Different, strange, weird, relaxed, slow, and nice. No, I’m not describing some new YA novel. I’m recapping my feelings regarding Thanksgiving in 2020. While it felt unlike any other Thanksgiving I’ve ever experienced, it was also refreshing that it did possess a slower tempo with less stress. It was as if some bizarre governing force pushed the slow-speed button on life yesterday. I wasn’t rushing from one thing to the next to get prepared for a big feast or family gathering. I had time to watch some delightful Christmas movies and breathe in all of the beauty and magic of this special time of year. My wife and I even had time to go for a long walk. It was amazing. Did I miss the chaos of a routine Thanksgiving? No, I appreciated the calm nature of this year’s holiday. Perhaps we’ll remember this feeling of tranquility when we plan a Thanksgiving in post-pandemic life and not try to cram so much into 24 short hours. Wouldn’t that be nice?
The one tangible lesson that 2020 has taught me is that I need to slow down and really experience life more. I’ve been so focused on the future that I forget to live in the moment and smell the conifers and revel in the ahh-some power of sunsets. This different is good, freeing even. Although the craziness of this turbulent year has produced so many sad, awful, and horrible things, it’s nice to know that this year has also been filled with many examples of positivity, strength, resilience. We humans are a strong, strange bunch, and for that, I am forever grateful.
Teaching during a pandemic has also felt like being on a never-ending roller coaster ride, but not one of the fun ones, one of the scary ones where you hear odd, ominous noises as if screws are coming loose or metal is bending. While there have been plenty of ups littered throughout the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, the uncertainty of not knowing when the next change will thrust us downward is unnerving. When will we go remote? Is my mask thick enough? Am I getting too close to the students? This pressure and constant motion weighs down on me, on all of us. What’s next?
Negative thinking is contagious, but so is the power of positivity. I was able to be in-person with my fifth grade class for two months during the start of this school year. That was phenomenal and allowed us to lay a solid foundation consisting of learning, thinking, and teamwork. In these wild, roller-coaster times, I find myself looking around every corner, over every peak for the good and the happy moments because they are there amidst the chaos and doom-and-gloom headlines. Students are making great strides in learning to change their mindset regarding math or other challenges facing them. Students are smiling, with their eyes and happy being together in-person or remotely. They love the fifth grade community of which we are all a part.
As it came time for the annual Parent-Teacher conferences at my school, I thought long and hard about how I wanted to structure them for my students and their families. I’ve utilized the Student-Led Conference format for over 10 years, and have been overjoyed with the results each time; however, in this very different school year, is that still an effective vehicle for conveying information to families? Should I keep things shorter and use the traditional conference format? I devoted much time and headspace to this dilemma in late October.
Then I started thinking about the professional development text the faculty at my school read this past summer, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners by Michael Wehmeyer and Yong Zhao. It talked all about providing students with opportunities to take ownership and control over their learning, giving them agency. The traditional model of Parent-Teacher conferences entirely removes the student from the equation. Teachers talk at parents about how their child is progressing and the family members ask questions. If the students are most often not a part of these conversations, then how do they know what they need to work on to improve? If we want our students to become self-determined learners, then they need to truly know and understand themselves as learners. What better way than having them lead their conference and talk about their strengths, challenges, and goals for continuing to grow.
While I took the time to contemplate and reflect upon the conference method that would work best for my students in this year of the pandemic, I came to the realization that the Student-Led Conference format is, in any year, the most effective method for conveying information on the progress of students to their families. As the students are the ones who are learning, they should be the ones taking charge of sharing their progress and growth with their families. Learning is about the students and not the teachers. We are the guides for our students, not the receptacles of knowledge. Sure, we know our students and could talk about them and their progress until we are blue in the face from a lack of oxygen, but that’s not the point. The people at the helm of their learning ship, the students, need to know where they’re going and from whence they’ve come. Imagine if the cruise ship you’re on, in five to ten years from now of course, is piloted by someone sitting in a room on land, far away from your ship. Can they see everything from their cameras and computers? Perhaps, but they might also miss little things like an iceberg or a tsunami that could transform your trip into a nightmare. I’d want my pilot on the ship with me, and so I say, let’s leave the reflection and learning to the learners.
Earlier this week, each of my amazing and talented fifth graders completed their Student-Led Conference with their family. The students used the ePortfolio that they spent two weeks working on prior to their conference, as a script. They talked about their progress in each class, the challenges facing them, the struggles they’ve overcome, and the academic strengths that they possess. They even shared specific examples to support their claims. They articulated goals that they have created to help them jump into the winter trimester head first. They demonstrated to their families that they truly know themselves as learners. They did a fine job addressing questions their parents posed to them as well. It was so amazing watching them totally own their learning and progress. I am deeply proud of my students for their hard work, effort, ownership, and reflection. After the students shared and fielded questions their families had for them, very few questions were asked of me, the teacher, because the students had done such a great job talking about how they are doing in the fifth grade. I then ended the conferences by praising the students for their amazing work. While I allotted an hour for each conference, most of them were done in about 30-45 minutes.
Although I see the power in and benefits of the Student-Led Conference format, I don’t want to get stuck in my own line of thinking without taking in information or feedback from all parties involved. So, I sent out a feedback survey to the families asking for their thoughts on the Student-Led Conference format. Here’s what they had to say…
I am very pleased with the results of this year’s Student-Led Conferences. The students knocked that metamorphical ball right out of the stadium. I am very proud of and impressed by how they did. The families were also blown away by their child’s performance and reflection. It doesn’t get much better than this. Currently, I would not change anything regarding this format or formula for next year. I’m happy with the outcome and look forward to using it again next year, regardless of how chaotic and turbulent things may very well be. In the meantime, I’m going to focus on the vast amount of good that fills my life on a daily basis: My students asking thoughtful questions, the passion my students bring to their writing, how accountable my students hold me and their classmates…