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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Erica Stewart

Let Me Show You: Pushing Students from Learning to Leading

Engaging parents in the classroom is a huge priority for Erica Stewart. In a community whose challenges are often overlooked because of its proximity to thriving Silicon Valley—and at a school that was founded as a result of powerful parent advocacy—Erica looks for every opportunity to connect with parents on a regular basis and involve them in their children’s learning. In her essay, she describes how empowering students to lead their own parent conferences builds conceptual understanding and stronger relationships with the school community. 

Luz’s mother raises her eyes from her fourth-grade daughter’s math exam, covered in a conscientious 10-year-old’s neat calculations and painstakingly drawn models. “I don’t even know what this is,” she says. “This isn’t how we solved 12 x 35 when I was in school.”

It’s both a question and a challenge. And I get it. I’m new to California and the Common Core math standards myself. My students are solving more rigorous and complex problems than students years older in the non-Common Core state where I spent most of my teaching career. Most days, I begin lesson-planning with the same sentiment as Luz’s mother: “What is this?”

Luz’s parents’ eyes are still fixed on me when Luz breaks the silence. “Let me show you. It’s called the box method.” Her parents straighten in surprise. She flips her test over to the blank page on the back and begins solving. “First you break 12 into one 10 and two ones.” Her parents nod, their skepticism melting into probing questions as Luz leads us through her every move.

Parent conferences are some of my favorite days of the year. Parents at my school are deeply invested in these meetings, too. Over 95 percent of our families attended all of their child’s conferences this past year. Parents don’t attend these meetings because they are mandatory; to be clear, they aren’t mandatory. They come because conferences are powerful collaborative opportunities where we hold one another accountable to be our best selves because that is what our students deserve.

Ms. Stewart chats with a parent during student pick-up time.

Parents leave these meetings empowered with tools to support their kids at home. And I leave them with new insight and strategies for supporting their kids in my classroom. In our first conferences of the year, parents requested specific things they could do with their children at home besides checking their homework. I sent home flashcards, which parents quickly made their own and improved upon. I overheard one mom telling other parents at dismissal how she liked to mix in addition and subtraction facts to keep her son on his toes—a strategy I immediately stole and began using in class.

But the very best part of our conferences is that they’re led by the students themselves.

After greetings and a brief framing for the meeting, the student opens their math binder and shares with all of the adults huddled around the table where she’s grown and what she is still working on.

In Luz’s conference, she explains the place value mistake she made several steps into the problem. “I can’t believe I rushed and wrote that 30 is three ones, not three 10s.” I recall the anxious student at the beginning of the year who responded to most questions in class with an apologetic shoulder shrug or an embarrassed “can I ask a teammate?” And I remember my own anxiety as I answered, “No. We’re sticking with you.”

Luz is able to lead her conference today because she spends every day in math class explaining and defending her problem-solving process and decisions. And she is able to do that because I have learned that the most empowering thing I can do for my students is to immerse them in struggle and to facilitate, not direct, their thinking. 

A students adds decimals using a model.

It is my fourth graders’ first day comparing fractions and we are locked in animated debate over who gets more birthday cake in the launch problem. Two teammates have already used pictures to prove that two-fourths of a cake  is  more than two-sixths of a cake. We’re now discussing another way to prove it.

I circulate around my students who I know usually need more conceptual support. I want us to hear from a teammate who is still wrestling with the day’s challenge so we can support them and learn from their problem-solving. As I pass Luz and her partner in the back, I hear that they are on the right track but need some more support.

“Bring it back,” I say.

Just shy of 32 hands shoot up, Luz’s included. “Luz, what is another way to prove two-fourths is more than two-sixths?

Hands fly up when Ms. Stewart asks a question.

She takes an anxious breath. Her partner gives her a reassuring pat. We have all seen Luz’s confidence grow this year, but we know she still gets nervous being the center of attention. She starts: “We talked about how two-fourths is a lot of the piece and two-sixths is not very much.”

“How do you know that?” I nudge.

She tilts her head and after a moment begins fidgeting. I try a more specific line of questioning. “What do you mean that two-fourths is a lot of a piece? What are you picturing in your mind?” In her last conference, we noticed Luz performed better on questions she had visual strategies for. I leverage that information now.

“I…” She begins, but it’s obvious that she is flustered, so much so that she probably didn’t hear my question.

“Hard, huh?” I smile at the class and they respond with smiles directed toward me and Luz.

“Luz. You’ve got this.” I repeat the question. Even now, I am tempted to give her a hint or a guiding question. I know just what to say to get her over the hurdle. But if my goal is for Luz to be able to explain her thought process from beginning to end and to justify her problem-solving choices, I know I have to give her space to wrestle with her thinking. I have to stick with her.


But if my goal is for Luz to be able to explain her thought process from beginning to end and to justify her problem-solving choices, I know I have to give her space to wrestle with her thinking.


She exhales and begins. “Two-fourths is two out of four pieces…” Some teammates are leaning forward, slightly out of their seats, willing her to keep going.

“Two out of four looks like half?” The class cheers “yes!” and “yeah!” both with their hands and voices. Luz smiles, knowing she’s on the right track, something about “half” has everyone excited.

“And two out of six is not half. It is less because you need three out of six to make half.”

The class erupts into cheers. Luz is bright red with embarrassment but also pride.

“Way to stick with it, Luz.” She is sitting noticeably taller in her chair, lifted by our belief in her.

As Luz pushes herself beyond what she knew she was capable of, her confidence grows and grows. But to truly empower students to own their learning, we have to look beyond the walls of our classroom and build relationships with their families as well.

Ms. Stewart and her students listen as one of the group shares an idea.

“I’m a lot better at knowing which fraction is bigger now,” Luz says midway through our third parent conference of the year. She opens her fraction unit exam. “I solved them drawing pictures or using halves.” Her parents lean in to study her work.

“Using halves?” her dad asks.

“Yeah,” she answers. “Thirty-two-fiftieths is obviously more than four-tenths. Twenty-five-fiftieths would be one-half and 32 is more than 25 so….” Luz switches fluidly between explaining her work and fielding her parents’ questions.

Flipping the page to a word problem she missed, Luz’s dad looks to me. “We saw on the sticker chart that Luz still hasn’t mastered multi-step word problems and she missed the word problem here, but there aren’t word problems in her homework. What can we do to help her at home and what are you doing in class?”

“I think I could be in your small group when we do word problems,” Luz immediately chimes in. “It really helps me focus.” I agree that’s a great idea and also suggest Luz take home any classwork not completed as extra practice at home with her parents.

Ms. Stewart helps a student work through a problem.

When we arrive at the spiraled review problem that involves multiplication using the “box method,” her parents exclaim, “You got it!” This was the problem Luz led us through in her first conference and that we then practiced as a group so Luz’s parents could help her at home.

“We’ve have been practicing the box method every night,” Luz’s mother says. “We’ve also been working on her math facts like we talked about.”

Her husband joins in. “She knows all of her facts except the 12s.” Luz is beaming. “And she needs a little more practice with her sixes and eights.” Luz nods in agreement.

Looking at a recent quiz, Luz’s dad says approvingly, “You made a 76. You’re getting better every quiz.” Luz’s mom smiles.

“And this test was a lot harder,” Luz exclaims. “I can’t wait to learn decimals.” She and I make eye contact before she turns to her parents. “I don’t know anything about decimals. It’s going to be so hard!”

Luz almost shouts the last statement, full of joy, and we all nod our agreement. Challenge accepted.

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