What Story Does Your Syllabus Tell?

Recently, a colleague of mine shared a a post with me, “Steps Towards a Big Idea Syllabus.” The larger blog that this seems to be a part of, My Teaching Notebook, doesn’t seem to be getting regular updates. Too bad. It looks like it has tons of good content to sift through. However, read the post and go dig through the site. It’s worth your time..

The Big Idea post has really helped me in thinking about what I want my online courses for next year to be about. I’ll be teaching one course per semester, and both will be fully online. They are essentially masters courses in adolescent literacy. The idea is to get classroom teachers to think about what it means to develop literacy abilities of adolescent and how to teach them in ways that support it.

Previously, I noted that I had identified some great books I could use for the courses. This was still the case, but I had gotten stuck thinking through what I wanted students to learn. Enter the Big Idea post which states:

Start with Who not What: “Who are my students and who do they need to become?” rather than “What content should I cover?”

Granted, I do not know my students at all. I’m currently not even living in the state they reside in. But I took this nugget of thinking about transformation and used it to launch my planning rather than stay hyper-focused on content and objectives (which I think get in the way anyways).

The author also talked about seeing your syllabus as a journey and explicitly creating a story line which you would then share with your students. I loved this idea, but I had no idea what story I wanted to tell. So I picked up one of the books I had identified — a more comprehensive text on adolescent literacy — and used it to launch my story.

What I Did

I first did some pretty traditional stuff. I had mapped out weeks for the course, and then I started organizing what chapters we might read from this one book for the fall semester. Since this is really a year long course, I decided to split the fall semester into two chunks. The first chunk would focus on the question, “Who are adolescent readers and writers?” and the second would address, “What is adolescent literacy.” I thought it would be important to understand adolescents as people first, and expand our understandings of their literacy practices, before tackling the concept of adolescent literacy. Once I knew what date ranges these questions would correspond with I then identified readings from the textbook.

After I identified the readings, I began to write my story. The Big Idea post will show you an example, and I followed it. For each week, I had one-two sentences that told my story. In two cases we spent two weeks with the same story line. I ended up only writing the story line for the first half of the semester before I needed a break. Here it is:

Adolescent Literacy: Understanding Who Adolescents Are & What Their Literacy Practices Look Like

Week One: Adolescents’ culture and identities influence how they engage with reading and writing and shape their experiences in school.

Weeks Two and Three: Their culture and identities lead them to engage with a variety of literacy practices often not sanctioned by schools.

Week Four: Families and communities often shape and enhance both academic and personal (out-of-school) literacy practices.

Weeks Five and Six: Some students have drastically different experiences in school based on their culture, language, and how schools identify and position them.

Changing the Readings

While I found the book helpful in getting my story launched (remember this is a new course for me; if I was doing this with a course I knew well I could probably craft a story line right now based on the last syllabus), when I was done I realized I didn’t need the book in it’s entirety. Once I had the story mapped out, I could see where some chapters from the text would make sense but now I had a much better plan for identifying other readings. I also reordered some things as I wrote the story. The initial lay out that I thought made sense — in terms of topics and what we would focus on — worked better with some reordering based on the story I want my students to experience.

What’s Next

Next up will be finishing the story for the semester. I’ll then start to work a little bit on identifying readings that fit in with the story. From there, I will expand out to assignments and additional support structures an online course will require. I hope to have the story completed to share in my next post.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago