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Getting Students Ready For Portfolio Conferences

Rather than your usual "parent/teacher night", our school conducts portfolio conferences that empowers students to lead the discussion with their parents about their learning in school.

This new dynamic ensures that both parent and student are on the same page about the successes and challenges of the student's current learning.

In order to really prepare students for conferences, teachers need to be prepared to help them get ready.

It's a four-step process that allows students to review their body of work and make decisions about what best shows what they know and can do.

Collect: As students are learning, they need to keep a collection of the work completed. This can be done physically in a folder or online in Google drive (or any other number of online services).

Select: Students then go through their collection and select the work they feel shows their best learning and/or the most progress. Teachers should help students with a checklist of ideas of what makes work selection worthy for the portfolio. This can be normed by vertical teams in schools or by grade level teams depending on the age and school environment. Ultimately, the students should be the ones to determine the pieces.

Reflect: This must be determined by the teacher. When should students reflect and in what manner do we want them to reflect to best show their understanding of their learning. Personally, my students reflect on all of their major assignments as a part of the process. The prior reflection makes this part easier when it comes time to present because all of the work is already completed.

Depending on the age and maturity of the students, the comfort level with the standards and content of the classes, the depth of the reflection will likely vary. This is something that can and should be taught, offering time in class with feedback to work on putting their ideas together.


Goal setting should also be an offset of reflection. Based on their level of mastery against the standards and feedback provided throughout the formative process, students can develop goals that then propel learning moving forward, helping teachers focus future feedback.

Connect: To start showing mastery of skills across content, portfolio time is a great opportunity to explore content connections and be able to talk about learning in a "flatter" space. Students shouldn't just speak of grades in classes, but rather skill application across disciplines. This depth of connection also allows for further practice in different settings.

Once students have put their portfolios together, it's a good idea to get kids practicing how to present their learning. Getting students into pairs in advisory groups or in an agreed-upon period of the day allows them the time to work through a script (if one is provided for scaffolding purposes) or writing a script or outline of their own that will increase the coherence of the presentation. This is the moment where students can really articulate what they know and can do and where they need to continue to work for greater depth of learning.

Philosophically, the most salient switch is that the conference is no longer a conversation between parents and teachers excluding the most important person. It ensures that students are present and sharing is transparent. Teachers are taught not to get involved in the conference, but rather to facilitate from the side with technology or collections that are physical.

At our school, we make appointments so we know who is coming and when. Each appointment is set up for 15 minutes and parents are discouraged from seeing all of the other teachers while they are here. If they have an interest in that kind of meeting, there are sign up sheets for appointments at different times. Students are still encouraged to be a part of those conversations too.

Learning needs to be made transparent and shouldn't leave the learner out. Moving away from traditional parent-teacher conferences, shifts the dynamic of who's responsible for the learning and focuses on articulation of what students know and can do rather than grades and scores which often mean nothing once separated from the content. The old way thrives on these data points, rather than the learning.

How do you empower students to transparently share their learning with parents and other stakeholders? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in November 2015

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