3 Reasons Why I Ditched My Syllabus (And Why You Might Want To, Too)

The status quo for teachers has always been to give out a syllabus during the first few days of school. But is that really the most effective way to start out the year?

syllabus
Good question.

Let’s get right into it.

Here’s why I didn’t give my students a traditional syllabus this year:

1. Syllabi are dull.

We can probably all remember back to high school, undergrad, or maybe graduate school and going in on the first day of classes energized, hopeful, and ready to hit the ground running. Then, we came into our first class only to have our teacher or professor thoroughly read and comment on their syllabus – a black and white document, full of text, somewhere between 2-5 long, boring pages.

For high school students, who might have eight classes a day, they may get eight syllabi on that first day. That’s enough to kill anyone’s energy and hope.

2. Syllabi are intimidating.

When students go in on that first day, they’re in a strange environment – they don’t know the teacher, they don’t know the classroom, and they may not know their classmates. And what is a syllabus? A long list of a whole year’s worth of expectations to meet, assignments to complete, rules to follow, and policies to abide by. Even to the most zealous students, this has to leave many of them overwhelmed, anxious, and deflated.

3. Syllabi don’t work.

Over my years of teaching, I’ve never once heard a student start a sentence with, “It said in the syllabus that…” In fact, I don’t think that I’ve ever heard a student reference any syllabus in any class ever.

What’s worse is that, as teachers, we’ll often use the syllabus later in the year as justification to enforce rarely-used policies with students, when we know full well that students have no idea what’s in it. To students, the syllabus is like the Terms and Conditions that we all agree to when we’re creating accounts online – no one actually knows what’s in them.

And for parents, who often have to co-sign the syllabus, it’s just another school document that they quickly sign so that their kids can be in compliance. If their reactions from when I’ve handed them a syllabus at Open House night are anything to go on, they haven’t exactly done a close reading of it.

An Alternative

Teaching is a relationship-driven pursuit, and as such, relationships should come first. So, for the first three days of school this year, we did nothing but community-building activities in my classroom. I introduced students to my life outside of school, we did icebreakers that don’t suck, completed surveys on students’ interests and learning styles, and collaboratively designed, voted on, and created part of our classroom environment.  

Only after that did we begin to talk about the course. And when we did, it was by showing highlights of the class: cool projects we do, photos from last year of students having fun in the classroom, and activities to look forward to – not reading from a text-heavy document.

When I overheard a student say to her friend that, “I told my mom last night that I was actually looking forward to English class this year,” I was thrilled. I wonder if that same excitement would’ve been there had we started with a long, dry syllabus.

prof-480x500
Don’t be this guy.

As for the rules, policies, and expectations that are usually conveyed with a traditional syllabus? Those will come, and students will have input on them, and they’ll appear throughout the year, not just on the first day.

I used to tell students that my syllabus is a bit like a contract between them and me. And similar to a contract, I even had them sign it.

But in life, who do we have contracts with? Cable companies, mortgage lenders, gyms, and so on – not exactly entities that engender close, intimate relationships like that of teacher and student. So why do we start off the year with what is, for all intents and purposes, a formal contract?

So I’ve come to agree with the man in the illustration at the top: Why do we even write a syllabus?

Turns out, we don’t have to.

Have any other alternatives to a traditional syllabus? Leave them in the comments below!  

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3 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why I Ditched My Syllabus (And Why You Might Want To, Too)

    1. Yes! The infographic syllabus is definitely a step in the right direction and I’ve seen some very cool examples of them. Definitely more effective than pages of “fine print” for students to read. Also, “procedural blitz” – love that and will be using it myself!

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  1. I pity the fool who signs any document, or or clicks “I Agree To These Terms & Conditions,” without reading- and fully understanding- every word.

    Yes, of course I thoroughly read syllabi in high school before signing them. I recall reading, while teachers stood awkwardly, apparently having trouble understanding what I was doing, as I would still be staring at the lengthy document with which they had presented me not 2 minutes earlier. Yes, I can see you’ve already re-collected from the rest of the class (usually in order to check off some meaningless “2 points” for completing the ‘assignment’ of signing the syllabus before dealing those 8.5″ ×11″ Joker playing cards back to each student). What am I doing? Why, I am reading that which you have asked me to read. How can I sign this document, confirming my agreement, without first ensuring I understand that to which I am to agree?

    Well, does that really make any difference? Is that not just a snarky way of wasting time? No matter what, students have to sign it anyways, so why not sign and read it at a better time?

    I did not have to sign a syllabus if I did not agree with all of the comically pompous clauses presented within the document. Now, do understand- my disagreement with this or that particular detail written in a syllabus was not to become a spectacle of contrarianism for the amusement of a class comprised primarily of sheeple. Rather, I would request to schedule a brief meeting, or, if acceptable, an email conversation, for the purpose of identifying for my teacher the specific phrases and or sentences which I did not find acceptable. I would be prepared to explain to my teacher exactly why I did not agree to specific terms found in the syllabus, and would warmly offer to negotiate a compromise to the ends of reaching mutual understanding and satisfaction.

    For example, I did not agree to never get up to go to the drinking fountain or the washroom; nor would I agree to raise my hand to ask if I may go to the drinking fountain or the washroom.

    I explained to many of my high school teachers that asking to leave the classroom during class is unnecessarily disruptive. I did not wish to I interrupt a lecture, throw a teacher out of the ‘zone,’ or disrupt or students, simply to announce I would be leaving the classroom and returning shortly.

    I assured my teachers that I was not one to abuse permission to leave the classroom- and I explained why I could be trusted in this matter. To put it simply, I preferred to utilize my government-required class time to learn from a professional teacher, over spending that time which I was kept captive in the school building anyway doing not much of anything. I did not wish to spend far more time studying for assignments and exams than necessary because I had missed the opportunity to be taught by a professional teacher (though, man, there is such an enormous range of degrees of competence and general attitudes among school teachers, you know it’s all too true), and so would have to learn the material by teaching it to myself- before I could even begin studying (i.e. reinforcing, or synonym; bulking up the ol’ neurotransmitter routes). Class time, tedious as it was at times, was best spent learning; that way I could use my free time…freely.

    I did not agree to ask permission to leave the classroom, nor did I agree to provide a reason for leaving the classroom, during class, to my teachers. I do not, nor have I ever, had to legitimize my use of a water fountain nor the brief absence from the classroom inherent to visiting a water fountain. If I went to the water fountain, it is because I required hydration; therefore, asking if I may use the water fountain would have been an entirely unnecessary, bureaucratic formality and waste of time.

    Why was asking permission to go to the water fountain pointless to me? It would not matter to me if a teacher denied me permission to go to the water fountain when uncomfortably thirsty; dehydration happens alarmingly frequently, reduces cognitive capacities much more rapidly and severely than we ever realize, and can result in multitudinous medical complications if not rectified. If a pet dog, or a literal workhorse, expressed desire to drink water, would one deny permission to the animal to pause the activity in which the animal was engaged and access fresh water? The correct answer is No. When I felt the need to exit the classroom to drink water in high school, no teacher was going to limit my right to do so. Few teachers asked why I had gotten up to leave. Rare was the specimen who dared tell me,

    “No, you may not go to the water fountain,”

    a laughable assertion, not to mention, categorically ineffective:

    After approaching my teacher, so as to locate myself close enough to speak quietly, and with my back turned to curious classmates, I would provide my standardized (WHOA- see what I did there?) response to my new(-ish) teacher…

    “Yes, I may. I sincerely speak to you now with the utmost regard for you as my teacher, and as a fellow person. I am thirsty, so I am now going to the water fountain. I will return shortly, in all proprietous haste- and not a moment sooner. You, on the other hand, have a classroom of students to whom you ought be presently attending. I understand your legal role to act in loco parentis, and your possible liability concerns. In good faith, please trust me, in order to minimize further potential class disruption. I truly hope you understand I intend to convey nothing less than great respect to you; I know I merit a minimum degree of respect from you in return.”

    Despite having no Japanese heritage, nor deliberate adoptions of traditional Asian cultural mannerisms, I inevitably always ended this statement with a shallow, unhurried, straight-spined, downward-looking, well-postured, bow from the waist. It is definitely the result of body-language mimicry from in-person interactions with citizens of Japan and American citizens born in Japan. I don’t know why I automatically utilized this gesture in the manner described above, other than because it serves as a respectful indication that I have finished speaking and begun to take my leave. Though perennially a mutually unexpected gesture, I do not doubt that it may have been somewhat disarming, and likely a habit which worked in my favor.

    As one might be able to guess, my own policy regarding leaving class to visit the restroom during high school was nearly identical to that of leaving class to visit a water fountain. The only fundamental difference was that the rare, naïve, soul who would ask what I was doing as I stood up to leave the classroom- and try, but fail, to stop me- would not outright deny me permission. Instead, the teacher (in these cases, the teacher was very nearly always male) would pose an inquiry regarding my degree of urgency, and if I could just wait until class was over…

    “No,” I would say, while placing a -secondary- pencil case before me on my desk. Every student got the message by this point.

    “Realllly? How could it be such a serious matter?” Oh, the poor fool. I might as well make it properly memorable, so he will learn from his embarrassment the first time, and consequently, avoid asking any female student the same question ever again.

    A deliberate pause. A brief silence to draw the attention of every student in the classroom to our dialogue.

    A rise in posture.
    An insistently held- gripped- eye contact.
    An indulgent, slowly spreading grin.
    A physically subtle- yet psychologically bold- lift in one eyebrow.

    “Shall I explain to you the detailed mechanisms and physiology of females of reproductive age? Or would you prefer to retract the question, so I can be on my way?”

    Needless to say, the question was always retracted by the suddenly-rosy-complexioned teacher, in every case.

    Oh, and with the roar of giggling applause from my classmates, I brought the house down.

    A teacher should consider his or her classroom policies carefully- including a critical evaluation of whether or not each policy is truly necessary.

    Beware: a 4.0 GPA, across-the-board AP course, clever little snot, might just call your bluff in following your Super Official Rules.

    Oui, Cèsar. Moi, Bruté. Moi, le plus du tout!

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