Readers of LLU know that I have posted many times — here and here and here and here — about my belief in the flexible, evolving syllabus. I believe that a syllabus needs to incorporate students’ interests and talents while also following a logical, methodical path from the beginning of the course to the very end of the semester.
Commenters have also noted that backwards design or student-centered syllabi are not new ideas. There’s a lot of scholarship out there on how this can be done. (case in point: Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote a book in 2005 called Understanding by Design, an in-depth discussion of what backward design is and ways it can be accomplished).
And yet it seems like it is an idea that bears repeating over and over as a way to create courses that meet the needs of our students, vs the teachers need for iron-clad organization and structure.
I recently sat in a meeting of teachers where we discussed textbooks… in particular what to use for second year college language class… and many agreed that (not surprisingly) there is no perfect textbook. As one faculty pointed out, publishers that produce college level second year texts are not directing their work specifically to our students. Rather, they are writing these books for the generic audience and to generic interests. And often, given the time it takes to produce a textbook, its not surprising that the content related to current events or culture is also generic…and, to put it gently, less than fresh.
Since no book does it all, what we need/have to do is supplement, and sometimes supplement a lot, the textbook with materials that are relevant and useful to our students. We also need to share those materials with our colleagues with suggestions, comments, warnings whatever needed. How this is done doesn’t really matter (choose your adventure in terms of tools … Blackboard, Google Drive, whatever), what matters is that teachers support each other as they cull and share content.
Repositories are not new ideas. In fact I had an idea for one here and am grateful for the responses received. Other better known repositories of activities and exercises for languages include the ones hosted by LORO, COERLL, MERLOT, and if you teach Spanish… this mega site of links created by Enrique Yepes at Bowdoin College or the OpenLIVES project which is housed inside HumBox are great(feel free to mention others in the comment section!)
The conversation then wandered over to syllabus creation. You need to know what book you are using, one person said, in order to plan your syllabus. I was heartened to hear that others in the group also create syllabi after they know who is in the class, and incorporate pieces and parts of the text after they know their students’ strengths, abilities and interests. Placement tests are imperfect, the thinking went, and students forget pieces and parts of the content taught in the prior semester. Meanwhile, textbooks decide what needs to be taught and in what order based upon a logic that makes sense to them, but not necessarily to the students sitting in the room.
We don’t know what your students truly know, or need to know, until we meet them (ideally, after interviewing them one on one). So, in conjunction with creating and curating shared repositories of teaching materials to help our generic textbooks become more relevant to our students’ interests and current events, we should be simultaneously creating the road maps needed to make that content relevant and helpful to our students.
Our students can participate in this process as well and help us organize and shape the course content. I personally use Google Docs to write my syllabus and I share the editing privileges with my students. Sharing with them makes it possible for them to make comments, ask questions, insert their own ideas as we go along. (Stay tuned: more detailed post on how I used Google Docs and Google Drive last semester coming up…)
Does this mean more work? Yup. A lot, sometimes. Does it mean one syllabus or a series of links might not work from semester to semester? Double yup.
Does it mean that what we teach (and what we use to teach) will be of value to the people we teach? Absolutely.
[Featured image thanks to jmaxtours on Flickr]