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Jazzing up parent-teacher conferences with a 'narrative'

As a high school mathematics teacher, I spend a good deal of time preparing to meet parents and guardians at parent-teacher conferences every fall and spring. As a divorced parent of four young children, I also spend a good deal of time attending conferences myself. I am always surprised that not all parents go and that grades are the primary focus of meetings in the upper elementary grades.

In a recent conversation with a good friend, I mentioned that I think parents should attend all their children's conferences regardless of how their children seem to be doing. She told me that she doesn't go conferences anymore because her daughter usually does very well in school.

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She said that typically a teacher only reported her daughter's recent grades on assignments, which she already knew because her daughter brought assignments home.

At my high school in Boston, we too were primarily reporting grades at the conferences. We found that when we gave them report cards, some parents concentrated on the letter grades, the implication of those grades in terms of getting into college, and what specific behavior led up to receiving the grades.

Some unhappy parents said, "I can't do anything to change this grade now," as if to say that we were wasting their time. In a way, they were right.

We struggled with what information we wanted to convey to parents that would benefit students in the long run. We wanted to discuss and exchange information about the children that was relevant to school performance. We wanted to discuss how children learn and make suggestions on ways parents and teachers can enhance students' learning.

In 1996, our school decided that all teachers should write "narrative" reports for each of their students. Over time, the school provided needed training, and teachers discussed what kind of information to include.

Because of the time involved, we now write reports for ninth- and 12th-graders in the fall; for 10th- and 11th-graders in the spring. Since a full-time teacher has about 40 reports to prepare, the administration gives us one day off from classes each term and provides technical support - including computers and pre-formatted disks.

The narratives discuss students' learning styles, attendance, and accomplishments. For example, a narrative may describe Johnny as a quiet student who asks few questions of the teacher but enjoys working in groups where he can ask his peers questions. Narratives also make suggestions that might help the students. Parents are given a few minutes to read the narratives, and then the conferences begin.

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Timing of the narratives is critical. Usually these reports are given to parents at conferences held between traditional grading periods. This way, parents and teachers are able to concentrate on the students' learning styles rather than on letter grades.

The new format works well. Conferences center on the students' achievements, classroom anecdotes, and pertinent personal issues, if necessary. Using the narratives as a starting point, the resulting exchanges of information usually leave the teachers and parents feeling that they can help the children because they know more information and feel supported by one another.

Whether children are doing well academically or not, parents or guardians and teachers benefit enormously from these meetings, especially if they don't center on letter grades.

In addition, regular attendance at these conferences benefits parents and guardians in the long run. In most cases, teachers and parents are the major adult influences in students' lives. It's important and makes sense that these people meet and talk several times a year about the primary and secondary academic lives of students.

*Benadette Manning teaches 10th- and 12th-grade math at Fenway High School, a public school in Boston.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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