Struggling with the Syllabus

This entry is part 36 of 48 in the series Teaching Transparently

The Tango

with thanks to Pisces Dreamer for the permission to use this Flickr pic
January 31, 2009: It’s the Saturday night before the second semester begins and once again I am awash in panic. Well, I guess it is not as much panic as it is (once again) pushing myself to try and do things differently, to try and create a Spanish conversation class that has clear objectives, identifiable outcomes, and of course, a coherent grading policy that can evaluate students evolving oral proficiency in Spanish over time.

Yep, it’s the Saturday night before the semester begins and that can mean only one thing: I am having syllabus panic.

I am anticipating the looks of confusion and concern in the faces of my students when I explain my (fervent) belief that this class is intended to address their needs, their developing competencies in the language…and no one else’s predetermined idea of what constitutes a conversation class. That this class needs to get them ready for the world around them, the world many of them want to explore via study abroad, travel. internships, life. That the amount that they grow in this class is equal to the amount of time they invest in the language. My job is to nudge, push, prod them towards their goals.

My struggle, yet again, is about balance: between modeling effective practices and all-out directing and dictating… between creating a syllabus that is like an Arthur Murray Dance routine with predetermined steps and turns and an open ended “wonder what would happen if we just stopped and talked about this here?” freefall experience…between snorkeling through the content and deep water scuba diving in the sharktank of learning.

Knowing that my students will have had many a teacher/textbook/syllabus directed language class in the past (“if it is Tuesday then this must be the preterite”), I am worried about scaring them off in the first class, the first week. I have been quite up front about the tools we will use in the class and how I hope they will approach these things. And I plan to explain in the first class the rationale for creating more contact time in the language using these technologies. And re-iterating that that this is not a tech class it is a Spanish conversation class (and for that reason any tech support, training will be done in English not Spanish)

Actually, it’s not the tools that I think will unnerve them. I think it is the fact that they will be asked, from the get go, to define for themselves what they want this class to look like, feel like. Each of them has chosen this class for a reason, for a purpose. This class is not obligatory and it is not a prerequisite for anything. They made a choice to be here. Am I crazy to believe that I can weave their wants and desires together and craft a schedule of events that will give them the time, the space, the support they need to make their personal learning outcomes happen?

It’s the weekend before the semester begins. Students are dribbling back to campus. Music is blaring from dorms, sledding parties are being formed, the local watering hole is packed to capacity. Meanwhile, I am sitting here, plotting, fretting, and hoping that once I meet them and hear their stories, once we begin to learn more about each other, once (fingers crossed) we create our own wee learning community, it will be the beginning of a really interesting journey: for me as well as for them.

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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Pete S. · February 1, 2009 Reply

    Has the panic passed yet? It is actually a good sign, in my increasingly-humble opinion.

    After several years of reading Barbara Ganley, Mary Rose O’Reilly, and posts like yours, I am (finally!) reaching the conclusion that the unease, the fretting, the curricular tension that comes in the making of a creative, educational space–are all signs of the sort of progressive, connected, more holistic classroom and learning that interests so many of us. You wouldn’t be in a state of nerves at all if you were busy planning and recreating that wonderful set of Tuesday lectures on the preterite, or preparing for Gerund Fridays.

  2. Shannon Spasova · February 2, 2009 Reply

    I find planning the syllabi for my grammar classes (Russian) much easier than for the conversation classes, for the exact reasons that you point out. Probably these are the same reasons that there are many more materials out there for grammar classes. Thanks for putting your syllabi out there – I took a look at the syllabus that you posted for your conversation class. It seems that my conversation class has many of the same elements, but it is nice to be able to see others’ works in progress to get some new ideas about how to tweak my syllabus.

    • bsawhill · February 3, 2009 Reply


      Yes well it is not as much a syllabus as it is a road map, but I am glad that it made sense to you.

      Tomorrow will be class #2. Class #1 = a room full of quiet, stunned bunnies w/me talking (oh did I mention that the network wasn’t working? oh yes, that was exciting! …and a fine time to practice the subjunctive “if the network were not down, on this screen you would see…” )

      Class #2 should be different. I fully expect (and want) them to challenge me. We will be talking about Freire’s “banking concept” of education and I hope that gets a few people talking.

      I agree: teaching a grammar class is infinitely easier. Teaching with a textbook is so much easier. But do they LEARN the language? That… I don’t know.

      One of my student workers failed out of our second semester Spanish course a few years back. He told me he sat in on the same course the first day of this semester, just to give it another try. About 2 years has passed between now and then… and he was amazed to see that nothing NOTHING had changed in the class. It was the same book, the same syllabus…everything. He was crestfallen. I was saddened.

      We owe it to our students to take a look at what we do and how we do it, and to ask the hard questions about whether what we are doing is the most effective way of making learning happen.


  3. The Backwards Syllabus | Language Lab Unleashed! · March 15, 2010 Reply

    […] hyper-managed “if it is Tuesday we will be doing this” sort of syllabus. And yes,as in the past I was worried that I might be making a mistake. The nagging voices returned…Would I be less […]

  4. The Backwards Syllabus · January 9, 2012 Reply

    […] hyper-managed “if it is Tuesday we will be doing this” sort of syllabus. And yes,as in the past I was worried that I might be making a mistake. The nagging voices returned…Would I be less […]

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