences

It’s going to take all of us to get through this, and they know that.

But don’t take our word for it…

What does it look like when families feel genuinely included and moved by a student-led conference?

  • “I loved the fact it was so interactive! Not just mechanically but also talking with ***** and my son at the same time. It was fun to watch my son present a slide show that clearly took some thought, creativity, and time.”
  • “I love that the conference was child driven! It really puts ownership on the student!”
  • “I wouldn’t change anything. And I appreciate all of Mrs ____’s support!”
  • “Well, I thought M____’s teacher was very nice and caring.”
  • “I enjoyed how my son and his teacher explained every thing about his slide show. I think that everyone is doing a great job.

And especially in These Uncertain Times? That feels AMAZING.

Additional resources for student-led conferences:






Please note: in the image accompanying this post, the two people pictured are part of the same pod, and thus don’t have to observe masking or social distancing together. 

Switching to online student led conferences

We had been preparing for spring student led conferences for months. Feedback had been reviewed. Plans had been coordinated. Schedules were created. And now? Poof. Everything changed. One option is switching to online student led conferences.

Okay. Deep breath.

Change of plans.

We got this!

At some schools, this means a pivot to distance conferencing for this week. There are several ways to do this and still put students at the center.

The Google Hangout Conference

Tried and true, Google Hangouts are probably the easiest way to do online student-led conferences. Assuming you have a gmail account and domain, which most schools do. Here’s how it would go. You can use the calendar feature, or call someone directly.

  • Calendar appointment:

You can reach out to families with a conference time via email. Once that time is agreed upon, set up a calendar event in Google calendars. Here is how to do that.

Then, invite the family to the conference using their email address. When it says “send invitation” say yes. And the family will be notified of the calendar event. See this link  for more specific information on how to do this.


  • Directly through email:

In Gmail, you can open up the chat feature, and type in the family’s email address and send them a message. Something like, “Hello! I am hoping to set up an online conference with you. I would like to use Google Hangouts for this. Please accept an upcoming invitation to Google Hangouts, and thank you so much! Looking forward to talking with you.”  If they haven’t used Google Hangouts before, it will send them an invitation, which they can accept, then you can video call them at an agreed upon time.

Conference via Zoom

Zoom is an online video conferencing tool that’s a lot like Google Hangouts: you can have a speaker present and screen share while seeing all the other participants.

FYI – Zoom has offered free conferencing during this time of social distancing. Zoom is a low-entry tool that requires you download their software and create an account in order to *host* meetings. To join a Zoom meeting, however, all you need is the virtual location of the “room”. Getting up and running hosting Zoom meetings is relatively straightforward.

Structuring your online student-led-conference

The online conference structure can be what you had planned for to begin with! *But before that*

These are difficult times. Check in with the family. See how they are doing, what might they need. Point them to helpful local resources. And resources to help them stay healthy, and if they are sick. Offer up connection, empathy and support.

Have the student and parent/guardian sit closely together. If there is only one computer, the student can reduce the Hangout screen to take up half of the screen, and their reflections or portfolio to take up half of the screen. If there are two computers to use for this at home, one can be connected to the hangout, and the other can be used to have the student share their work and reflections.

Need a new structure? Try this one:

Possible outline:

  • Welcome! How are you? This is so hard! What do you need?
  • Student presents work.
  • Family asks questions.
  • Teacher asks questions or makes comments.
  • Celebrate student progress
  • Ponder next learning steps together.
  • Close with gratitude for everyone.

Useful tips & tricks

  • Mute your microphone when you are not talking.
  • You can share your screen at any time. If you (the teacher) wants to show an assessment, or anything, see the three dots in the right hand corner. Click share screen. (Note: make sure you really want to share your screen! Your entire screen will be shared. You can reduce that recipe or playlist if you want). You can hit “stop sharing screen” at any time to return to the live Hangout camera.

Bandwidth an issue? Keep it analog.

Schedule a group phone call.

If using a cell phone, the family can put it on speaker and sit together. If the student has a device, they can still share verbally about their work, and show the parent in real time. You could use the above format, but via phone on speaker.

If the student doesn’t have a device home, they can still offer up a powerful reflection that is more than a regular parent-student couch chat. They can reflect on questions like:

  • What are you most proud of from this semester/trimester and why?
  • Where do you think you’ve shown the most growth?
  • What is a goal for the next semester, where do you think you should focus on next?
  • Are there any transferable skill going well for you (and please share and example)
  • What transferable skill do you want to focus on improving?
  • How can your family and teachers better support you?

You might only get to some of these! And leave some time for family and teacher questions. You might also have the student jump off the call (or Hangout) to talk privately with the family member. And that is okay! Use your judgment to figure out what is right for the situation.

Okay. We are pivoting. We are doing *hard things*. What are your questions about this? How can we help support you with this shift?

Video evidence & reflection for student-led conferences

How PAML scaffolds screencasts for students

Students and their families at Peoples Academy Middle Level have participated in student led conferences for a number of years now. What’s new this year? The opportunity for each 5th and 6th grader to tell the story of their learning through video evidence and reflection. It’s these “Learner Story” videos they share at their conferences.

Let’s examine how one middle school in Vermont invites their learners to create video evidence and reflection for their PLPs. Now let’s see how Peoples Academy Middle Level fosters and supports this process that then re-feeds the PLPs in question.

The setup

Many Vermont educators facilitate identity building work at the start of the school year. They do so through teacher advisory and as part of Personal Learning Plan (PLP) development. Students explore the questions “Who am I?” both as learners and as integral members of their school community. Knowing students well means we are better positioned to support them on their learning journeys.

Yet, often this identity work stops after this initial back-to-school and PLP prep ends.

Enter: the student-led conference

A teacher-generated video example launches the project. Students consider how to meet the requirements of sharing learning aligned to clear targets from their interdisciplinary project-based work:

  • Include at least 5-6 pieces of evidence from Expedition
    • Explain in writing or speaking:
      • What was the assignment?
      • What did you learn?
      • Did it meet a learning target?

Expedition at Peoples Academy is an integrated studies course team taught by seven educators. Their driving question?

How Do Communities Thrive?

Students select evidence of learning to reflect on. And they *explicitly* link this evidence to clear learning targets. And they do it with video stories.

Izzy’s “Learner Story”

Spoiler: it’s a video.

Let’s jump right in to 6th grader Izzy’s Learner Story, below, then look at how the PAML educators support and guide students with the creation process.

Amazing, right? So good. So comprehensive and clear, and quite a few signposts guiding you through Izzy’s learning journey! (Btw, a big THANK YOU to Izzy and the PAML folx for sharing that video.)

Now let’s reverse-engineer it:

Check out the full slide deck PAML educators share with their students. It spells out how students should:

  • review the learning they are engaged in;
  • curate their evidence;
  • and tell compelling visual stories of how they met shared learning goals.

It provides a solid foundation of instruction for getting students to sit down and think concretely about what to include in their videos.

(Grab yourself a copy of this fabulous resource by going to File > Copy.)

The slide deck asks students the following questions:

  • What’s your story?
  • What have we done?
  • How are you feeling about your student-led conference?
  • What do you need to include in your Learner Story?
    • A link to your math and expo slideshow
    • 5-6 pieces of evidence from Expedition (boom: examples!)
    • What you learned
    • Whether it met a learning target
  • What are you proud of? What didn’t go so well? (Rose and Thorn protocol) What could you do differently next time?

And finally:

  • What are you looking forward to next?

Format: keep it simple

Video evidence and reflection, as a term, can conjure up visions of 20-minute documentaries with a full cast and multiple dance numbers. And yet, PAML keeps it simple with screencasting.

Stop! Pedagogy time: focus on skills over tools

Sylvia Tolisano in her post  12 ideas for amplified forms of digital storytelling  explains what she sees as a strategic choice to include video as a medium. In this way, digital “Learning Stories” amplify the learning because they tap into “previously unknown possibilities.”

Documenting by capturing evidence of learning and sharing it in a strategic way allows for the development of a learning story. Take digital portfolios to the next level and go beyond the accumulation of disconnected artifacts to curate strategic evidence of learning. Create connections (chronological or non-linear) between them. Make reflections and metacognition (the thinking about your thinking) visible. Make your learning process and your growth visible. The learning story can become an inspiration for others, when you share and make your learning trials, obstacles and mistakes visible to others. The act of documenting and telling your learning story can become an integral part of the process of learning itself.”

Peoples Academy teachers value both the process and product.

Students revisit, reflect upon, and synthesize their learning as they create these Learner Stories. In this way, teacher advisors say they’ve learned so much about the students in their advisories simply by watching the videos as they help students prepare for conferences.

Multiple ways to create Learner Stories?

Check out Richard Byrnes’ list of digital storytelling resources for your students to share their Learning Stories.

(Want to know more about Student Led Conferences? We’ve gotcha covered. Plus, check out Katy Farber’s Padlet.)

Now, how might you create opportunities for all learners to reflect on and represent their growth through digital storytelling?

Who should be assessing student-led conferences?

Feedback is a key component of a successful, celebratory and growth-oriented student-centered conference. And your colleagues, your students and their families can all play vital roles in assessing student-led conferences.

Who should be giving and receiving assessments? There’s *lots* of room at this table. Remember: feedback is a gift.

(Resist the freakout: when we talk about “assessment”, we’re trying to get a sense of what went well, and what could be improved, with an eye towards supporting students and their families. It’s not a test, and it’s not pass-fail. Think of it as more of a cline: this assessment can be codified in Google Forms (or exit surveys) or simply take the form of unscripted reflection.)

Your students’ families

Down at Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS), in Brattleboro VT, families arrived for their first ever student-led conferences to be greeted at the door by the building principal, administrative staff, a table of baked goods — and a row of Chromebooks. (Yes, one of these things was waaaay more popular than the others).

BAMS educators designed a simple Google Form in which they asked families to provide a few key metrics about the new conference format.

how to evaluate the success of student-led conferences, assessing student-led conferences


92% of the 112 parents surveyed at BAMS responded that they felt “pretty good” or “fantastic” about the conference they attended. Parents contributed comments such as: “I think this is such a great opportunity for our students to showcase their talents and abilities. I appreciate the collaboration and the conversations that came of the student led conference process.”

Lamoille Union Middle School educator Katie Bryant and her team also used Google Forms to collect family feedback. The team gave their students a structure for the conferences that revolved around projecting their PLP from an iPad. Students walked their families through the pieces of their PLP they were most proud of. Afterwards, Bryant and her team sent out the Forms for family feedback. And when they looked at the data, they discovered that the student-led conferences helped families engage more with student PLPs.

Families want a bigger voice in their students’ education, and this is a perfect time to open that door.

Your students

An integral part of student voice is making sure your students get to assess their experiences in the classroom — including the student-led conference. Here are some sample prompts:

  1. What’s one word you’d use to describe your experience with this conference?
  2. What was the most satisfying thing about this conference?
  3. What was the most challenging thing about this conference?
  4. If you could change any one thing about this experience, what would you change?

Different strokes for different folks: let students answer a Google Form, free-write or even record a short video response. And yes, give students the opportunity to add those responses to the personal learning plans (PLPs). It’s all part of one big cohesive system.

Your colleagues

First, feel free to celebrate. You did it! You — yes *you* — are helping education move forward. You’re changing the dominant parent-teacher conference paradigm in favor of one that centers student voice. That is outstanding! Everybody have a cookie.

Then, keep it simple, you’re all exhausted. Throwing events takes a lot of work, and you have prepped your socks off for these particular conferences. So: how’d it go?

Take some time to decompress, then feel free to reach out to your fellow educators.

If you’re doing student-led conferences in pairs, you have someone who was there across the table, watching and hearing the same event. If you’re doing these conferences as a full team or a full middle school, before the conferences you can build in things to look for:

  1. How was good (or challenging) news received by the family? Did this seem different from previous iterations?
  2. What was the ratio of participants speaking? Did you hear more from the student? From the family?

And you can also just sit down with a colleague and ask them for a general reflection.

Longtime BAMS educator Joe Rivers provided some valuable thoughts on the whole general process during some downtime in the evening event. “I’ve enjoyed watching kids in this setting, talking with their parents. Their eyes light up, get bigger… Kids’ll talk about their lives here, and their lives out n’ about, in advisory, but now they’re talking about things they care about. That’s even deeper. It’s been eye-opening and enjoyable.”

Don’t forget you!

Yes, you absolutely deserve another cookie for this. And you deserve to know your own power as a very interested party. You know these kids. You’re with them every day. In thinking about their student-led conferences, Rachel Mark encourages us to consider the following indicators:

  • Do you see students eyes light up when speaking about a learning experience?
  • Are you blown away by students saying things like, “I used more tools to create the game and make it more complicated”?
  • Does your heart skip a beat when students connect eyes with a parent who tells them they are very proud of them?

Jotting some quick notes along these lines during conferences or directly after can provide valuable meta-data on the experience, and give you inspiration for doing it again next time!

Happy student-led conference season, y’all!


The student-led conference as celebration

What does it take for us to see parent-teacher conferences as celebrations? What does it take for families to see those conferences as celebrations? And how can we make sure that students themselves feel celebrated for their achievements?

We know student-led conferences push our school systems in the right direction, to a place where students demonstrate agency and voice in explaining who they are as learners.

But do they work?

“It was just great to see like two really big pieces of my life, school and home, come together. And it just felt really great that both sides were really celebrating me and I felt humbled and just really special for that half an hour, even though it’s like a conference. It made me feel really great and made me reflect on how I’ve been doing and I’m really proud of the work I’ve been doing.”

–Morgan, 7th grade student

Point, set, MATCH. Now let’s rewind, and figure out what made this particular conference so successful.
Continue reading The student-led conference as celebration

PLPs in Seesaw

Seeing students for who they are and what they can do

We’re all still looking at various tools for building PLPs with our students but one thing we can all agree on is the power of PLPs to let us more clearly see our students, and learn more about them as individuals. Let’s look at two schools building PLPs and digital portfolios in Seesaw and check out how they’re using this tool to know their students better.

“Look there I am!”

“Dad, I hope you are proud of me.”

“You mean I can post a picture of my hockey team?”

There are student comments I have heard in the last two weeks, in schools I have been working in. The commonalities are stunning: students exclaiming, smiling, satisfied. They are seen, heard, and known.

Let me back up.

The research

It’s become clear to educators and researchers that seeing and valuing our students for who they are — right now, each day — has powerful effects.

Take this study about greeting students by name at the door. Simply starting each day with this has been linked to fewer disruptions and higher engagement. Which is no shock, because we know that developing relationships with students is critically important, and this is one way to support this.

Or this one about the power of having a gay/straight alliance group at your school. The Smithsonian shared a study that illustrated having a GSA at schools reduced discrimination and suicide rates for all students.

The commonality here? Students are seen, heard, respected, and valued.

While this Edutopia article discusses how teachers are making sure they know personal information to be able to connect with each students, Vermont takes it further by having students tell their own stories of their learning lives, both in and out of schools, in the PLP.

Examples from schools

Next, we focus on how schools are making students’ lives and learning visible.

Sutton School

PLPs in Seesaw

The sixth graders settled into their seats with mild curiosity. They had seen me before, but not in front of the class. On this rainy fall day, Kelly Mulligan and I were going to launch PLPs.

It felt like a big task.

We started with a slideshow with the focus of the PLP as a way to tell your story. Show who you are, inside and outside of school. I asked them to imagine something about their lives that their teachers doesn’t know. They didn’t need to share it out loud, but something important about their lives that could be shared with the teacher.

They paused, thoughtful. A few of them shared what they were thinking. Then we showed this video from Harwood Union School and asked these prompts:

Some kids shifted in their seats. They saw that their home life, their interests, often that are not celebrated in schools, could be noted, validated, and celebrated in this new format.

One students said, “Like you mean how I work on cars in the mornings with my dad?”


Or how I am the goalie of our hockey team, and we are state champions?


Or how I love to fix computers and code?


You get the idea. The power of validation and choice spread.

Then we used Seesaw, and gave them choice. Use these tools to show us who you are. Here are a few suggestions for activities, but you can post what you think is best to describe what you love, what you do, how you learn, and who you are.

What I saw next was 100 percent engagement, and students popping up to help each other with the tools.

I heard a special educator say, “I didn’t know you were a goalie, that must be really challenging.” (Relationships! See earlier research).

Ottauquechee School

Ottauquechee School third grade team: Logan Russell, Staci McDougall, Kathy Bishop, and Erica LaFond.

Next up, I was in a co-teaching teacher meeting of third grade teachers at Ottauquechee School. In came Staci McDougall, special educator. She was showing the rest of the team how she used Seesaw to support her students. What I saw next was incredible. She showed a video on Seesaw of a mostly non-verbal student who was engaging with math manipulatives. In the video, he exclaimed, he found numbers, he showed his thinking and work. The teachers were spellbound and teary. They hadn’t seen him this focused, or this engaged, ever. This video had been shared with his parents immediately, and now with his teachers, who see what he can do when barriers are removed.

Earlier that day, I had stopped by Staci’s room, at the exact moment I saw a student with her phone held right up to his mouth. The student said,

“Hi dad! I hope you are having a good day. I made it all day in class today and I hope you are proud of me! Love you dad.”

This was his 18th day of staying in class all day, and before this plan, he had not been able to stay in class with other students. The pride in his voice was clear, and took my breath away. I wondered, how many negative phone calls had this dad received before this? What is the power of regular positive calls and posts on a student and family that has experienced a lot of negative interactions with school?

These two uses of PLPs in Seesaw: as a behavior plan support, and as a tool to increase access and share learning with students with intensive needs, were new to me, but the ideas were not. PLPs, tied with regular family communication, are a tool to help everyone see students, make their lives visible, and are for everyone: caregivers, teachers, and community partners, and help all see students for who they are and what they can do.

Seesaw as a tool

The commonality here was that both schools were using Seesaw as a tool for digital portfolios and PLPs. The benefits of this tool are clear:


  • It is very easy to use, students can set it up and get going with posting in about 30 minutes or less. Students can login with their school google email tools or a QR code.
  • It is very intuitive, and looks like a social media feed, but it totally private between the student, caregivers and teachers.
  • Teachers can set up folders that students can tag their posts to to develop a PLP or portfolio organization system.
  • And students can explore developing other aspects of their portfolio as PLPs in Seesaw, such as personal and academic goals and college and career explorations.
  • Families access the portfolio through an app on their phones, so there is no need for computer access. Caregivers are notified every time their child posts something to the portfolio and can interact with the post. This creates a quick and regular feedback loop for families and reduces the need to find and return the papers (which is hard for all).
  • Use of this tool reduces barriers to the demonstration of learning. Students can pick a tool to demonstrate their reflections and learning, such as video, notes, photos, and art. Almost immediately, I saw the benefits of this. Students did not have to wrangle digital tools to increase access, they were readily available to all, just like the Universal Design for Learning  calls for.
  • To create 100 percent access to family conferences, students could rehearse for their student led conferences with the video feature of Seesaw. That way, if a family can’t attend the conference, they could at least see the presentation via video, and interact with their student through the post.

Ideas for use

Seesaw could also be used as an everything space, where students across curricular subjects learn how to document and reflect on their own learning. Then, they could curate a portfolio of work to share at student led conferences, and these could be created anywhere, in Google slides, a Google site, or other tool. You could link and access these on PLPs in Seesaw as well.

The  power of being seen, to tell your own learning story, to show who you are and what is important to you, is universal.

How can we make sure each one of our students feels seen, known, and valued?


How to design pre-conference conversations with families


Part of shifting to personalized learning is centering students in the traditional parent-teacher conference. They need to lead the conversation with families and caregivers. And this shift can be hard for folks, because, you know, change is hard! So let’s look at how you can prep families for student-led conferences. It’s all in how you design your pre-conference conversations. Let’s try to make change easier on everyone.


Overheard before student-led conferences

We get around to a LOT of Vermont schools, and we hear what educators and caregivers have said about student-led conferences. News flash: it’s not always good. So, let’s break down the following quotes while doing two things:

  • thinking about the purpose of student-led conferences (and personalized education), and
  • trying to imagine how things could go better next time.

Forewarned puts you in a place of power: you control your destiny. Mostly.

(Don’t quote us on that.)

How to design pre-conference conversations with families

Looking for some talking points? Here’s what we recommend.

“My kid already tells me everything at home. We don’t need this!”
    • That’s so great! But this is an academic presentation of learning. It’s a little different from relaxed, at-home sharing. Could your child need practice with public reflection and academic language? How do you see them proving they own and lead their own learning? 
    • Even if you’ve already seen the work, and had a conversation about it, how might this presentation be different with teachers in attendance? Could they add any reflections on the learning?
    • Fantastic! So you’re able to come to the student-led conference with some ready questions to push your child to think deeper about what they’re presenting. That’s awesome!
    • Takeaway: Does every child have access to conversations at home about school? Who might this be helping? Does every child need access to high-level academic learning presentations/conversations?
“I just want to talk to the teacher about my kid!”
    • We hear this one a lot. It can definitely feel more efficient just to meet with the teacher. But a student-led conference doesn’t mean you can’t also meet with the teacher alone. Okay, let’s consider a hybrid approach! 10 minutes student-led, 10 minutes teacher-led, or 15 min/5 minutes. Let’s think about what split feels best considering the student. 
    • Consider all the different ways you communicate with families. Are conferences the only way to be informing caregivers? Should they be the only way?
    • Takeaway: Who is the conference for? Who should be centered? How can we meet all needs for a successful conference? 
“I’ve been to one of these and it was awful.”
    • Oh no! We’re really sorry to hear that. How can we design something that has meaning, centers your student and feels valuable to you and your family? 
    • This is such a great opportunity to spend time together; how can we maximize it? How would *you* design it to be more meaningful?
    • Takeaway: How can we encourage open mindsets and shifting of thinking?
“I’ve already seen this work. This is a waste of time!”
    • How can we together help go deeper into this learning conversation? What questions could we ask your student about the work that will help them with future activities?
    • Who might not have had the opportunity to see this work and have these conversations? 
    • Consider: Could you as the educator hold back some work to share at the conference? How can you help shape this conversation to feel valuable to all? 

What is “the why”?

Now that we’ve considered some of the critiques of student led conferences, we can create something that has meaning for families, centers students, and shifts the conversation. With your teacher team, it’s helpful to consider some prompts when designing conferences.

Some prompts when designing pre-conference conversations with families:
  • What’s the purpose of student centered/led conferences?
  • What’s the purpose of teacher led conferences?
  • And what do we want our shared purpose to be? Who owns the learning? Who is centered in the conference? 
  • What are the ways families are informed? Should conferences be the only/primary way?

Examples from the field to keep you going:

Thankfully, there are a lot of resources about shifting toward SLCs, including examples of what they look and sound like at various levels. Take a look at some of these to inspire your planning and design.

Develop your conference conversation plan for this year:

Ready to make the shift? YES? Next, here are some next steps that might help in creating your conference plan.

  • consider your grade level
  • consider the WHY
  • the proficiencies, power standards you want to share or report on
  • make something that works for your team
  • you could use this ready made, month by month checklist plan to use (not reinventing the wheel!)
  • possible structures: 
    • November (identity) and spring (portfolio more broadly)
    • November (intro SLCs + portfolio) and spring (sharing of PBL learning)
    • Fall (identity/transferable skills) and spring (academic portfolio)

Lamoille educator Katie Bryant helps her students design the conversation with families by laying out a script in advance, for them to use as they choose. That and a little pep talk, and everyone’s ready to go.


And now over to you: what’s the word on the street about student-led conferences? What are you hearing?

How do *you* design pre-conference conversations with families?

Student-led conferences come to Leland & Gray

Change is hard!

And changing a school procedure that has been the same forever is even harder! Leland and Gray Middle School teachers started planning a transformation this past summer. Their goal? To increase student engagement through student-led conferences.

(Click or tap to enlarge)

The Process

Start with identity.

Middle school students began the year by focusing on identity. Educators charged them with answering the question, “Who am I?”  Specifically: who am I as a learner, a family member, a community member, and a citizen?

Identify strengths and challenges

And learning more about themselves helped students think about their areas of strength and areas for growth. While the original plan was to have students write goals in advance of student-led conferences, time ran short.  Instead, students asked their parents for feedback on their strengths and challenges and used then that feedback when formulating their goals.

Communicate the change

And change is especially unwelcome if you aren’t expecting it!  It’s crucial to communicate the change in plans to parents and community members.  Leland and Gray middle school teachers sent out a letter to let parents and guardians know that conferences would look and feel different.

Prepare and practice!

The first round of student-led conferences can be scary, for both students and teachers.  Scaffolding the process can help.  Students used a script to prepare for the conversation.

And they practiced, a ton, in pairs.  So when the big night arrived, students explained their learning to their parents with ease. (Because they had practiced explaining it to their peers!)

Ask for feedback

Parents AND students were asked for feedback on the new format.  How will you know what went well and what might be improved if you don’t ask?  Leland and Gray middle school teachers know that this process will grow and improve over time, and they plan to use this feedback to revise the student-led conference process.

Celebrate success!

Student-led conferences received amazingly positive feedback from parents.

I liked that my child is engaged in his progress and aware of it. Loved seeing him voice his strengths — good confidence builder!

It involved the student to the point of accountability. My child was not able ot “zone out” from the meeting, and claim ignorance on subjects.

This format forced [student name] to think, process, and articulate who and where he is academically and personally.

Participation in conferences was higher than it had been in recent years.  And students took ownership of their learning!

How to evaluate student-led conferences

Feedback, feedback, feedback!

student-led conferences and engagement in PLPsAs educators, it’s absolutely critical that we reflect on our practices, especially new ones. As schools around the state finish with parent-teacher conferences this fall, I’d like to take a look at how to evaluate student-led conferences in particular, by checking in on how one school built feedback metrics into the process from the start.

As Emeril Lagasse would say: BAMS!

Continue reading How to evaluate student-led conferences

4 shifts for student-led conferences in a proficiency-based environment

Student-led conferences are for students

Student-led conferences are a key strategy in personalized, student-centered educational practices.

And they’re even more important and potentially powerful in a proficiency-based system.

Continue reading 4 shifts for student-led conferences in a proficiency-based environment

Want end-of-year family involvement?

Try Passage Presentations.

family communication around education, social media and digital citizenshipThe end of every school year is tough. Teachers and administrators struggle to keep students in line, finish assessments, plan field trips, and tie up loose ends. But what’s really important? To provide closure, celebrate accomplishments, and allow students to reflect on how they’ve grown and developed. And including family in those celebrations is vital.

I had the pleasure of witnessing a particularly strong example of how well this can be implemented.

Continue reading Want end-of-year family involvement?

The Parent’s Role in a Student-Led Conference

How can you support your student in sharing how they learn?

the parent's role in a student-led conferenceIn recent decades, schools have turned the table on the traditional parent-teacher conference. More and more, schools are engaging the student and putting him or her in the driver’s seat at this learning conversation. A student-led conference (SLC) can be a beautiful thing. But parents sometimes struggle to understand them. They are, after all, a complete departure from what most parents experienced as kids.

So here’s a look at the parent’s role in a student-led conference.

Continue reading The Parent’s Role in a Student-Led Conference

Student-led conferences and engagement in PLPs

A middle school case study

Katie Bryant, an English teacher at Lamoille Union Middle School, presents the results of her semester-long action research project examining the relationship between student-led conferences and engagement in PLPs, or personal learning plans.

Here’s what she and her team discovered.

Transcript appears below.

Hi! I’m Katie Bryant.

I teach at Lamoille Union Middle School, I’m on Team Extreme. And a lot of my faculty went to MGI last summer, working on creating implementation plans for PLPs at my school, as they’re brand new this year.

I felt like the student-led conference was going to be a really big part of that.

Just really quickly about my school:

We have four mixed 7th/8th grade teams, 4 core teachers and a special educator on each team. There are about 60 students on each team.

We are in the third year of our 1:1 iPad initiative, so students all have iPads and a lot of students bring them home, and they use them throughout the content areas.

We are in our first year of implementing PLPs — pretty daunting, pretty messy, but really good work. And we are using Google Sites for PLPs. I get that question a lot. Yes: we are using our iPads to create Google Sites, which is tough, or uncomfortable at first, but is actually working better and better.

And then student-led conferences were only piloted on my team this year, so the other teams continued with traditional the parent-teacher conference model, with the intention of possibly trying student-led conferences throughout the school next year.

This was my abstract:

student-led conferences and engagement in PLPs

By the end of the project, the question and my abstract felt very different. I don’t know if others  had that same experience, but I felt like the question was really hard to answer, especially with the feedback that I received, and it became more about implementing the student-led conference — as messy as it was going to be — letting it go and just allowing it to happen. And then learning from it.

But I was really interested from the get-go in how these student-led conferences might influence engagement in a PLP.

Are the students motivated by the fact that they have to make a presentation to their parents about their goals? Or not. That was basically my question.

Honestly, I feel like my whole team should be here, as I couldn’t have done it without their support, and as you might’ve experienced, it takes a lot of time up front — tons of time up front, and totally worth it in the end, but without a team that functions really well together I don’t think this would’ve happened.

We had a lot of tools to work with.

We worked together to take a lot of tools from around the state. Peoples Academy Middle Level, lots of stuff from Main Street Middle School around goal-setting; scripts and all these different materials, and tried to make them our own.

We had students setting up sites of their own — super-basic, we’re in the infant stages of these sites.

We have an About Me page, and then some goals, evidence, future. And where we’re at right now is how do we use this evidence and reflect for our next step.

We created a goal-setting template, because one thing we knew we really wanted was “My goal is important to me because…” So when they’re presenting to their parents they’re saying why their goal is important.

We had a student script that students could use for the conference themselves. They had that in front of them when they stood up in front of their parents and their teacher.

And one of the awesome things we realized with that was that because they took their iPads home, every student was creating a Google Slideshow for their conference. And they were able to work on that at home, even if parents weren’t able to come to school. We also Skyped with a few parents, too, which was awesome.

We had a take-home script for the students, which was specifically for when they were at home  at the table with mom or dad (or both! or whoever) and they could go through their goals together and their parents could add goals and comments.  And there’s a place for a parent signature on the back. Some families took advantage of that.

For us, parent involvement is a big issue at our school, so having students to have the ability to do this at home — you don’t even have to have wireless, you can just download and save a copy on the iPad — was really a nice option for many people.

So in order to plan for the student-led conference we gave each student a template that we gave them to fill in. We actually had them keep in some of the Act 77 language so that they could explain that to their parents: “Why are we doing this? THIS is why.”

And then we had a personal goal, an academic goal, and really simply, evidence from each core class: what is something you’re really proud of?

Here’s a student example.

His personal, long-term goal is to get a job in the art industry as an artist, book illustrator or animator for movies. And then he went through how he will know when he’s achieved his goal, and why he wants to:

And then he has an academic goal as well:

And then we gave students a lot of free rein, and we made suggestions as to what they to choose from their classes, but they were able to choose, finally, what to show their parents:

We said, “Choose something from Math that you’re really proud of. Take a picture of an assignment or it could be a project you did on your iPad that you want to import. And he did that for each core class.

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Pre-SLC Student Survey

So I tried to ask students before the conference how they felt about the student-led conference, if they’d ever been in a conference before. Here are a couple of quotes from my survey:

“I have never talked in front of my parents and teachers before and I’m a little nervous.”

As you might imagine, 7th and 8th graders, most of them said they were very nervous. A lot of them said they felt awful about it. Here’s another quote:

“When I was in Michigan parents had a conference with your one teacher, and you sat outside of the room when they talked about how you were doing in school and what you needed to work on or any behavior issues. The meetings ran for about twenty minutes and never did the student get to talk to the teacher and parents at the same time, and after the twenty minutes were up your parents came out of the classroom and said good job or I am disappointed in you.”

Ouch, right?

I was really interested in seeing how their feelings would change after they presented to their parents.

Post-SLC Student Survey:

“The best part was having my parents be proud of me and letting me tell my parents how I felt like I was doing in school and how I felt about my grades and teachers.”


“I liked getting to present what I do well and what I would like to see myself do better and compare it to my teacher’s and parent’s ideas.”


“The best part was that I got to lead it and it helped me talk about what I’m doing well and what I need help with. Plus it made me feel good to get feedback on my work in that very moment.”

and then:

“The best part was getting to show your parents what you’re proud of and getting to interact with your parents and teachers at the same time. I also think that it was nice to have your parents and teachers make a goal for you and to have them know what you’re doing in school so they can help.”

A lot of this feedback was really great to hear: a lot of the students were really nervous in the beginning and then in the end felt really empowered, which was great. Not every single student felt that way, of course, but it was nice to see a lot of shift in their perspective.

Parent Surveys

One of the really big things I wanted to make sure to do was to capture the way that parents experienced it, so when parents were there, we had a survey for them to fill out as soon as they were done with the conference. It was up on a desktop, there were no internet issues, they were logged in, they could do it on their way out of the room, to find out how they felt about it. And I got some great input from them.

100% of parents preferred this model to a traditional model, which was pretty surprising. They all loved it. Some, I think, were maybe a little uncomfortable coming in, and then they stayed and loved it.

  • “The best part was hearing about my son’s goals that he has set for himself. Hearing him talk about what he wants for his future and the path he has taken to make sure he can reach his goals.”
  • “The best part was watching my son taking control of his own education.”
  • “The best part was being able to use technology to participate remotely and share the material.”
  • “The best part was that it was led by my son!!”

SLCs and PLPs

The other thing that was just great about doing this with the PLP, hand-in-hand, was that we were able to get a goal or a wish that the parent has for their student, there that day. So they sat and listened to their child’s goals for themselves, and then they were able to articulate a goal or a wish that they had for them. And that gets immediately implemented into their PLP site, as something that we can watch over time. It was really nice to get that parent involvement, which is part of Act 77 and also best practice.

Did the SLC motivate students to set and achieve goals?

Really hard to answer. Really, really hard to answer. I asked students that question. I didn’t really know what else to do.

  • “Not really, but I am trying more this trimester then last one.”
  • “I think it made me more aware of my goals and more likely to start taking them seriously.”
  • “Definitely, because it gives you something to work towards, and makes all these hours in school not seem pointless.”
  • “I think the SLC makes more people aware of your goals and more people help you try harder to reach them.”

Although not concrete, really nice to hear that at least some students did see the connection between motivation from the conference, and their goal-setting.


There were a lot of challenges.

Asking the right questions, is always really tough for me — asking the right questions on the forms themselves. Knowing how to ask the right questions so you’re getting the kind of answer that you’re looking for is really hard. So that, moving forward, is something that I’m constantly trying to improve. Not to get the feedback you want, but to get at the feedback.

Another challenge — and this is kind of a good thing and a bad thing — is that there’s so much out there around the state, that people are using for goal-setting and reflection and student-led conferences and sites — there’s tons of stuff and it’s all awesome. But you have to take it and make it your own. Otherwise it doesn’t feel authentic.

That was a challenge sometimes with me and my team. We had all this stuff and it was great, and it’s really about how do you make it your own?

Time. That’s basically the biggest challenge.

For me, it was really hard to know that it was going to be really messy and imperfect and it wasn’t all going to work out great. And maybe parents were going to be upset, or… who knew? But to just go with it and let it go. That was hard.

And the last was, of course, building in time for the students to prepare for the student-led conference. I spoke with my administrator at the beginning of the year, to let her know that this was my personal focus for the year and I would be taking some content time to help students prepare for their student-led conference. I’m an English teacher so it does make sense for reading/writing/communicating that this would fit in with my content, but I did have to have that conversation.


As a team, we were able to conduct SLCs with 70% of our students and their families, as opposed to less than 40% last year using the traditional model.

In the past some combination of teachers had been in a room together doing conferences, and that limits you, right? You don’t have as many time slots. In this case what we did was homeroom teachers met with their students in their homeroom and their parents, and then if anyone was very concerned about meeting with the Math teacher we set up that too. Which was great.

  • And as I said before, parent involvement in our school is a big issue, so this is a huge jump for us: 100% of parents reported that they preferred the SLC model to the more traditional model. That was great to know.
  • Watching students interact with parents and teachers in this way was really insightful.
  • 83% of students were nervous or unsure about leading a SLC beforehand, but 71% reported that it went pretty good, or fantastic, afterward.
  • 50% of students had achieved one of their goals by the end of the first trimester.
  • At the SLC we were able to capture a goal that parents have for their students, which serves as a start to involving parents in the process.

Next Steps:

We’re working on carving out time in the spring to have a follow-up SLC, which has never been a part of our schedule before but it makes sense, to plan another evening, have the parents come back in and check in on goals.

We’re going to share our experience and results with the rest of our school, hoping that they too will pilot some SLCs next year.

We’re going to continue our PLP work, especially around goal-setting; also a very messy process.

And we’ll improve the SLC process on Team Extreme next year.

That’s pretty much it.

Student-led conferences image by Clive Warden; licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (reuse-attribution).


Screencasting as PLP reflection

Students create screencasts for student-led conferences

screencasting as PLP reflectionSixth graders at The Dorset School in southern Vermont are in their second year of working with Personal Learning Plans (PLPs). These exuberant adolescents have fond memories of one experience. Last year, these students were paired with teacher Amanda Thomas. Mid-way through the year of working with her students on PLPs, Mrs. Thomas realized that their PLP work was falling flat; she had to do more to involve them.

Continue reading Screencasting as PLP reflection

S is for Student-Led Conferences

Steps to a student-led conference

steps to a student-led conferenceSome of my most poignant moments as a teacher occurred around the table of a Student Led Conference. Truly. My eyes have welled with tears at the sheer emotion shared. I’m a believer in giving students the voice and the power to be at this table.

It requires a strong level of planning and structuring by the teacher, though.

Continue reading S is for Student-Led Conferences