How One School Made Student-Led Conferences a Real Picnic

By Sue Ellen Gilliland

When a school administrator mentions the need to host parent-teacher meetings or student-led conferences, you can almost feel the oxygen being sucked from the room. You certainly don’t expect to hear a buzz of excitement as the conference planning begins. Yet that’s just what we heard at Isabella High School this year.

Since 2015, with the assistance of the Alabama Best Practices Center and the Powerful Conversations Network, the faculty and staff of our K-12 school have been learning to implement the student-engaged assessment strategies emphasized in Ron Berger’s book Leaders of Their Own Learning.

Although this change process can be intimidating at first, intentionally weaving the strategies into our core instructional practices as well as the school’s Title I Parent and Family Engagement plan has provided all stakeholders with a vested interest in giving the process a real chance to succeed.

Even so, the prospect of staging parent-teacher-student meetings can definitely curb enthusiasm. Just the word “conference” seems to send a few people to the school nurse with a headache and nausea.

Many of us are wary of such meetings because they are frequently organized around a problem area where the student needs to improve. Carried out in an atmosphere of professional politeness, the often stuffy and formal conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

However, change the word from “conference” to “picnic” and the entire connotation transforms immediately! Who wouldn’t enjoy an opportunity for parents to bring their picnic basket, blanket, and favorite book to the school lawn and share a time of fellowship and learning?

When you remove the word “conference” and paint the picture of a picnic, frowns are replaced by smiles and a buzz of excitement can actually be heard from parents, students, and teachers. This simple shift in concept is exactly how Isabella High School was able to begin implementing student-led conferences in our elementary grades last spring.

Laying the groundwork: Student data notebooks

Our teachers had been working directly with students in grades K-6 to develop data notebooks during the school year. Each grade level worked collaboratively to establish exactly what data was essential to track and review with students.

Students set individual goals for a variety of things like reading, math, behavior, and/or attendance and worked with teachers to track their progress. Since this was the first time that the teachers and students had implemented student data notebooks, they were slightly overwhelmed and concerned about adding the next step – the student-led conferences.

Meanwhile, our administrators were working with a newly established Parent Leadership Team to develop several parent and family engagement opportunities for the school year. Listening to the concerns of some of our teachers, we decided to merge two events, a family reading picnic and our first student-led conferences. We had great hopes! What actually transpired on April 21, 2017 was better than anyone could have imagined.

Let the picnic begin!

Parents, grandparents and guardians descended upon Isabella School beginning at 9:30 with their picnic baskets, blankets, sunglasses, and favorite books in hand. The day was divided into three, one-hour lunch periods for grades K & 1st, 2nd & 3rd, and 4th-6th.

Families set up for their picnics!

Many chose to bring wagons to carry their items to the green grassy lawn behind our school. They were met with a warm smile by our high school student ambassadors, completed a simple sign-in process, and then were escorted to the lawn. The excitement was palpable in the classrooms on our elementary hallway, as even the smallest of our students walked to the lawn with their data binders clutched in their hands.

Upon finding his or her family (or specially assigned friend if a parent or guardian could not attend), each student excitedly began to tell about everything they had been working on during the school year.

A data notebook conversation

Six year olds explained how many letters they could name and how far they could count. Second graders bragged about how many books they had read and their math fact fluency numbers. Fifth graders shared STEM projects.

Students described their Scantron Performance Series scaled scores and goals. They explained areas of strength and areas where they were still working because they had not reached their goal yet. Students reviewed their “I can…” statements with parents and then shared work samples to show mastery of the grade level standards indicated.

Guests listened as students talked about their data and goals. Teachers floated from one blanket to the next, sharing, listening, commenting, and answering questions. Families ate lunch and read books together. They shared a time of fellowship and learning.

And all the while – although the word was never spoken – they were participating in student-led “conferences.”

The feedback was very positive, and many of our participants expressed the hope that they could participate again in April 2018. As Isabella’s faculty, students, and parents have learned, conferences do not always have to be formal or stuffy. Sometimes, they can look a lot like a big family picnic!

Planning for Spring 2018

Our HS volunteers

Because the picnic and first attempt at student-led conferences was such a success, the faculty embraced the idea of beginning school with more formal student-led conferences to discuss goals and plans for the year based on each child’s data. In the spring, the picnic will serve as the follow-up conference as well as a celebration of learning for our students and their families.

The date for the picnic will be announced in February, a month earlier than last year, so that parents can begin making plans to attend well in advance. We are also in the process of establishing an elementary leadership team who will help to encourage and promote the event. As more students get involved in the planning and implementation process, we expect the number of parents and family members who participate to grow.

Furthermore, since we are a K-12 school, many of our parents have encouraged the expansion of student-led conferences to all grade levels. As a result, students in grades 7-12 are currently working to develop digital portfolios with data and goals to share with their families and the community beginning this February.

Some Things We Learned

In order for a new initiative to be successful, it requires the buy-in of all stakeholders. If that process can be linked to something familiar, like a picnic, the transition seems to be easier to understand and facilitate.

Second, it helps if the overall goal and purpose is known in advance. Our first attempt was not about having perfect or even amazing student-led conferences. It was about bringing everyone together to begin a conversation about data, standards, and goals. The first change step is often the most difficult. Beginning with an informal conversation, led by the students, opened the door to expand this process in the future.

Third, if you like this idea and want to try it, be sure to use parent volunteers to help with organization and implementation. We often ask so much of our teachers these days. Parents can be a valuable resource and are often eager to assist. Don’t forget to involve them in significant ways. (They also help spread the word!)

Students and families talked about goals

Finally, and very practically, we learned that when providing sack lunches from the lunchroom, it’s much better to give these to the students before they go to the lawn with their parents. We had originally set up to deliver the lunches ourselves as a service to our families. However, that quickly became a very daunting task.

By the last lunch, we realized that it was much easier to provide the sack lunches to the students in their classrooms before they were dismissed. Contrary to popular belief, their little hands can carry two sack lunches without much difficulty!

If you have questions about Isabella’s picnic program, contact Sue Ellen via email at segilliland@chilton.k12.al.us.


Sue Ellen Gilliland is the assistant principal at Isabella High School, in Chilton County, AL. She has served as a speech-language pathologist, special education teacher, inclusion instructor, instructional coach, and administrative assistant during her 20-year career. She currently resides in Marbury, AL with her husband, Daniel, and daughter, Danielle.