Family Dinner: How might we create a menu of experiences that serve the goals of Parent-Teacher Conferences?

How might parent-student-teacher conferences exist as a diverse menu of options that serve each family and child?

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Update: June 3, 2016

We've added a pitch video for this idea and created a doc to share more about our idea. Check it out here and learn more below!

Overview: (What’s this idea about)

One thing that we wanted to challenge was the contrived formality of the design of PTCs in many schools. They are often too brief, lacking in depth, grounded in not so useful notions of authority and missing student voice/agency.  The idea of “Family Dinner” emerges from the informal, but powerful connective conversations that families share around the dinner table. Also, “Family Dinner” is not some monolithic structure; it looks different in every home. We believe that PTCs need a structure that is flexible and can meet the varied needs of learners, families and teachers.

Potential For Impact:

PTCs are ultimately about relationships and relationships require time and care. PTCs should not be something that happens to a student, rather they should be at the center of them and (especially for older students) helping to lead them and/or being the primary driver of the conference.

“Family Dinner” PTCs should be designed with the following INGREDIENTS:

  • Trust
  • Respect for the learning needs of the student, family and teacher
  • Respect for the varied cultural traditions of families
  • Consideration for the varied schedules of stakeholders
  • Deeper versus superficial engagement
  • Manageable for the already quite busy teacher

Value Prop/Pitch: 

“Family Dinner” PTCs might include the following RECIPES:

  • Just in time conferences: Instead of setting aside a compressed window for conferences (e.g., one or two days), let the teacher and family decide when it makes sense to meet so that there is a sense of authentic purpose for the meeting.
  • Meet via Skype for parents whose work schedule or distance from school make it hard to come into the school.
  • Work Exhibitions - Leverage other opportunities when we ask families to come to school to see student work/exhibitions. See these moments as opportunities to create “assessments for learning.” Provide a structure that allows parents to leave feedback for their child and for the teacher. After the exhibition, the students can respond back to their families and the teacher can respond individually where necessary and to the families collectively.
  • Conversation Topics - Book groups or speaker series may create more value for families as they can explore important issues in these gatherings.
  • "Tappas and Talk": Food is really a powerful way to bring folks together. Riffing on this idea (with the meal to follow) what if the items on the table (the Tappas menu) were pieces of student work and these pieces become the substance of the meal? At my school, we have done student led conferences for more than 20 years, but they are conversations with individual students at the center. I wonder how the experience might change if the conversation was led by several students with each serving as the "chef" for one of the dishes. The focus here would be on helping parents to understand something of the total "dining" experience of the class and not just the growth of their own child. In a way, it would become a sort of Descriptive Review of the Classroom. As a parent, I'd love to see my kid sharing his story with other classmates and families.
  • Public Critiques: There are powerful example of these in the film Most Likely to Succeed where students reflect in public (often with their parents present) about their growth over the course of the year and in connection to their final exhibitions.


Original post:

Looking to develop an idea of how to create the atmosphere and culture of parents-teacher-student interactions that are more family, value-driven, and solution oriented towards supporting growth of each child.

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A few thoughts/questions:

1) In response to: "Also, “Family Dinner” is not some monolithic structure; it looks different in every home. We believe that PTCs need a structure that is flexible and can meet the varied needs of learners, families and teachers." Along with...

"Respect for the varied cultural traditions of families"

This is a great point and the question this brought up for me is, how could teachers best be supported to adapt accordingly to a variety of cultural traditions within the theme of family dinners? How could the teacher feel like they have an authentic invitation to "the dinner table" and adjust while still navigating between being a guest and a mentor?

2) Regarding this:

"I wonder how the experience might change if the conversation was led by several students with each serving as the "chef" for one of the dishes."

How do you envision the group of several students weaving in to some potentially important and private one on one time between teacher and parent or teacher/student/parent? Might a group start for 10-15 minutes and then everyone breaks off into private areas to continue the discussions and reflections for another 10-15 minutes?

3) While the metaphor of family dinner is great, it's also hard to ignore the fact that actual food and its sensory draw is what also entices the family to gather around a table. So, any wild chance there might be actual food or snacks at these newly envisioned conferences? Another enticing reward? The challenge of trying to convince an 11 year old that talking about their math performance is similar to enjoying their favorite mashed potatoes might be interesting... 

4) Lastly, I like the idea of public critique as you mentioned from the movie "Most Likely to Succeed", though I think the words "public" and "critique" together, especially for a younger child, are potentially super intimidating. Maybe words like "shares" might be more appropriate? 

Well done, Mark! Good stuff!

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Dave, thanks for the comment/insights. The more we think about this idea, the more essential we think it is to support ongoing dialog between the school and families about learning. All of the other recipes will be enriched by this dialog. We like the idea of these conversation happening around the dinner table, but they can happen anywhere. Without this basic ingredient that builds trust and understanding through conversation, were not sure that structural changes to the conferences themselves will have much of an impact.

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