Friday, October 19, 2012

Parent Conferences 2012

Today I had Parent Conferences from 7:45am to 3:30pm with a 45 minute lunch in there somewhere. We hold them in the gym as the middle school teachers sit at tables placed around the perimeter of the gym. Parents roam around the gym looking for teachers to talk with. I suppose I should back up a few days before I dive into today's happenings.

Wednesday, I did two things. First, I sent all my parents an email saying how excited I am to meet them on Friday during conferences and that I request they bring their child so they can help lead the conference. Secondly, I gave students a Review Quiz to assess their mastery, growth and retention of the concepts from the first few weeks. Many students demonstrated mastery, substantial growth, and are retaining algebraic concepts. They came into class Thursday to receive the results of the Review Quiz and were expected to fill out the following form. This form [editable version here] would help students lead the conference with their parents.

This form had multiple benefits such as guiding the student and giving them talking points. It was so cool to hear kids tell parents the concepts they were mastering such as "Distributive Property" or concepts they needed to improve like "Number Systems." It gets better. I had kids explain to their parents how Reassessments worked and how many they've set up with me. Again, there were some fantastic moments of kids proudly explaining the process. Of course, there were kids who haven't even set up one reassessment who should have by this point and it really drove the point home that their learning and 'grade' is ultimately in their hands. I wanted students to remind their parents that I only assign 2-4 home exercises each night and although they're not worth points, I wanted students to use their own words to illustrate why it's important to still attempt and complete them. Behavior was an additional suggestion by Chris Robinson and kids were actually very honest, if not modest at times. Lastly, let's move forward and have students come up with some specific, yet attainable goals and ones other than "Get good grades" [BORING!!!!]. Check some of these student created goals:
  1. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
  2. Do all Home Jams completely.
  3. Keep myself organized throughout the year.
  4. Avoid doing PS on Sunday night.
  5. Ask at least one question per day.
  6. Learn with a smile.
  7. Avoid making careless mistakes.
Avoid making careless mistakes! I found myself telling parents that 'careless mistakes' are a natural feature built into a middle school student. My job is to help them get better at strengthening their skill of double-checking their work by being their own "math lifeguard." Yes, having goals, working toward mastery, and learning concepts will lead to "good grades." It was amazing how little I actually informed parents of their child's current percentage and grade in my class. It was amazing. Compared to previous years, there was a huge, apparent, and welcome shift in the context of Parent Conferences. Thanks SBG! Numerous times I told parents that students are being less "grade enthusiasts" because they are owning their learning and working on mastering concepts one at a time. See ya later points!

Some parents came in with agendas, skeptical of this "different way of teaching". Oh, you mean the teaching where I present students with a question, task, or problem and let them grapple with it for a few minutes, fleshing out ideas with their group members on their giant whiteboards as I circulate the classroom listening? The teaching where I only jump in if they are a hundred miles off base? The teaching where I look for students to discover solutions on their own and then share their work with the class using a document camera? The teaching where students are learning from each other and not following a contrived algorithm or procedure blindly without direction, interest, or appropriately struggling with it first? The teaching where I encourage students to take ownership of their learning? Right. Well, after a few weeks of ironing out some kinks from being too 'hands-off' at times with instruction, I've found my groove and I've found that happy medium between being hands-off and knowing when to intervene and instruct students. Not all students are ready or welcome the idea of a teacher being hands-off. Some, especially these middle schoolers, still need that procedural learning from the get-go. I respect that and am sensitive to that. Therefore, my happy-medium place is that where I allow students to grapple with concepts at first and with each other, but students will always leave my class that day knowing an efficient way to navigate to a solution, even if it's procedural.

Ending on a positive note, I had two conferences that truly brought warmth to my heart! Two girls in separate classes struggled in my class the first few weeks of the year. By no means are they strong students. They try and work hard, but not as hard as many of my other students. At first they wanted good grades, but that's changed to wanting to succeed and learn. They figured this out on their own. Their 'grades' were in the dumpsters the first few weeks. I gave the Review Quiz this week and holy smokes, they kicked math butt! Giving them back their assessment yesterday, sharing this news with their guardian at conferences today, and seeing their current 'grade' was an experience that confirmed that SBG is here to stay.  I'm proud of you two girls! We don't need no stinkin' points-based-grading.

Conferenced out,


  1. I'm constantly struggling to get those "procedural" kids to think outside the box (or inside the box)...well, just thinking would be good.
    Question to student: How many little gummy bears fit in the big gummy bear?
    Student: I'll just multiply these two numbers together.
    Me: You're multiplying the cost of the gummy bear by its weight. What does that number represent?
    Student: I don't know.

    1. Yes, I've done the procedural thing, been there done that. And will only do that when absolutely necessary. Oh, sweet number sense how our students need you.

  2. @Nathan I'm doing a lot of that now. Trying to ask kids what the answer means. Often times they know (or guessed) correctly to multiply two numbers but have no clue what that product means. Screaming helps though.

    Love your form, Andrew. Stealing it for next year. Your cafeteria format is how I had it at one school in Oregon. But very different now. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yes, I'm asking my students more and more: what does that number mean? What label you should go with it. Why is the unit important? Is it 18 pancakes? 18 minutes? 18 parents? 18 Stadels? Oh, that last one would be scary!

  3. Keep fighting the good fight with parents. I often deal with new middle-school parents who believe that if their students are not "honors" in 6th grade, then their life is over. I find that my experience as a high-school teacher allows me to have a long-term view, rather than just looking at one grade. Assuring parents than students need time to develop appropriately, and there there will always be a chance for a challenge, keeps them at ease.

    It's the long-term skills you are developing here which are important: self-reliance, reflection and persistence. And I hope that your parents understand and respect that. I cringe when my colleagues promote the stereotype that math is a series of repeated skills and drills, best mastered through repeated worksheets.

    Love your stuff. You're a real math rockstar! And a complex one as well.....