The Shipley Method

Students Take Ownership of their Education in Student-Led Conferences

Laura Oeschger
As the end of the calendar year approaches, students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 close the books on their first semester. While most teachers and administrators at other schools average student grades for report cards and schedule parent-teacher conferences only if necessary, Shipley’s Upper School faculty and students work together with parents to conduct a student-led conference, a personalized and in-depth reflection on the quarter.

Why Involve the Student?

Shipley’s student-led conferences differentiate a private school education from a public school setting and break the mold of the traditional parent-teacher conference, where parents are given a list of final grades and receive basic feedback on their child’s progress, without student involvement. Shipley’s approach focuses on the individual strengths and weaknesses of each student and the development of the skills necessary to be successful in the future.
“It’s an opportunity to show the exact points of where students need focus, in order to make them better-rounded students.” says Jackson Collins, Shipley’s Dean of Students and history teacher. “It’s easy to slap a grade on a student’s semester, but you’re not giving them any guidance as to what they need to work on. This can set them up for failure in the future. Students need a wide range of skills to be successful and writing a personalized report shows students where they need to improve, and how.”

Always a Name, Never a Number


Student-Led Conferences
in Middle School

Shipley’s student-led conference model began in Middle School, and after proven success with parents and students, the Upper School adopted the model. Shipley students in grades six and seven have a participatory role in the parent-teacher conference, while eighth grade conferences are truly student-led. In Upper School, only a few advisors teach their advisees, due to the spectrum of courses offered and various paths students choose to take academically. Most of the Middle School advisors teach their advisees and know the student and their individual learning style, making the student-led conference a more personal process rather than using the advisor as a translation between teacher and student.
Shipley’s personalized reports not only show final grades for the quarter, but a series of comments written by each teacher. “Comments are a significant investment of time,” says Marina Byrne-Folan, an Upper School math teacher and the 10th Grade Dean. “But if they’re not personalized to the student, they’re worthless.”
“By writing these comments, we’re really indicating that the numerical average is not the full story about the student,” explains Byrne-Folan. “We value their work ethic, self-advocacy, collaboration, and participation to a very high degree. They really make the student feel valued. That’s very meaningful for the student.”

Empowering and Individualized Attention

Those comments are gathered by the student’s advisor, who moderates the conference facilitated by the student with his or her parents or guardians. Students spend three to four advisory periods preparing for their conference. Students prepare in several ways, first by taking time to analyze and self-reflect on the comments they receive from their teachers and by learning strategies to manage and facilitate the conference themselves.
“We want students to be independent thinkers and doers, and this is part of that process,” says Collins. “The conference is a great exercise for that.”
During the conference, the student reads through the comments, shares his or her thoughts and feelings, identifies strengths and weaknesses, and discusses ways to improve. The student, parents or guardians, and advisor work together to create a plan for success in the classroom.
Byrne-Folan thinks students need some help in reading a general piece of feedback and translating it into an action step and then implementing that. The conference provides the individualized attention a student needs from Shipley and at home to be successful. After the conference, all parties leave on the same page, knowing what the student’s goals are and how those can be achieved.
“The conference is a good moment to kind of stop and pay attention to the child,” explains Collins. “And I think parents want to hear from their child and know what’s happening in school. This is a great forum for that to happen.”
“It also creates a sense that we’re all in this together – the administration, the teacher, the parents, and the student,” Byrne-Folan says. “It helps students to see that a grade doesn’t define them. They make the decision to change their behavior or improve their grades. That can be empowering for students.”

Shipley Method in Action

Student-led conferences provide another example of The Shipley Method’s commitment to building confidence in students. “The confidence building is the biggest thing for me,” says Collins. “Running a meeting, presenting to and in front of people is a great life skill to have.
“And the ability to represent themselves, and hold themselves accountable, especially with adults,” adds Byrne-Folan. “The conference provides them the structure and the information, but it’s up to them to follow through.”
The time and effort Shipley’s faculty and students dedicate to personalizing the conference experience motivates students to achieve educational excellence and develops important life skills in an intimate way. Shipley requires all freshman and sophomores to participate in student-led conferences. Although the process is optional for juniors and seniors, more than 70 students chose to participate this fall, seeing the value in the dedication of their teachers and having the discipline and desire to improve themselves as a student and young adult.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.