Weekly Feature



2017-12-07 / Front Page

Teachers at William Street finding success through student-led conferences

by ALAN RIZZO Reporter


Lancaster Central sixth-grader Natalie Grazen, a student in teacher Wendy Muni’s class at William Street School, participates in a student-led conference on Friday with her mother, Sharon Grazen, right. Muni, left, who piloted the unconventional conferences last year at the school, now has about 16 teachers following her lead. Lancaster Central sixth-grader Natalie Grazen, a student in teacher Wendy Muni’s class at William Street School, participates in a student-led conference on Friday with her mother, Sharon Grazen, right. Muni, left, who piloted the unconventional conferences last year at the school, now has about 16 teachers following her lead. In his first ever student-led conference, William Street School student David Houck was nervous.

Like others in his class, the fifth-grader had to give a presentation on his academic progress to his teacher, Rochelle Gerstung, and his parents during a conference last week.

But despite the anxiety, David said he was proud to talk about his work and to have his parents there to listen.

“I liked it better when I was leading,” he said. “I got to show my parents all my books that have what we’re doing in math and science, and I got to show them personally.”

His father, also named David Houck, said he was impressed by his son’s presentation and felt the unconventional conference style was an effective way of holding his son accountable for his progress and a way to build his communication skills.

“David had a great way to explain everything to us, which was a great platform for him to tell us exactly what’s going on,” Houck said. “He was definitely concerned about it, which made him prepare even more. Of course he was a little nervous, but I think you grow from that, as well.”

Gerstung, one of about 16 teachers trying out the conferences this year, said the same, adding that it was eye-opening to see her students set higher standards for themselves and take ownership of their academic strengths and weaknesses.

“It was very telling for me to see how they thought of themselves,” she said.

Introduced at William Street last year by sixth-grade teacher Wendy Muni, the conferences are the culmination of a three-week process aimed at getting students to show their academic progress to teachers and parents, and indicate where they can show growth.

According to Muni, students assemble a packet of work from core subjects to present to parents, watch a mock conference in class, and then practice with a classmate to prepare. After teachers review the content of student packets — which must include well-thought-out academic goals and reflection on their behavior in class — students are ready to participate in conferences, which take place at the end of November.

Muni said that unlike some other districts where students read from scripts, student-led conferences at William Street resemble guided conversations, and teachers have adjusted them individually to meet their students’ needs.

Muni said she started using the newer style of conferences after noticing a decline in student performance and out of a desire to increase parent and student participation in conferences.

“I was just finding more and more that it seemed to be a one-legged stool, instead of a three-legged stool,” she said. “It was the teacher, but it wasn’t always the parent and student on that stool because we were driving everything.”

To Muni, student-led conferences have been a game-changer, and are the “single most profound change” she has seen in student accountability and ownership of work in 16 years. She said their popularity has increased parent and student participation in conferences to 100 percent for 2016-17 and 2017-18, in contrast to about 66 percent participation in prior years.

Muni, noting that already this year a parent has praised the conferences for helping her son advocate for himself, felt the popularity of the new approach is fueled by a desire from students to talk with their parents about their schoolwork, and a desire from parents to listen.

“Students want to present to their parents, even the students who may not necessarily be considered to be, in their own eyes, successful academics,” Muni said. “They still want that chance to sit with their mom, their dad, their grandmother, whoever is their guardian, and explain what they do during the day.”

Conferences also help teachers and students set “baby step goals” to address academic challenges and connect them with educators who can provide extra help. With support from the district and William Street Principal Jacqueline Bull,

Muni hopes to expand the number of teachers participating in student-led conferences to include all teachers at William Street and beyond, so that students become familiar with the process as they move from grade to grade.

“What I’d love to see us be able to do eventually is have most teachers doing it, so once we get kids in sixth grade, they’ve done it maybe for two years,” she said, adding that a presentation she held on the conferences during the summer generated interest from teachers at Hillview Elementary.

“It’s something I hope to continue, and I only see good coming out of it.”

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