Designing student-led conferences at West Oakland Middle School: a case study

by Aatash Parikh, Jess Franko

Preface: The Authentic Audience

One of the most powerful ideas in education is that of giving learners an authentic audience. You know students have an authentic audience when they aren’t simply doing an assignment for the teacher or for a grade. Rather, they’re (also) doing it for others––peers, mentors, community members––who are in some genuine way invested in the quality of that work. Knowing they have this invested audience ups the stakes for the students, encouraging them to do their best work.

In the Spring of 2022, in the midst of one of the most difficult years for schools everywhere, West Oakland Middle School made a shift that gave its students one of the most authentic audiences possible: their parents & families. West Oakland Middle took the age-old practice of the parent-teacher conference––and transformed it into a student-led conference. We’re going to share what a student-led conference is, how the passionate staff at West Oakland Middle made this shift happen, and the impact that it had on students, families, and the educators. We’ll also share how we, as the Inkwire team, worked with the school to co-design the tools that powered this work.

What are student-led conferences?

The traditional parent-teacher conference most of us experienced as a student or parent typically involves a meeting between teacher and parent. This conversation centers around the student’s grades and/or behavior. The student is often not present at the conference.

Student-led conferences (SLCs), on the other hand, put students in the driver’s seat. Students are not just present at the meeting, but actually direct it. They come prepared with a portfolio of their work, reflections, and goals for improvement, and they speak directly to their parents; the teacher is there to simply guide and support. Conversations tend to be less focused on grades and more on tangible evidence of learning. This grounds the conversation and enables discussion of specific feedback and strategies for growth. Most importantly, it empowers the student to have a greater sense of ownership over their learning journey by being responsible for leading this conversation.

SLCs at West Oakland Middle

West Oakland Middle School (WOMS) is a public middle school in West Oakland, CA serving ~200 students in grades 6–8. It was while Aatash was a teacher at WOMS that he created Inkwire to help his students do authentic projects and showcase their work to audiences outside the classroom.

Previously, WOMS had struggled with attendance at parent teacher conferences. Conferences could also be exhausting for teachers and attendees because of what often felt like deficit-focused conversation and an over-emphasis on grades. While students usually weren’t present at their conference, if they did attend it could feel like they were being lectured at.

WOMS knew there was an opportunity for improvement here. While the first year back from remote learning due to Covid-19 would be a difficult one for doing anything radical, the teachers and leadership team felt that this initiative was worth pursuing and that the previous two years’ challenges had only underscored the urgent need for change. We were excited to learn that in the 2021–2022 school year WOMS would do a pilot of student-led conferences, and that they would use Inkwire as the portfolio platform to power it.

Inkwire makes it easy for students to document and share their learning. Whereas most schools implementing SLCs would ask students to make Google Slides or have a physical folder of work, Inkwire allows the process to be more organized, personal, and fun. It gives students a digital binder they can visually organize and curate from, a portfolio-builder that is both easy to use and customizable enough for them to be able to express their personalities, and as you’ll see below, reflection templates that help them prepare what they’ll say when presenting their work.

Preparation and Co-Design

In our co-design research with WOMS, we asked teachers to analyze student portfolio examples. We found they preferred portfolio entries that have visual evidence and show progress, process, and reflection–and that they felt their students would need scaffolding for creating high-quality portfolio entries and reflections. This led us to design reflection templates that gave students common structures in which to fill in evidence, with sentence starters for reflections. Templates vary in complexity and format based on project, grade level, and content area, but all are based on the foundational starting point of “Show, then Reflect”.

We designed a variety of portfolio reflection templates based on professional best practices for case studies and portfolios, with scaffolds built-in to support middle schoolers.

Initial teacher feedback about template prototypes was positive. Having the templates inherently communicated a pedagogical robustness to teachers and eased the overwhelm of directing students how to best showcase the work from their respective classes. The templates also sparked ideas and dialogue about the more nuanced, subject-specific details teachers wanted their students to be able to communicate, prompting us to incorporate template customization. Inkwire templates offer a starting point, but also allow teachers to modify in order to create a customized format for their students to use.

Additionally, teachers expressed concern over student portfolios looking good without students obsessing over making them look good. Ted Cuevas, a veteran teacher at High Tech High with extensive experience using student portfolios for authentic assessment, told us about other portfolio creation tools his students have used in the past: “They spent too much time on making it look good, picking a template. It was too much to teach them HOW to do it let alone DO it.” Teachers at WOMS echoed a need for structure so students could focus on the content in their portfolios rather than formatting and visual design. This inspired Inkwire’s portfolio editor to be simple — like editing a Google Doc––but have just enough fun customization features to help students make their portfolios beautiful and their own.

The science page on a portfolio by Dannys, an 8th grader at West Oakland middle.

The Conferences

After months of preparation, the first day of conferences began in mid-March 2022. In the most initially striking change from before, students were present at every conference. As the conferences went on through the week, the energy in the school building was markedly different. Students were present, engaged, and confident while sharing what they had prepared. Teachers and parents were proud seeing what their students had put into their portfolios. Dialogue was positive and focused on tangible evidence.

Not every conference was perfect, of course. In one conference we attended, the student struggled to speak and required a lot of nudging from both teacher and parent. But in a previous year’s conference, that same student sat silently as the adults around her spoke about her challenges. This year, she was a participant. She spoke, and was able to share several things she was proud of in her portfolio — and that added a level of optimism and action-oriented conversation that likely wouldn’t have been present in a traditional conference.

Our lovely students sharing their portfolios with their parents and teachers during their student-led conference (SLC).

Teachers had great feedback on the conferences. Here’s what they shared in a reflection session after the event:

Teachers’ reflections about the student-led conferences.

The ultimate impact of implementing the student-led conference, however, is not meant to be seen only during the event itself, but in the weeks, months, and year surrounding it. For example, our science teacher told us how several weeks prior to the conferences, she was fielding questions from students whether X or Y assignment could be included in their portfolios for the conferences. This is the authentic audience effect. In this case, students know they’ll have an opportunity to share their best work with their families — encouraging them to make progress and do high-quality work through the year. When we overheard students talking about their upcoming conferences in class, we knew that we had successfully added a new layer of motivation for them.

One of consistent themes brought up by staff was how engaged students were when actually creating their portfolios — see below.

One of our highlights was being on campus on our “Portfolio Day” the week prior to the conferences. For a two-hour block all 200 students on campus were on Inkwire uploading work and building their portfolios. The best part? They were totally into it.

Building on our success

As anyone who’s worked in schools knows — implementing an initiative like this is hard work. As we know, it was a tough year and making this happen required extra hours and energy from a teaching staff that didn’t have a lot to spare. That’s why it was amazing the staff was able to pull it off, and hopefully it only gets easier and better from here.

Teachers’ reflections for what they’d like to see for the next round of SLCs.

As an Inkwire team, we noted a few ways we can improve the product to better support teachers and students:

  • Mobile scanning & uploading: Teachers and students did a lot of scanning and uploading of physical work. It underscored the need for efficient, mobile-friendly upload tools that output high-quality images — something that doesn’t happen when students upload using Chromebooks.
  • Presentation supports: Knowing that for students, presenting and speaking during their conference would be a skill that required as much attention and practice as the actual portfolio creation, we created a presentation script for students to fill out in preparation for their conference. We think we can do more though, perhaps building in a “presentation mode”, for example with speaker notes and presentation tips, that could further help scaffold the presentation process for students.
  • Flexible conferencing: Scheduling conferences such that everyone can present at the same time and place is always a challenge. Now that so many of us are comfortable with videoconferencing, Zoom SLCs are most definitely an option, and some parents took advantage of that this year. However, what if we could do asynchronous conferences, that allowed more parties to participate without being available at the same time? This is an area we’d like to explore.

SLCs in a Box

We know that many schools are looking to make a shift towards student-led conferences and portfolios. Here were some of the resources that we found really helpful in our process and preparation.

We built Inkwire as a tool to power this work. Our aim is for every young person to build a portfolio of work that connects them to future opportunities. Inkwire supports educators and schools in facilitating projects and performance assessments that help students build their body of work and share it with authentic audiences. Please get in touch with us with us if you’d like to learn more about it. You can reach Aatash at aatash@inkwire.co

Finally, a huge shout-out to the the team at West Oakland Middle School for creating an authentic audience for their students, for the wonderful students for taking ownership over their learning back into their own hands.

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Aatash Parikh

Aatash Parikh

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Founder at Inkwire (https://inkwire.co/) — giving every learner the opportunity to have an audience and build their portfolio.