A Syllabus Can Say So Much More

By on September 1, 2015

Did you know that your syllabus can say volumes about who you are as a teacher? I learned that this year. I have been writing syllabi since my first year as a high school teacher in 2002. What teachers write in their syllabus matters. Not only do we want to communicate what students will learn, we want them to know who we are and what we believe. (There are many tools out there to help teachers write a good syllabus. Take a look at Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center resource).

For the past 8 years, I have asked my students to read and take notes on my syllabus as their first homework assignment. I ask my students to go online, print the syllabus, and take two pages of notes on the main ideas. This has worked for me in the past. However, this year I have been focused on classroom climate; specifically, I am interested in how climate is connected to my teaching philosophy, class activities, and expectations for behavior and performance. Instead of asking my students to summarize the main ideas found in my syllabus, I asked a completely different question.

What can you say about me and my teaching after reading my syllabus? In other words, what do I care about? What do I believe?

I asked them to write one page of notes that answers this question. This is was a frightening assignment because I didn’t know what they would find. I couldn’t predict what they would say. But it is this type of feedback that makes me a stronger teacher. If my syllabus didn’t match my teaching philosophy and didn’t help me build the strong culture I desired to cultivate in my classroom, I wanted to know. So often I think my students understand what I am saying or trying to do until I ask them. What they hear and what they take away sometimes does not match what I want them to know.

I collected my students notes the third day of school and took them home. Yes, I was grading student work on the third day of school. It could be a sickness. I have to get help.

As I held the stack of student papers, I became nervous. I had no idea what they would say. I had asked my students to communicate back to me who I was as their teacher. Gulp! What I found made me very happy. My syllabus did communicate my beliefs and philosophy. And even better, my students got it! Here is a sampling of what my students wrote in their notes.

He wants us to discuss our thoughts.

You should always challenge yourself.

He cares about organization.

The main goal for this class is to improve our skills.

He wants us to build our technology skills.

I believe he cares very much about each and everyone of us.

He wants us to be ready for high school reading and writing.

He aims high for us to achieve.

He wants us to come to class ready to learn and grow as thinkers.

Mr. LeMaster wants us to be happy in class.

Mr. LeMaster wants us to try our best every day.

He values reading and writing equally.

He believes in the power of collaboration.

I feel Mr. LeMaster cares about his students a lot.

He expects we try our best. Do our best. Never give up.

Mr. LeMaster wants his students to be successful; he explains that one must have determination, work hard, and stay organized in order to effectively learn.

He wants us to learn Language Arts and learn how to be our best selves.

After reading my students notes, I decided that I like this question better than asking my students to summarize the main ideas. This question made my students think. It made them see the purpose behind the work we will do this year. It gave my syllabus more meaning and as it became the blueprint to my classroom culture.

This year, ask your students to read your syllabus in a new way. Try not to go over the rules of the class. Those will be learned over time. Treat your syllabus as a mission statement. It should communicate your values, beliefs, and expectations as well as the content and standards you plan to teach.

Here is a link to my syllabus. It’s not perfect, but I am happy to report that it communicates to my students what I believe. Even better, I asked the right question to help them see it.

Don’t forget to register for LiteracyTA University this fall. We are offering an online class on Evidence-Based Writing. Come join us!

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