Student-Led Conferences Empower Black Children to Take Charge of Their Own Education

Student-led conferences empower Black children by encouraging their active participation throughout the process and beyond, fostering a sense of ownership and confidence in their educational journey.

My grandparents instilled in me three key attitudes on education: it’s vital, something to be proud of, and something no one can ever take away from you. I employ their teachings as I raise my three children. When I received a notification in my children’s folders inviting me to sign up for their student-led conferences a few months ago, I viewed it as an opportunity to stress this teaching and have an experience with my twin 7-year-olds that I’d never had before. I was thrilled to hear them discuss their academic skills and problems with the assistance of their professors. I was in amazement at what I was watching as I sat in the rough blue chair with my knees touching the horseshoe-shaped table across from their white teacher.

I recognized that their education did not begin and end with their reading comprehension and mathematical ability. It was evident that their social and emotional development mattered as much, if not more, than what they were studying. I was there as a witness to my multiracial children, half Sri Lankan and half African American, discussing who they were as students and as active contributors to their own educational path. Before my eyes, they were cultivating their social and emotional development. My wife and I replicate these abilities for our three children at home with my grandparents’ lessons on the importance of education. To see it applied to the “real world” for my seven-year-olds was a novel. I observed my daughters confidently discuss their academic achievements and shortcomings. I observed them discuss assisting their peers and being attentive to their suggestions. It was a moment of parental pride for me.

One of the objectives of student-led conferences is to enhance students’ participation in the conference process. Student-led conferences provide an opportunity to foster and improve social and emotional learning skills. In addition, they build and improve the five essential social and emotional learning competencies. According to the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leader in the SEL field, “SEL can be a potent lever for constructing caring, just, inclusive, and healthy schools that serve all youth.” That day, I observed this power directly at my children’s school. I was already certain that we had selected the best local school for our children’s education. Yet I questioned whether Black families from a lower socioeconomic class than ours had access to the resources.

One in ten teachers identified as Black, Hispanic, or Asian American during the 2017-2018 academic year. For students to feel at ease and recognize the benefits of student-led conferences, they must feel as though they belong to the greater school community. With so few educators of color, though, it is difficult. Dena Simmons, Ed.D., the former assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and faculty at the Yale Child Study Center, emphasizes the significance of teachers’ self-awareness, anti-racism, and emotional intelligence in fostering a sense of belonging among Black students in school. Student-led conferences provide Black children, and eventually all students, with what they need to succeed when teachers and parents make the effort.

As I sat in my twins’ classroom and listened to them speak, it became clear that they were in the ideal setting, with the most suitable teachers and academic community for their needs. They were acquiring self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Nevertheless, good opportunities such as student-led conferences are uncommon or nonexistent for many Black children.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 49.4 million public school pupils in the United States in 2020, 7.4 million of whom were Black. It may be more difficult for some pupils to profit from opportunities with so little representation.

Vinnie Hurst, MS.Ed., director of school atmosphere and networked learning at Ramapo for Children, explains that the impact of student-led conferences is contingent on a number of elements, including school climate and the social and emotional learning competencies of conference participants. “School environment is the platter upon which all other programs, initiatives, and tactics are served,” he explains. “The effectiveness of the other initiatives, such as student-led conferences, is entirely dependent on the school climate and the quality of the connections within it.”

As a parent, the aspect of his remark that struck me the most was the significance of “relational quality.” Not only does it matter whether a teacher can teach or whether a principal can connect with instructors and students, but also the nature and quality of each interaction. While assessing the quality of a relationship, students and their families may question if the interactions they have with instructors and educators are genuine and based on trust. I observed this in my children’s interactions.

I observed them speaking with confidence to their respective professors. I recognized that I was observing something exceptional. My young daughters had developed into self-aware leaders capable of requesting assistance from their teacher when necessary, volunteering to assist their peers, and taking responsibility for their education. They communicated with their teacher when they did not comprehend anything, identified when they were too agitated or disturbed to solve a math problem, and did so much more. As second graders, the student-led conferences played a crucial part in their life. The structure afforded them the opportunity to be open and honest with those who matter most in their lives, including their family and teachers.

I had not consistently attended parent-teacher conferences in the past. That wasn’t because I had no interest in my children’s schooling. My explanation was straightforward: my children were not failing or in danger, nor did they appear to be struggling, so I did not see the benefit. If I felt something was amiss between the teacher and my child, I would attend class. Or if I believed my child was not receiving the necessary support or putting out the work, I knew they were capable of. Yet, student-led conferences offered a new perspective and a more significant opportunity to see my daughter’s growth. I attended an event for my daughters and heard them discuss the highs and lows of second grade. It was fascinating to watch how this methodology prioritized their experience as they expressed the areas where they excelled and how they were a member of their class community. They demonstrated their self-management abilities. And I showed them mine by not sobbing as they spoke of their proudest moments since the start of the school year.

Nevertheless, these conferences can also assist parents, particularly in terms of their own SEL expertise. “Parents must demonstrate and model these skills to improve students’ SEL. Parents play a critical role in demonstrating SEL to their children, according to Hurst, who notes that it is impossible to teach these abilities if they are not modeled. According to him, when parents comprehend what SEL competencies look like in practice and model them, it manifests in different situations. Student-led conferences are a continuation of this concept. “Children tend to demonstrate the same high SEL competencies as their parents. It is essential that parents comprehend what SEL is. We must also address how schools communicate this information to parents in a fair manner. Equality is for every child, daily.”

Student-led conferences remind us that equity is ensuring that every child has access to opportunities like these on a daily basis. It is about supporting the needs of every student, whether they arrive at school hungry or require assistance interpreting the text on the board. But most crucially, it enables students to analyze their accomplishments and reflect on their improvement potential in ways that will benefit them indefinitely. Too often, the opinions and viewpoints of students, particularly Black kids, are eclipsed by those of their teachers.

“Student’s voice is crucial,” adds Hurst.

Increasing their access to student-led conferences can aid in developing this voice.

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