Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Parent Conference - A Conversation Without Grades

This past Wednesday was parent-teacher conferences at our school and I was booked solid from 5:00-8:00 with appointments for parents and guardians of primarily students in the Fusion program. At one point before the interviews, I looked at my colleagues in the Fusion program and asked them what they were making available to parents to use as evidence of student progress. I have to admit there was this momentary panic as I thought of those times where I would print out mark summaries for parents during interviews and for the first time ever, I had NOTHING of that sort prior to the interviews. I had not produced a single mark in either my Fusion classes or in my Grade 11 class but I think I had assessed more student work and provided more feedback than any time in the past up to this point in a semester. There was a sense of security that I think that mark printout provided. The blunt numbers were there as a stark summary of what had been learned and what hadn't been learned - at least that's what I thought and so did everyone else in the interview. They were not to questioned. THEY WERE THE MARKS!

So my colleagues and I wondered aloud - what should be in an parent-teacher conference that doesn't focus on the grade up to this point in a semester? Here is a summary of some of that thinking and some of the things that also came up organically during the course of the interviews - persistent patterns that made the conversations meaningful for the parents, students and the teacher!

Start with them!
I like to always start the interview by asking about their own questions or concerns regarding the student's progress. This sets a tone that I think is important. This interview is for them. It is not for me to lay out a laundry list of concerns or plaudits.

Evidence? What evidence? Oh!!! That EVIDENCE!
Your better have something! We use an online platform for the collection of student evidence related to each learning goal. And I do have summaries of the feedback provided to students throughout the semester. On top of that, we scan student work that is done in class using the copier so that we have an archive of those products. Also include evidence of the learning skills which are probably more informative at this early stage in the semester than anything else. I like to review the learning skills evaluation and the rationale behind each with the parent and student. Speaking of the student....

Who is this about?
I noticed this year more than any other that the conversation was continually steered back to the student. But before that can happen a key ingredient must be present - THE STUDENT! I insist that they be present for the conference. They have the most skin in the game and so they need to be present. As the interview progresses - once the parent had a chance to raise any questions or concerns and I had given my quick summary - I want the student to take over and lead the remainder of the interview. Here are some of the questions I asked:

  • What learning goals have you struggled with and what learning goals have you felt you mastered?
  • Give me an example of feedback that you received and how you acted on that feedback?
  • What are you doing to ensure that you master the learning goals you may be struggling with?
  • What learning skills do you think need more attention and what can you do to improve upon those learning skills?
  • What is your overall assessment of your achievement and what evidence supports that overall assessment?
This part of the interview is critical. It reinforces to me the most important part of trying to teach without grades - the responsibility for learning lays squarely with the student. They need to be continually reflecting on where they are in mastering the learning goals set out for each cycle of learning.

The most common parallel I draw with my students is my flailing on the guitar. I take lessons and I practice (admittedly not enough). But having my guitar mentor tell me that my playing is at 42% is about as informative as Donald Trump reminiscing about global warming patterns.  The 42% tells me something - it tells me I stink. But having him tell me, as I try to master "Highway to Hell", that I need to work on my fingering for the transition from D to F# is something that DOES HELP! In much the same way, that 42%, 52%, 65%, or 91% relates something to the student and parent but beyond just comparing your position to what seems like an arbitrary benchmark - very little more.

Some of the features outlined above exist in any interview - grades or no-grades. They reflect the communication that evolves when there is a sense of trust between the student and teacher and the parent and teacher. They reflect the belief that the parent recognizes that the instruction and the assessment of what a student has done up to this point in the semester is grounded upon what is best for that student. We had a parent information night about our Fusion program and that did a lot in the way of helping parents see that the enormous amount of effort we were putting into the program was grounded upon OUR belief that what we were trying to do was best for student learning.

If you have any FEEDBACK for ME on other features of the parent conference that can make it a meaningful meeting for everyone involved, please leave a comment. Thanks!

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