A queasy ride on the ‘sylla-bus’
Monday, August 26, 2019
When I was in Hebrew school, I learned to read basic Hebrew. When I attended services at shul (synagogue), I could follow the Hebrew text. All these years later, I can still muddle my way through basic Hebrew. But I have no idea — and have never had any idea — what I am reading.
I was never taught vocabulary, so there was nothing for me to comprehend save for the sounds that the letters and vowels made when joined, and because the language was not conversationally spoken, I had no way of internalizing vocabulary, meaning, or grammar through the communicative approach. The man leading the course was not a trained language teacher; he was a native Hebrew speaker, a good-hearted 20-something who was putting himself through medical school by spending his Sundays doing his best to help a handful of children in a remote area of New Jersey learn a bit about Judaism and a bit about Hebrew and to prepare us for our Bar or Bat Mitzvot.
Moreover, other than knowing I am Jewish and was supposed to be in Hebrew school, I didn’t know why I was there. In this proverbial nutshell is the fundamental difference between reading and comprehension and the imperative for appreciating purpose.
As I’ve found again and again, regardless of the program, state, or country in which I teach, the lack of comprehension and appreciation of purpose are the fundamental dilemmas students have when presented with a syllabus, or, failing a syllabus, when starting any course at any level. Even the term syllabus can be a mystery. When I studied American Sign Language, I learned a slang sign for syllabus — “silly bus” — and indeed, that certainly seems like an apt description.
If the course has a syllabus, (although required by universities and colleges, syllabi are generally not required for other levels), the syllabus can seem impenetrable, particularly if it is instructor and/or program determined and especially to first-year students, "On the first day of school, for the most part, [students] are basically still high-school students,” who may have never previously encountered a syllabus, have no idea what the term syllabus means, and have no idea what the purposes of a syllabus are or what to do with one, which means that too often, the indispensable document is stuffed in a folder, book bag, or book (for another course), buried under a mess on a desk, or worst of all, thrown in the circular file.
Therefore, all students will benefit from a lesson dedicated to the syllabus. For ELLs and nontraditional students, it may be particularly useful for teachers to create a syllabus lesson designed to deconstruct what may be a flabbergasting and often hefty document but one that is elemental and critical.
A lesson on the syllabus? Really? Isn’t this enabling at its worst? When do students become independent? And won’t a syllabus lesson consume invaluable, and often inadequate, time needed for content study?
Yes, really, a lesson on the syllabus; no, it is not enabling by any means; and the syllabus is content. Students — all of us as lifelong learners, at any age and at any level of education — are learning, building the scaffolding necessary to function (relatively) independently. “No [one] is an island entire of itself/every [one] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” poet, parliamentarian, and cleric John Donne aptly observed almost 400 years ago.
As teachers, we are vital resources in helping our students build the scaffolding they need and will rely upon for the rest of their lives. Before students can appreciate any course content, they need to appreciate the syllabus and course purposes as well as both their own and their teacher’s responsibilities to the course. “[...] A well-structured syllabus [...] also invites students to take responsibility for their own learning.”
We should want our students to grasp the gravity of our course and all stakeholders’ roles in it. “Faculty should plan to have the first class day or days as one(s) of rigor in methodically reviewing the syllabus with students. It is important to be intentionally thorough in engaging students in questions and comments.” Kevin Gannon, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University, concurs, “Whether by accident or design, the pedagogical decisions we collectively make about the first day of our classes have conditioned students to expect nothing more than a syllabus (which they will likely leave unexamined for the rest of the semester) [...].
Gannon incisively observes, “If we lament that students never check the syllabus during the semester, well, what was their first impression of that document? If we are frustrated that students don’t take class discussion seriously, did we convey its importance when we introduced the class?”
What, then, should we do? What makes for an effective syllabus lesson? Let’s examine some syllabus activities to absolutely avoid followed by those you can use and/or adapt.
How many teachers have read the syllabus to their students and then asked, “Are there any questions?” only to be met with confused and overwhelmed silence.
“I used to read through it aloud on the first day of class. However, not only is that tedious, but there are often students who join later,” Prof. Charlotte Kent recalls. Many of us can relate to Gannon’s recollection of his painful undergraduate experiences, “When I was an undergraduate, I sat through many a class where we spent an excruciating several minutes listening to a list of don’ts from an instructor who treated us like unwelcome distractions rather than college students — and that was before the prevalence of laptops, cell phones, and other mobile devices in the classroom.”
What does reading the syllabus to your students accomplish? What does reviewing a slideshow of the key points accomplish? What do your students comprehend? What can they do with the syllabus? Probably as much as I could with Hebrew: nothing meaningful. And do your students even know why they are taking your course?
If you ask them, as I have asked my students, you’re likely to get a response reminiscent of why I thought I was in Hebrew school: because I have to. An effective syllabus lesson will mitigate students’ confusion, help them function independently, and provide them the authentic reasons that they are enrolled in your course.
Over the years, teachers who know the folly of reading the syllabus to their students or reviewing a slideshow with them have employed various approaches to grab students’ attention about the document. Columbia University classics assistant professor Joseph A. Howley hid an “Easter egg” in his syllabus: Planted mid-document, Prof. Howley “snuck in a line in the middle of the document asking students to email him a picture of the character Alf from the popular ′80s sitcom “ALF” — with the subject line, "It’s Alf!" Although he received some responses, the overall experiment results were “dismal,” but Howley believes that his strategy served to encourage students to read closely.
While a novel approach, the questions remain: What did his students comprehend about the syllabus content? What does it mean to read closely? Moreover, as Zamudio-Suarez notes, the “Easter egg” approach is not efficacious in the long run because future students will be primed to look for the hidden message, whether it be ALF or something else; skimming and scanning the document obviates the need to read closely just as it precludes the need for accurate — if any — comprehension or skills transfer.
Kevin Gannon prefers a “a mindful approach to planning that first day of class.” Unfortunately, teachers often limit the first class of each course to the few minutes it takes to distribute the syllabus and cover some “housekeeping stuff.” It is precious time wasted, Gannon argues. Instead, he suggests, the first day of the semester should be used to model the course expectations and activities that students will encounter throughout the semester.
If, for example, the course relies on discussion, one activity to include is Think-Pair-Share. The first class is also one in which students and teacher can get to know one another and teachers can demonstrate their “tone and style” while working with students to consider the “exciting, weird, intriguing, or controversial” issues and topics the course will explore and examine.
Additionally, give students the opportunity to interact with the syllabus, be it with anonymous feedback (many of Angelo and Cross’ CAT or their adaptations work well) or by having students work together to identify questions or points of confusion in the syllabus. I’ve found that many students, often nervous and hesitant on Day 1, are willing to participate when they’re working with at least one other student because their affective filters are reduced when they have a partner.
Increasingly, schools are posting syllabi, materials, and assignments on LMS, so unless teachers require students to print the syllabus and bring it to class or the program requires that teachers distribute syllabus hard copies in addition to having them on the LMS, teachers need to find other techniques to help students understand the syllabus.
Kent requires that her students read the online syllabus and email her. “They must reply with interpretations of information presented in the syllabus, as well as simple facts.” Prof. Kent also uses the activity to present a netiquette lesson.
Just as schools are increasingly using LMS, the number of exclusively online courses is growing robustly, with “a third of all [postsecondary] students” taking a minimum of one online course. Exclusively online courses do not have to minimize or prohibit group or pair work; I’ve taken online courses and frequently had group and pair activities and assignments.
While they present particular challenges, they can reap great rewards, especially at the start of the semester with activities that examine the syllabus. Pair and group activities used online serve the same purposes that they do in brick and mortar classrooms, but they do more: they allow students to apply their prior technological knowledge and gain new skills from their partners, thereby placing the responsibility for learning on the students, which is key to their success.
The most engaging approach to syllabus introduction I’ve found comes from Midland College. It is a lighthearted and clever video, far more effective than the teacher’s droning refrain, “It’s in your syllabus.” The video sets a relaxing and amusing classroom tone, putting students at ease on the first day of the course.
For ELLs, the video offers an opportunity to introduce the term “ad libs,” and for any audience, it invites students to write their own lyrics, which is a terrific activity for getting and keeping students’ attention and involves them in creating a meaningful mini-project in which they can demonstrate their comprehension of and appreciation for the syllabus.
“When you kick off a new topic or lesson, really hook your students with music,” asserts teacher librarian Shannon McClintock Miller. “Music will reinforce new information. It can be paired with other resources, such as non-fiction and research, to provide guiding questions and bring new concepts to life.” Couple the syllabus video with critical reading and response activities, and then rejoice in the success you have in conveying the syllabus’ relevance and usefulness.
I introduce my syllabus as a resource document, analogous to a map/GPS, a dictionary, or a search engine. To begin the syllabus lesson, I present students with this: You and your friends are planning a one-week vacation.
How many people will go? When will you go (time of year; why go then)? Where will you go? Why will you go there (e.g., specific activities; proximity; cost)? How will you get there (bus, train, car? transportation schedules; cost)? How much money will you need? Where will you stay (Airbnb, VRBO, motel, hotel, friends’ or family member’s place)? And what will you use to gather the information you need to answer these questions?
I give students time to prepare their trip, but they don’t have to answer all of the questions or have a complete plan. They need enough time and information to understand the analogy I’m about to present, so typically, 10-15 minutes is ample; I prefer to take my cue from my students’ vociferousness or quiet.
Next, I ask students to share their trip plans, and I emphasize where they found the information they needed. Then, I segue into the syllabus. How, I ask, can the syllabus help you plan a successful trip? What is the trip the syllabus will help you take? What could make your trip unsuccessful? Complete the analogy: A syllabus is like a __________________ (Ask students to explain the analogy they’ve chosen. It should be original and not “a syllabus is like a map/GPS”).
After we discuss students’ responses — often profound and surprising — I ask students to do a number of activities similar to those Kent uses. And then I assign syllabus homework: In order to prepare for an open-syllabus quiz, students are to carefully read the syllabus, respond to questions with interpretative answers, take notes, write questions on anything that they need clarified, and bring their interpretations, notes, questions, and syllabus to the next class.
In the next class, we review the interpretations, and I answer the questions and address any syllabus issues or concerns. The in-class and homework activities introduce them to (or review) close reading and critical thinking.
Then, I administer the open syllabus quiz. It is an open-syllabus quiz because I want students to become familiar with using the syllabus, the same way they use any resource. Some questions require simple facts for answers, such as: What is the name of your instructor? Where is your instructor’s office? Where does this class meet? What is the title of this course? What days and times does your instructor hold office hours?
Some questions are multiple choice, some are T/F/not given, some are fill-in-the-blank or short answer, and some are matching. Regardless of the question format, for each answer students must identify the page number and section for where they found the information.
For students who join class later, I ask them to do the work with other students who have joined after the first class. If only one student joins later, they can work with me during my office hours. The quiz serves a number of purposes: It requires students to use the syllabus to glean valuable information, it requires students to read closely and respond critically, it introduces them to the type of quizzes I give, and, for students who have not taken the preparatory activities seriously and assume that an open-syllabus quiz will be a breeze (it is not), it teaches the merit of preparation.
All of the syllabus activities identified here can be adapted to suit courses that are K-12, which typically do not have syllabi. The key to adapting is for teachers to creatively help students appreciate and internalize how to use the syllabus, the course purposes, the course requirements, students’ responsibilities, and teachers’ responsibilities.
In courses without syllabi, ask students, “What do you think we’ll do this year (or in this course)? Why are you here? What do you want to do in this class? Why do you want to do those things? What do you want to learn? What do you think you’ll have to do in this course?”
Teachers must be ready for some surprising and astute student responses (out of the mouths of babes, oft times come gems, indeed) and have approaches to guide students toward the answers. Younger students can draw pictures or tell stories to demonstrate they understand; older students can create their own syllabus song, rap, or poem, or they can illustrate the syllabus’ main points; even better, they can combine genres to demonstrate their comprehension and skills transfer.
Taking an appealing, interactive, and thought-provoking syllabus adventure will save you and your students another queasy ride on the “silly bus” express to frustration and failure.
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