With 20 days until the start of my 10th year of teaching, I’m feeling the pressure to purge my instruction of anything stale that might have accumulated over the years. I remember as a younger teacher looking pathetically at the veteran teachers who had spent more years perfecting their lesson plans than their own marriages or families. They could turn on the teacher auto-pilot mode and find comfort in the one consistent part of their lives. That was exactly why I didn’t go into teaching, I remember thinking.
So, naturally, I’ve had to hit control-alt-delete this summer to ensure that I don’t just rinse and repeat the same strategies, lessons, and handouts from the year before. I have nine, count ’em, nine courses to teach this fall. Yes, I’ll be raking in the benjamins, but I’ll also be raking in the migranes and the piles of essays to grade. Nine courses might be OK for a ceramics teacher, or a math teacher. But an English composition teacher? Check, please.
I’ve mapped out three of those nine courses for the fall. That leaves me with 20 days to map out the remaining six. My process is pretty simple. I plot out what I want the final to be. Then, I establish the anchor papers (formative assessments). I build in peer review days and socratic discussions. After that, I’m usually left with about 26 days of actual instruction to plan for a Tuesday/Thursday course. A bit more with Monday/Wednesday/Friday courses. I fill in those 26 days with in-class readings, discussions, group activities, and direct instruction on writing skills and working with sources. Usually, I run out of days for the amount of content I want to deliver.
Then comes the syllabus. Back in high school, most of my teachers didn’t even pass one out. In college, it consisted mainly of the required materials and the schedule of assignments for the course. Then came about a gazillion regulations. The college now emails a document to us each semester with all of the required policies (and specific wording) that must be included in the syllabus. Deans and Department Chairs use the instructor’s syllabus as their own shield to deflecting student complaints. “Was it in the syllabus? Yes? Then it’s gospel. Sorry, kid.” And really, that’s fine with me. I’d prefer it that way. But it also means that the instructor better know what to put in that document.
In 2008, my syllabus was 7 pages. Yep. It included every policy and rule that I could think of. The problem? Students didn’t take the time to read it. So I pared it back to 4 pages and organized the information in a more readable format:
But what I had really done was put lipstick on a pig. It was really seven pages of information that I had squeezed into four, thanks to a clever three-column design. In 2012, I went a bit overboard and turned my syllabus into a 4-page magazine layout. I filled it with comic strips, pictures of Bart Simpson writing on the chalkboard, and even a scowling picture of Eric Cartman.
Students embraced it. They even quoted my syllabus to other students when they had questions about course policies and assignments. Mission accomplished. Until one student put on my teacher evaluation that my syllabus was too playful. He even complained to the Dean about it. The picture of Bart Simpson, apparently, was just too much for his squeaky clean eyes. I rolled my eyes at the incident but no doubt committed myself to redesigning my syllabus while preserving the readability that my students embraced. I pared it down to just three pages (actually eliminating content this time), placed more “culturally sensitive and neutral” images in it. And I came up with this:
I think it works. It forced me to examine my own practices, which proves useful for a teacher in the game as long as me. After I finish planning these six courses, it’s a sprint to that first day of school. Summer. Where did you go?