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?
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.
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.
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!