By Judy Harris with contribution from Beau Canfield, Special Education Teacher, Central Point School District, Central Point, OR
The new year stands before us, like a chapter in a book, waiting to be written. We can write that chapter by setting goals. ~ Melody Beattie, author.
As October rolls in, the tempo in the school picks up. The daily routines are now, indeed, routines. Teachers are eyebrow deep in instructional strategies to address the needs of each of their students. But something else also looms large in October for those in school: parent-teacher conferences.
For most schools, the autumn parent-teacher conferences are a time to review data and work with the students to set learning goals for the year. This is a critical point in the relationship being built between students and their teachers. Education should be something that is happening “with” students, not “at” or “to” students. It’s a partnership built on realistic, common goals. An important step in setting the stage for success with that relationship is to help our students set realistic, achievable goals for their academic growth.
In September, most schools gather data on their students by assessing them in a variety of ways: reading fluency assessments, math skills assessments, writing performance tasks, and more. All of these are beginning of the year norms put in place to provide teachers with data on which to base their instructional decisions.
One of the keys to a quality assessment system is that the results of assessments are communicated in a timely and useful fashion. The parent-teacher conference provides just such an opportunity.
When parents and students sit down at the conference with a teacher, the conversation can sometimes start like this, “How’s my kid doing?”
For the teacher, that can be a loaded question. How is the kid doing? How are they doing in their academic work? How are they doing socially and emotionally? How are they doing as a member of the school community? The facets of an answer to that seemingly simple question are myriad.
But let’s focus just on the academic side of things. Perhaps the child is working below grade level. At the conference table, the teacher should be talking about this with a parent, showing them data in a form that a non-educator can understand and take in. From there, they should engage both the parent and the child in a productive conversation about where the child is in relation to grade level expectations, where they want to be, and what steps are going to be put in place to help the child get there. The getting there is the key, and that involves setting meaningful goals.
For example, a sixth-grade student I had in my classroom a few years ago was reading not one, not two, not three, but four grade levels below sixth grade. For a variety of reasons, including a transient home situation and other issues, Brock had not received the consistent and ongoing reading support that he needed. So, here was a young man about to get to the stage of his education where the reading would become much more complex, more technical, and more demands would be made on him. However, the reading material and curriculum was not accessible to him at his reading level. Brock and his parents were worried and they wanted to know what could be done to help.
We spoke frankly about a variety of strategies that we were going to deploy for this young man, both at school and on the home front. We set incremental goals in place for Brock and his reading, with the end of year goal being that Brock would advance two grade levels in his reading. Now, I know and acknowledge that was a pretty lofty goal. But a love of reading was not one of Brock’s challenges; he simply had some skill building and some hard work ahead of him. We set daily reading goals and we supported those goals with frequent check ins. We set aside an increase in reading time, both with Brock reading independently and with classmates.
It’s pretty common to have parents offer to set aside reading time at home for their child, say 20-30 minutes a night. While that assured reading time is important, it’s not really the only way a parent can help a child become a stronger reader. How about reading the same book as their child, then discussing what’s going on? In that way the parent supports comprehension strategies.
Perhaps the student is having a difficult time with fractions. How about diving into cooking as a math strategies session? Certainly a lot of portions and fractions in that can of soup!
It can be a deeper dive than that into strategies parents can do at home. The point is that the parent teacher conferences are a time to discuss these strategies with a teacher, with the student an active part of the conversation.