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Interview with Chris HullIn a previous post, Teacher Voices blogger Chris Hull talked about how to integrate data from a variety of sources – especially how to incorporate teacher observations with assessment results and other types of data. One of the ways in which he uses that integrated student information is to conduct monthly mini-conferences with his 7th grade students. Today, Chris expands on the topic of conducting student data conferences.

How do your students prepare for the mini-conferences?
The most important step in the preparation for myself and my students is investing the time to create a culture and mindset centered around honesty. We talk about the need to be honest with themselves first – and then with me. During any reflection process, the first step is to be honest with oneself so that you are able to identify what is being done well or poorly.

We define these key terms, and then we practice reflecting honestly on activities that my students are invested in. We think and talk about how they practice basketball, rehearse for a dance, practice an instrument, or play a video game. We then examine how they use work to improve. These conversations help students see a connection between a mindset they already use and the use of that idea in the classroom.

For the mini-conference I have my students write a blog post around a set of questions. Students are able to have a first draft written before speaking with me. This helps them organize their ideas and think about potential answers. Some students take longer to think about these questions.

Do students give you feedback on classroom exercises and assessments at the conferences?
Students are asked to provide feedback on how they have performed, as well as how I have performed. This process is how I improve my lessons during the year, and also from year to year. This is a selfish request as I seek to improve every day and in any way. They help me remain honest with how I am doing as a teacher and as a learner. I realize that this is also modeling the behavior for my students.

How do the students respond to these opportunities?
Students vary. Some of them love the feedback related to themselves, while others love to grade and evaluate my teaching. But the key is that we are engaging in the practice of honest reflection. If a student is disengaged, we pause the conversation on the reflection and talk about a different topic that they are passionate about. These conferences are also about learning about my students. Sometimes they may need to talk about Steph Curry or the latest video game or movie before talking about the areas they need to improve. This also provides insight into how they learn – helping spark ideas for how I can differentiate lessons and peak their engagement in learning.

What happens if you provide some classroom observations that the student disagrees with?
Disagreements are amazing. At the beginning of the year, my students are often unsure if they should be ‘brutally’ honest when I ask them to provide feedback. But if they look at a unit or method of teaching that was used and do not understand why, I believe they should ask. Despite the potential for disagreements, in these moments I work to embody one of the concepts or philosophies of my class: risking failure. While I realize that this could be a scary prospect for teachers, these are the moments where they will push their thinking and work on supporting their ideas. I believe as a teacher we should always have a reason or purpose for what we do, and this transparency helps me with the authentic culture I work to establish in my classes.

I have continued my education through professional development, conferences, and reading, but the best source of feedback has always been my students.

Do these regular mini-conferences help to inform your parent-teacher conferences?
These conferences help me learn who my students are and their needs as learners, which are incredibly important as I prepare for parent-teacher conferences. I am able to demonstrate to parents that I know their child, and I can explain how I can help maximize learning.

Do you find that these regular conversations create a different attitude about assessment?
These conversations create a different attitude about learning. Instead of feeling that my class is outside of their daily life, the students see the connections between the skills and units we study to what they are passionate about. The key is that these conversations need to occur regularly and honestly in order to build that trust and relationship with each student. With this connection, you will be able to create analogies to explain key concepts from your lessons, but also show how to connect these to the students’ lives.

When you started out in teaching, how did you develop this philosophy on involving students in the process of assessment? Is that something you learned from experience?
I entered teaching after playing college basketball. As a player, I was taught how valuable film sessions could be in improving my game. Looking at how to spend time training to improve my game was built into the culture of our team. When I began to dedicate myself to becoming the best teacher I could, I utilized this mindset with my teaching.

I have continued my education through professional development, conferences, and reading, but the best source of feedback has always been my students. I have always believed in honesty, and students can tell when a teacher is being authentic. I have wanted to be authentic with them so this has been a core of my classroom from the beginning, but I have incorporated what other great teachers and educators have shared. I often say I am stealing from the best to help improve for my students’ benefit.

For teachers out there who want to try mini-conferences, any tips for getting started?
First, you have to want to risk failure. Not every conference works well. But if you are dedicated to the process and invest the time and honesty with your students, they will return the investment exponentially over time.