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Schoolwide Structures for Student-Led Conferences

Principal Brett Kimmel of Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City describes the integrated approach used at his school to ensure that all students and families participate in meaningful student-led conferences.

This video accompanies the book Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment.


- Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, known around here as WHEELS, opened in September 2006, and at the time we opened 150 sixth and seventh-grade students and we’ve now grown, to full-size, at-scale, we’re now grades six through twelve, 600 kids. When we opened we decided that Student-Led Conferencing was something that we were gonna embrace as a school. And we opened in September, and our first-ever Student-Led Conferences were two months later, in November. And we didn’t really know what we were doing, so we kinda made it up a little bit, and since then, they’ve really evolved in productive ways. Our school’s on trimesters, and we conference at the mid-point in each trimester. We’ve found over time that conferencing at the end of a marking period was not as helpful for kids and for families, and for teachers as it is to conference at the mid-point. We organize all of our long-term plans, unit plans, expedition plans, lesson plans, and daily instruction around learning targets. Learning targets are front and center in the conversation at Student-Led Conferences. We, like all other expeditionary learning schools, embark on learning expeditions. Learning expedition work is talked about and highlighted at Student-Led Conferences. We talk about high levels of academic rigor, being one of the, if not the, top indicator around college readiness. Academic rigor shines through in looking at student work in the context of Student-Led Conferences. So it’s really an opportunity to pull together all of the things that we emphasize, that make our school go, and make our school go well. And to be able to highlight those, and to bring them together, in one 20, 30-minute conversation that the child is leading. Each Student-Led Conference generally involves three parties at the table. There’s of course the student, there’s a family representative, often mom and dad, sometimes grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, babysitter, whoever that primary caretaker is, and then of course the teacher. And at WHEELS, the way we’ve organized, the teacher is the crew leader, or the advisor for each of the students, whose conferences they’re participating in. And so I might be a Science teacher, and I’m participating in my crew’s conferences, and a topic might come up that relates to English, or Math, or Social Studies, I’m not the expert on that, so my collaboration with my team, other teachers on my grade level, is paramount. And it happens in two ways. It has to happen before the conference takes place, so I know well every single one of my students, their successes, their needs, their challenges, and then I need to feed back to teachers after conferences, if a particular topic comes up, that mom or dad or even the student is raising about content from another class, I need to be able to help arrange a conversation between that teacher and the student, or that teacher and the family. In order to conference 100% of our families, we need to be very clear about setting expectations. And we set those expectations in three primary ways. Number one, with our faculty. Number two, with our students. And number three, with our families. In setting expectations with faculty, I’m very clear to our faculty that the expectation for Student-Led Conferences is that you will conference every single one of the students and families in your crew. That’s a group size of about 12, 13, 14 kids. We set aside time for Student-Led Conferences to happen between noon and 8 PM on a given day, and my expectation is that every single one of our families will be conferenced during that time. If it’s not possible, during that time, then we tell teachers that they have a week and a day, until the end of the following week, to get those conferences done. In setting expectations for kids, we’re very clear, this is a very important moment in the life of their schooling, over the course of the year. So Student-Led Conferences don’t just happen, we prepare them, we take them very seriously. And in doing so, we allocate probably about two or three weeks of crew time, leading up to Student-Led Conferences to prepare for the conference. And so what that looks like is, in crew, kids are culling their work from their work folders, from their various classes, they’re putting together their portfolio, they’re fishbowling conferences, they’re giving eachother feedback, they’re practicing what they’re going to say. Setting the expectation for kids that this is something to take seriously, this is something that’s important to do, and to do well. With families, especially those that are new to our school, we’re very clear about the fact that we don’t do Parent-Teacher Conferences as they might be familiar with from their previous school. Instead, in doing Student-Led Conferences, we expect families to show up. And so, we set that expectation from the outset, and we’re kinda ruthless about making sure that it’s met. So whether it’s letters home, email, phone calls, home visits, whether it’s using kids to help communicate with families, that they’ve been practicing for this, and it’s really important to show up, we pull out all the stops, to ensure that our families know that A, their participation is expected, and B, we’ll settle for nothing less.

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