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CHILD CARING

A twist on the parent-teacher conference

Shante Golding-Spinkston is only in fourth grade but she's already learned a grown-up lesson about how to talk to those intimidating, all-powerful, all-knowing adults known as teachers and parents.

Last year about this time, she was having nightmares. Her mother, Dee, knew that Shante has a tendency to be anxious, particularly at the beginning of school, often about math. This felt different. She wondered if it was connected to the civil- rights movement unit her class was studying. With a little probing, she learned that, indeed, one day after school, a classmate had regaled Shante with graphic details of lynchings and beatings.

Spinkston wanted to tell the teacher. Shante protested. No way! She worried her mother would be angry with her teacher; that the teacher would be angry with the other student; and, most of all, that the teacher would think less of her. In tears, she told her mother, "I want to be brave, like the civil-rights workers."

Serendipitously, Spinkston's parent-teacher conference was scheduled for two days later. Better still, at the Mission Hill School, conferences include the student. Shante could sit this one out, Spinkston told her; if she chose to go, she had to trust her mother's judgment. She went.

Afterward, Shante thanked her for having the chance to tell her teacher, and Spinkston silently expressed gratitude for the three-way conferences.

Parent-teacher conferences, which have been around for about 50 years, have long been recognized as a way to link the two most important socializing forces in a child's life, home and school. The parent-teacher-student conference is a new concept, somewhat controversial, and, so far at least, rare.

Some educators speculate it's just a matter of time before they catch on for one simple reason. Studies show that parents are more likely to come to a conference when their children do, too, says Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. That alone is critical.

"We know that what matters most for children in terms of achievement is how engaged and involved parents are in academics and curricula issues," she says. "It trumps all else: race, social background, economics." There also are developmental gains for students, says Rosalind Edwards, a professor at London South Bank University in the UK who researches home-school relationships.

In a traditional conference, Spinkston and the teacher would have talked about Shante, making assumptions and speculations. Meanwhile, Shante, her mother says, would have been very anxious, wondering what they were saying and, afterward, likely putting her own spin on whatever her mother reported back. ("The teacher doesn't really like me.")

By being included, there's no middle person, no guess work. Who, after all, is a better source on Shante than Shante herself? She was able to speak on her own behalf, to talk about her fears, including her anxieties about math, and to hear the teacher's warm words firsthand: "Even the bravest people get scared sometimes. I want to help you learn to never be afraid to come to tell me how you are feeling."

And there's something else. Over time, says Spinkston, these conferences are "helping my daughter to find her voice."

The Mission Hill School is a pilot school, kindergarten through eighth grade, autonomous regarding curriculum and budgeting but under the umbrella of the Boston public schools. When it opened eight years ago, faculty wanted students to have a voice in their education, and they built in the structure to make it happen: For fall conferences, teachers help students articulate goals for the year and areas to work on. For spring, they coach them in creating a portfolio that represents strengths and weaknesses.

"The point is for children to feel ownership over their learning," says co-principal Brian Straughter. "We're not talking about him, we're talking to him. We're talking with him."

That can be huge for high- and low-achievers alike, for first-graders to high school students. "It builds success because the child owns the solution," says Lawrence-Lightfoot. She says a child can even be included in conversations about behavioral or learning problems, although it doesn't preclude parents and teachers from also having private ones. She is author of "The Essential Conversation, What parents and teachers can learn from each other" (Ballantine).

Through the pre-conference coaching and the participation itself, students learn:

To look at their own work objectively and recognize progress in themselves ("This is how I wrote the alphabet in September, this is how I write it now."). "This is a deeper kind of learning," says educator Lucy Calkins, director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College at Columbia University and author of "Raising Life Long Learners, A Parent's Guide" (Perseus).

To speak to an audience of powerful people. That builds self-confidence and says, "Adults will listen to you."

To accept responsibility. "They no longer are able to blame external sources for work that doesn't turn out as they wanted," says educator Diana Hiatt-Michael of Pepperdine University in California. She's a proponent of student-led conferences, a slight variation on the theme where, by upper grades, a student is in charge of the conference.

Hiatt-Michael sees benefits particularly for middle-school students. "Developmentally, school slips in priority at this stage. Having to evaluate your work helps refocus you," she says. She would make a point to acknowledge the change in a child's social life: "This is a time when some kids spend more time with friends. What about you? How do you figure out how to divide your time between homework and school and friends? How do you think that's working?"

There are less obvious benefits, too. Parents who didn't have good school experiences of their own or are intimidated by teachers typically approach traditional conferences with dread. Many don't show up. In Hiatt-Michael's study of four schools with student-led conferences, there was close to 100 percent parent participation, including among immigrant parents whose children can translate for them. With fall conferences about to begin next week at the Mission Hill School, Straughton says that many parents are brainstorming with children about what to talk about.

Probably the biggest criticism of three-way conferences is that it vests too much power in the child. Douglas Sears, dean of the School of Education at Boston University, for instance, says it's misleading to allow students to think they are equals. Lawrence-Lightfoot counters that including students doesn't put them in charge, it validates that they are the authorities on their experiences in their own two worlds, home and school.

Calkins, too, offers a red flag: "Schools can't plop kids into the middle of a conference and expect it to work. This takes thoughtfulness and preparation."

Edwards has other caveats: That children not be forced to attend if they don't want to; that there are no rigid rules governing the process; that parents have opportunities to talk to teachers privately.

Even so, Calkins is a fan. "If you advocate for this, you're talking about something much bigger than including a third person in a conference. You're talking about an education that helps kids take control of their own destiny. You're talking about kids becoming more intentional as learners. That's a beautiful thing."

Contact Barbara Meltz at meltz@globe.com; join her online chat next Wednesday at noon at Boston.com.

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