It's quite harrowing when I really think about what I am about to do --construct the syllabus with the students as we go and remove grades as much as possible --because it runs counter to what everyone around me does. I am about to pitch the teacher's safety net--a tight syllabus--out the window. I am about to pitch fifteen students into freefall, into discovering with me what it is they need to learn and not what I, without having met them, think they need to know about writing for the college classroom. That involves my asking them challenging questions, and helping them to be deep readers of all kinds of texts. I've been moving towards this class for five years now, and it will take all my skill as listener and facilitator, as teacher, to pull it off. And that's as is should be. If I'm not growing and challenging myself every semester to be a better teacher, then how can I ask my students to challenge themselves?Barbara consistently blogs about the ideas we talk about in our staff development and often articulates what I wish I could. This post is mostly me thinking out loud, so bear with me.
- The syllabus as safety net.
- Discovering with her students what they need instead of presuming to know without ever having met them.
- Challenging ourselves (as teachers) to become better every semester - or how can we ask our students to do the same.
Now, I'm not advocating that we all throw out our syllabi. And after reading through the comments on her post, I don't think Barbara is completely throwing it out either. But she's giving her students a voice in the direction the class goes, she's challenging them to really become involved in their own education, to think about "what matters" as Anne and Jess are asking their students to do. And that's what we're trying to do with our staff development as well. But it's the idea of "syllabus as safety net" that rings true to me. It's something safe and tangible to hold onto, even if it isn't any good. To look at the two extremes, is a horrible syllabus better than no syllabus at all? Can we have an overall plan for our classes without structuring them so much because we have to "cover the curriculum" that we completely kill the joy of learning? Can we have a balance of "essential learnings" that we want out students to get with the flexibility to have one section learn some different things than another section of the same class - because that's what the students in those particular sections need?
A big part of constructivism is the idea that all learners come to a new topic with some preconceived ideas that must be addressed in order for them to incorporate any new ideas. So how can we presume to completely structure our courses before we even know the students? Yes, I know this is terribly impractical and awfully difficult to implement, but isn't there some room to acknowledge and act upon this basic fact? As we get to know our students each semester, can we not say to ourselves - and our colleagues - that this set of students needs something a little different the set I had last semester (or even that first period needs something a little different than fourth period)?
If we are not learning and growing and challenging ourselves as educators, how can we ask our students to do so? If we tell them how important life-long learning is, can we complain about the concept of PLC's without being hypocrites? Yes, I know sometimes the way PLC's are implemented is deserving of criticism, but that doesn't mean we can't do our best to make them worthwhile and productive. We ask our students to be open to new ideas, yet so often we are closed to them. We need to be open-minded. We need to truly open our minds to the possibilities.
And - sometimes - we need to operate without a net.