Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Don't Fear the Syllabus

My classes somehow get mapped out inside my head as I go for walks, work around the house or read novels. They usually sound pretty good up there. But it’s a joyless chore formalizing these ideas in a syllabus or a lesson plan.
And yet, it’s that time of year again -- probably my more conscientious and better organized colleagues are all done with this task. I’m putting it off to the last second.
Here’s how I make myself finally get to work on these things: I keep in mind that what will actually happen in class, day to day and minute to minute, bears little resemblance to the legalistic language of the syllabus and the standards-laden textspeak of weekly lesson plans.
Both are somewhat similar to the outlines my high-school English teachers made us write before we wrote essays: They gave you a direction to follow as you began the composing process. Unfortunately, back in the 19th-century when I was in school, we were graded on how well our essay followed our outline. Preposterous!
I now think of the outline (and, by extension, the syllabus) in a different way. When I compose, I roughly map out the piece (omitting the Roman numerals, upper case letters, Arabic numerals, etc., because they remind me of high school) chiefly to keep me from freaking out from fear of the unknown as I write each paragraph. With a map, I don’t feel like this: “I know this paragraph is going pretty well, but I have no idea what I’m gonna write about next.”
So the syllabus can be useful in reminding me and trying to convince my students that this class is proceeding according to a plan and it isn't as completely random as it seems. Ditto for the lesson plans.
You and I will not be graded on how our syllabuses match up with our classes, and most schools will give us some leeway on the lesson plans.
When I was trying to keep my high-school essays from saying something I hadn't anticipated in the outline, even my little brain became frustrated, because it hadn't died at the moment of the outline’s creation. It had more interesting things it wanted to talk about!
In the syllabus and in the lesson plans, we project our good intentions. What happens in reality is usually better than that. More about the syllabus later, but for an expansive, moderately well-written discussion of it, see

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