Colegio Bolivar Enters a New Era in Parent Teacher Conferences

By Denby, James Jordan | Phi Delta Kappan, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Colegio Bolivar Enters a New Era in Parent Teacher Conferences

Denby, James Jordan, Phi Delta Kappan

A primary school in Cali, Colombia, has implemented major changes intended to give students a more active role in their own education. Mr. Denby focuses on one of these changes--a new format for parent/teacher conferences.

DURING THE PAST several years, the faculty of the primary section of Colegio Bolivar in Cali, Colombia, has been striving to implement a student-centered curriculum and a school environment that reflects the needs and interests of students. Until recently, however, one area lagged behind: student assessment.

Then, during the 1994-95 school year -- encouraged by a Colombian law that set new guidelines for reporting student progress--the primary teachers decided to stop giving letter grades and to try to eliminate the tendency to compare students that is inherent in traditional grading systems. Instead, we teachers began to assess students on whether they met the objectives set forth in the curriculum. On the new report card that was developed jointly by teachers and administrators, students would either surpass objectives, meet objectives, or not meet objectives.

Most students meet objectives (although this designation admittedly covers a wide range of achievement). "Average" students may simply have more difficulty meeting objectives than "excellent" students. At Bolfvar, individual students and their teachers now pay attention to what the students have accomplished, rather than to what others have done. The new anecdotal format of the report cards allows teachers to detail each student's strengths and weaknesses.

This approach to assessment inspired even more changes. In December 1994 the principal, Peggy Pastor, passed along to the primary faculty an article about student-led parent/teacher conferences, and the idea was an instant hit. Most teachers agreed that such conferences were a logical extension of our earlier reforms. Our reforms had been aimed at having students take an active role in their education and having them feel a sense of ownership of their work. Now, with parent conferences scheduled for the end of February, some teachers set to work immediately, preparing students to take an active role in their own evaluations.

Under the old system, teachers spent a few minutes several times a year informing parents of their children's successes and failures. Now students would actively evaluate all aspects of their schoolwork. Their opinions of their products and behavior would be the focus of the meetings with parents.

IN PRACTICE, students in grades 2 through 5 proved themselves able to speak authoritatively about all aspects of their school lives and to identify with remarkable accuracy their academic and behavioral strengths and weaknesses. That children so young would have such a clear view of themselves amazed the adults. According to Sandy Waite, a third-grade teacher, parents "sat in awe, watching their youngsters speak with such confidence about themselves."

The time allotted to each conference was 30 minutes. During this interval, each child--using work samples, journals, and self-evaluations--led his or her family through a detailed tour of his or her academic life. Parents listened attentively and asked probing questions about work habits, successes, difficulties, relations with peers and teachers, and school behavior. The students were amazingly honest in their self-evaluations. Carole Jenkins, a fourth-grade teacher, noted that, "if anything, they were sometimes too hard on themselves." In identifying their own problems, the children also began to develop strategies to improve their work or behavior. Parents took part in this process, offering suggestions as to how they could help at home.

Teachers served as facilitators, asking questions of students and parents. They also helped parents to refocus attention on their children. Unaccustomed to the new style of conference, many parents--especially at the beginning--tended to direct their questions to the teacher. One of the most common teacher comments at these first conferences was "Let's see what your son/daughter has to say."

The only complaint about the new conference format was the time constraint. Though 30 minutes per conference was more time than had been allotted in the past, many teachers found themselves lagging behind the conference schedule because students were so eager to share their ideas and opinions with their families. To deal with this problem, some teachers--especially those in the upper grades--had several conferences going on simultaneously. They floated between conferences, observing, offering comments, and asking questions. In every case, they made themselves available to parents and students who had questions or concerns.

WHEN THE conferences were over, teachers felt that they had taken a giant step toward creating a student-centered environment. After the euphoria passed, they began to evaluate their implementation of the new conference strategy. Though the approaches of individual teachers differed, the consensus was that successful student-led conferences require a great deal of preparation on the part of both students and teachers.

Students may have a lot to say about themselves, but they are not used to having the opportunity to say it. To ask a child to lead a conference without any sort of preparation would be counterproductive. Instead of developing confidence, it would likely prove intimidating. The confidence and self-awareness that parents at Bolivar witnessed in their children did not first show up on conference day; these traits were products of a long-term learning process.

At Bolivar, that process involved class meetings, student journals, conferences with peers, the development of portfolios, and self-evaluations. Students were repeatedly encouraged to express opinions about their work and about classroom activities. Gradually, they learned to think critically about their experiences in school. At every step along the way, teachers reminded them that their views mattered.

Class meetings provided a forum for students to talk about themselves without feeling any pressure. At first, these meetings focused on very recent work. Students answered questions about work they had done that day or that week, tasks they'd found difficult, or behavioral problems that had come up. As they grew more comfortable with analyzing their academic and social behavior, the questions began to cover a longer time span. Teachers encouraged them to identify patterns in their work--mistakes that they made frequently and strengths that stood out. Class meetings enabled students to develop the confidence and the vocabulary to present intelligent summaries of their academic efforts to an audience.

Student journals provided information on the authors' school experiences and on their strengths and interests as writers. Feedback from teachers reinforced the students' conclusions about these aspects of their school lives.

The idea of peer conferencing grew out of the idea of peer editing. Once students became competent at editing one another's writings, they started to voice opinions about the quality of their peers' work. But a caution is in order here. If peer conferencing is to be successful, teachers must set guidelines that cause students to focus on improving, not on criticizing, the work of others.

For their portfolios, which are kept in folders or boxes, students collect work samples over the course of the year. Students are expected to be able to explain why they selected a given item for their portfolios. The reasons range from wanting to show strengths or weaknesses to liking or disliking the item itself or the activity from which it came. Periodically reviewing and updating portfolios is a valuable use of class time. Students should be encouraged to add or remove items as they see fit. By comparing older items with newer ones, they are able to gauge their progress. This is also the time for students to produce brief written evaluations of specific work samples or of their general working habits.

SOME OF the outcomes of student-led conferences were unexpected. As they began to feel a sense of ownership of their work, many students made great strides in academic performance. Rather than trying to win teacher approval, they focused on producing something of which they could be proud. Many students also felt far more accountable for their behavior and their academic work when they had to explain their performance to parents, peers, and teachers. Students who had been having difficulties often started devising strategies for improvement. During the conferences, parents often tried to help their children come up with approaches that they could implement together at home.

The school reaped other unforeseen benefits as well. A parent told fourth-grade teacher Nancy Sanchez that this style of meeting "strengthened the parent/child/ teacher relationship." In an environment in which parents and teachers often have difficulty communicating because of language barriers, such an outcome is invaluable. Many teachers asked parents to respond to what they learned in their conferences, either orally or in writing--and many parents said that they learned a lot about their children as well as about why teachers do some of the seemingly strange things they do in their classrooms.

Student-led conferences also give teachers feedback on their work from the people who know it best. One fourth-grade class, for example, had been serving as reading buddies for a second-grade class once a week for most of the year, but the program didn't seem to be going well. During conferences, several second-graders identified it as one of the things they disliked about school. The teacher followed up on this information by calling a class meeting, during which the second-graders decided to improve the program rather than drop it. They gave the teacher a list of suggestions to make it better, and they have loved the reading buddies activity ever since.

In the faculty meeting that followed the first round of student-led conferences, teachers from the primary section voted unanimously to schedule an additional conference period at the end of the year and to continue with the new format. Most said that they would never go back to the old format. Making the change was risky, but the outcome has made us all proud.

JAMES DENBY teaches grades 2 and 3 at Colegio Bolfvar, Cali, Colombia.

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Colegio Bolivar Enters a New Era in Parent Teacher Conferences


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