The Weekly Conference

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The weekly conference is an immensely important part of the Montessori Elementary experience. As there are typically no tests or homework in Montessori, the weekly conference serves an important role: to provide a child with valuable feedback and engage a child in self-assessment practices. 

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An interesting piece of the weekly conference is its variability between Guides and classrooms. Guides agree that the importance of the weekly conference is stressed as very important during their intensive training; however, it is up to each Guide to decide the particulars about how the weekly conference will be conducted.

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Megan Eilers, Lower Elementary Guide of the Checkerboard classroom, prefers to hand-write her notes from conferences, then add them to a large class binder for the children to access throughout the week. Children who feel they need a little more direction during the week can access the notes and review what they had discussed with Megan, as well as suggestions (often their own suggestions) for upcoming work.

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Observing conferences between the Guide and the pairs of children was much like sitting in on a meeting with one’s boss (a very nice, warm, and friendly boss, be assured!). There is an indisputable feeling of respect between all parties involved: a definite sense of seriousness. The Guides set the tone, and here, they have set one of professionalism. Doing so is a way to show that they take the children’s work seriously, and so should the children.

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Anna Schwind, Lower Elementary Guide of the Racks and Tubes classroom, shares that also she prefers to conduct her weekly conferences in a highly structured manner. Keeping conferences more rigid allows the children to know what is expected of them and how to prepare for them. This is also more effective from a timing standpoint; with nearly 35 students and one Guide, conferences could take up quite a lot of time if they were less structured.

In the Lower Elementary classrooms, children attend conferences in pairs. A younger child is often paired with an older child in order to provide modeling for the younger child (the older child usually goes first during the conference). However, if the younger child comes to the conference more organized/prepared, she may go first!

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If the Guide senses (or is told) that a child needs to speak about something in private, the Guide sets up a time to meet privately with the child. However, there are many times when a child is happy to speak up about an issue in front of the child with whom he is paired. Most of the time, the concern is of a social nature, which is typical of this plane of development.

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Children are expected to bring their work, finished and unfinished, to each conference. Anna starts by reading from her computer last week’s list of things each child previously committed to working on. They may discuss what goals they have accomplished, or what other works they may have been inspired by instead. At times, a child will not have been able to follow through on the work he had flagged the week before, but this may have more to do with other work coming up rather than a lack of follow-through. For instance, if a child is cooking one week, this work takes up much time (the researching and planning the menu, the list-making, the budgeting, the shopping, the prep-work, the cooking…).

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Anna shares, “I read their journal aloud to them, so we both know all the things they did (that they recorded) last week.  If we need to address anything about the journal (not being complete in their records, or neatness, or meeting a standard) we might touch on that.  If something fantastic is in their journal, we might touch on that too.”
“Then, with the list of lessons they had and work they’ve done fresh in their mind I ask them what they plan to do next week.  I write everything they tell me on the computer.  I sometimes suggest things (and note that this was my suggestion when I write it) they ought to be working on.  Their partners often suggest things as well.  This is usually a time when the partner might suggest doing a work together that they both plan on doing next week.  It’s fun.”
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A child brings Guide Anna Schwind a cup of tea during her mid-morning conference with two children
“Then I return to the first child and ask them to show me their work.  I look over it and we talk about what needs finishing, what should go home and whether something will be completed or just taken home unfinished.  Sometimes things are added to the work list at this point.  ‘Oh, I see this map is unfinished, but you didn’t say you would work on it next week.  Do you plan to work on it?’  Sometimes I ask them if they want to put a given thing in their binder or on the wall for display.”
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A child signs up for specials for the following week
The weekly conference is also a time for children to plan ahead for the next week, not only with what works they would like to do, but what specials they plan to sign up for (for example, yoga or French).
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Within the Upper Elementary, conferences are conducted a bit differently, both for logistical reasons, and for social reasons. Because of the large number of students and the desire to conduct conferences individually, Upper Elementary Guide Rebecca Callander staggers her conferences from one week to the next. On in-between weeks, students help each other through peer conferences.
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The beloved timer, which the children discovered is precisely 4 minutes, 54 seconds rather than 5 minutes!
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Rebecca shares that in general, she has fewer conversations about social issues, and more conversations surrounding the quality of work; “From conferences, I glean need for writing lessons, organizational support, time management, follow-through.  I can also see if there are any areas of insecurity revealing themselves.  I typically plan for the next week, asking children if they are ready for a new lesson or if they need a review of a given subject.”
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Rebecca shares that one interesting and fun thing that happens during Upper Elementary conferences is that she often finds herself surprised! Because of the number of students in the Upper Elementary classroom, and the high level of independence among the children, they often present work that Rebecca did not know they had been working on. How delightful to come across a diagram of a human heart, for example!
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And there you have it! The weekly conference: a wonderful tool for self-assessment and critical feedback. Thank you to all the Guides and children for allowing us this glimpse into this critical part of classroom life.