family conversations · parents · student led conferences

Student Led Conferences

This Thursday and Friday we had student led conferences at my school.  This is the culmination of over a week of preparation and anticipation as we approach spring break.  Typically, the children gather their work in each of the core curriculum areas, and art, to share with their parents.  The children write  reflections as to why they chose particular pieces, and use these reflections to talk with their parents about their work.  If there is time then parents sit down with me for a chat.  

Even though I support the concept of student-led conferences I have not been satisfied with how they’ve gone in the past; something hasn’t felt right about my level of participation.  I’ve come to the conclusion that while it’s important to give students space to discuss their work privately with parents, it is equally valuable for all of us to engage in conversations that help extend the connections between school and home.  In the interest of changing things up a bit and because parents have also expressed the desire to spend more time talking with the teacher, I decided to try something different this year.  I instituted three-way conferences every 15 minutes.  
But, let me back up a bit since you may be confused at this point.  The way we do conferences at our school is that four families share a one-hour slot.  They can use the entire hour or just a part of it.  During this time the child, who has been preparing for a week or more for this event, shares the work with his or her parents.  If necessary, the teacher is nearby to nudge or guide the conference but is more or less in the background during this time.  With three-way conferences the intent is to initiate and sustain a conversation among parents, student, and teacher.  
Until we actually got started I hadn’t quite decided how I was going to proceed with these conversations.  So, I asked the children to bring a piece of work to talk about.  While some did, most of the children chose not to.  If a child brought something to talk about, we did that first.  Then, I asked them two simple questions:  what part of the school day is going well for you, and what part of the school day isn’t going well for you?  Depending on their answers, I probed with more questions to get them to expand on their initial responses.  Next, I asked the parents for their comments, concerns, or questions.  These usually elicited another conversation thread.  Finally, I spoke up if I needed to add anything to the discussion.  
This experience reminded me of the value of one-on-one interviews with children.  All of the children were articulate and seemed eager to have a voice in the conversation about their learning.  I learned a lot from them about what’s going well and what isn’t and why.  In some cases, it confirmed what I had already observed and, in others, I got new information about my students’ learning.  I jotted important notes about particular children that will prompt me to make changes when we get back from spring break.
Have you have tried three-way conferences before?  How did they work for you?  Did you use any conversation structures or protocols that worked for you?  I look forward to your comments.  
character collages. character development · character traits · parents · writing · writing workshop

Writing Tips from a Parent

Recently, the mom of one of my students talked to our class about her work as a writer of YA books.  She prepared a PowerPoint presentation using Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt as her mentor text.  The following list includes some of the tips she gave the children.

(1) First, it’s important to write about what you know so that you can write with confidence and authority.

(2) A well-developed beginning, middle, and ending is a critical component to any story.  Just writing “the end” is not enough.  It was great to have a professional writer point this out to the children since often that is how they end their stories because they’ve figured out that they don’t have anything else to say.  The truth is that either they didn’t plan their story before sitting down to write, or they didn’t have a problem in the story that needed development and resolution.  This is something I’m planning to address during the last term of this year.

(3) Pay especial attention to the beginning of your story.  A well-written and interesting beginning will often be the determining factor for whether or not the reader will want to continue reading.

(4) Make sure there is a conflict in the story.  If there is no plot, the story will be boring.

(5) The ending should wrap things up for the reader in some way.  My student’s parent mentioned that she didn’t like cliff hanger endings.  I respectfully disagree.  Sometimes those are the best endings because they leave me wanting to read more.  More books, more by the same author, and more in a series, if that’s the case.  I don’t always think cliff hanger endings are a bad idea unless it seems obvious that the author couldn’t think of an ending and so decided to have no ending instead.

All of this was very instructive and validated much of what I’ve been teaching this year.  However, what piqued my interest the most was when this parent shared her “character collage”.  A character collage allows the writer to think about and develop a character before she even starts to write her story.  By using magazine images and words the writer can create a picture of a character’s interests and traits.  And, this collage can be a work in progress as the writer starts to write and think about major and minor characters, plot, and setting.  This is the next step I am planning to take as we continue thinking and analyzing character traits in my classroom.  I will write more about how this went with the children during the first week of April.  In the meantime, just in case you’re curious about character collages, read this post at http://www.stinalindenblatt.com/2010/10/getting-to-know-your-character.html at my student’s mom’s blog/website.

I’d love to hear any thoughts about the tips mentioned above from readers of this blog.  Please, feel free to leave a comment with your ideas.