Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Teacher's Safety Net

Barbara Ganley has another great post (via Will Richardson) where she discusses how she will open the semester in her college (Middlebury) writing class:
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.


  1. I agree that a syllabus is a marginal tool, at best .I also admit that I continue to put one together for my honors classes because I felt it to be an expectation from some of the other "Honors" teachers as well as Administration. I believe that we were reminded by e-mail just days ago to turn in our course expectations/syllabus to RB ...when it shows up in this way it seems to be an expectation. We have also been directed to mirror what Science has done in most of their courses by laying out the entire semester assignments, quizzes , uniformed tests and test dates etc. Perhaps I've misunderstood the message ( but I think not)that seemed to be the driving force in many course level meetings last year. Now we have a "constructionist" view that would seem to contradict such a practice at various levels. This is in no way meant as a jab at the organization of our science folks. I really do consider my teaching more constructionist than not but we do get some mixed messages.

  2. Karl articulated so well why I embrace the PLC model. We put so much emphasis on what we are going to teach (I include myself in that we) rather than emphasizing what the kids need to learn. One of the things the essential learnings model advocates is formative understanding. In my English lit. class, for example, one of the essential learnings cultivating voice in narrative writing. I gave them a writing prompt that asked them to demonstrate this on the first day of class, then two weeks ago, and their college essays are due on Wed. This way, I can tell what they need to learn and work on based on strengths and deficiencies in each step of the process. So far, I have found it to be a really positive experience and I think the kids have too. They know the direction that I am going and they have an opportunity to grow with that goal in mind. I am definitely not all the way there, but reflecting on what my class's essential learnings are has helped to make my practice more in line with my beliefs and goals about being a teacher.

  3. What it seems more and more teachers are doing on the "syllabi" are posting their policies, not an outline of the course. This is what I have done and I have changed it to read "Class Policies" at the top. Then, depending upon what my students' strengths and weaknesses are, I can adapt the curriculum as needed.

  4. I would like to add a couple of other observations regarding this post and some other thoughts on constructionism. The example used in the post "Safety net"is poor for comparison to our situation at AHS for some rather obvious reasons: 1) She is working with a more mature group of "students", 2) her class size = 15 ,3) there is no mention of national/ state or Institutional curriculum standards and 4)no MAP,CSAP,ACT or SAT concerns would apply. It really is not an apples to apples comparison, now is it. With this being stated and looking at Constructionist theorists ( and remember I believe myself to be a practical member)contend that the teacher should act as mediator allowing student driven choices and questions to direct learning and class control ??? 32-34 students per class, various levels of maturity and intelligence, Various State and District curricular demands as well as MAP,CSAP,ACT and SAT. The question becomes "does constructionism align with these demands"? If so please explain. If not, then the next question seems to be "will the top-down decision making powers ever give up that power to, what appears to be, a grassroots movement"?

  5. Jerry, interesting observations and all serious issues to consider. A few thoughts.

    1. Constructivism is a theory of how people learn – regardless of age. It applies from pre-K through post graduate work.

    2. If we believe that constructivist approaches help children learn, it will ultimately improve their performance on required tests.

    3. If we believe that constructivism is an accurate model of how people learn, a constructivist approach will meet the needs of 32-34 diverse learners in a classroom better than a traditional approach will.

    4. If we believe our job is to help our students learn and achieve to their potential, then maybe “the demands” are what need to change.

  6. I "pledge allegiance" to the Ganley post and Fisch's thoughts. What hinders my approach to these ideas? Am I fearful? Should I take calculated teaching risks? This suggests such a thrilling challenge with a heavy dose of forethought. Furthermore, modeling is such a powerful teaching method and "continual learning" remains a humbling task for me. Thanks for daring me to think and "carry the flag" for a time.

  7. You and readers might like this post by former university teacher, James Atherton: On the Perfect Lesson