Starting off Right: Writing a Pro-Student Syllabus

Chris McNutt
July 28, 2019
The words we use to structure our syllabus can have a lasting first impact on how students view our class. Intentionally or not, the verbiage and wording of our attitude toward students is reflected in our writing.

The words we use to structure our syllabus can have a lasting first impact on how students view our class. Intentionally or not, the verbiage and wording of our attitude toward students is reflected in our writing. Last December, I wrote of the many issues found within classroom syllabi, and I want to dig deeper into what we should be writing. (The following quotes are taken from that piece.)

Of course, all of this should be tailored to your classroom — there are simple changes that mean a lot (especially when we use this to outline our own philosophies in practice.)

Student First Language

School is not a prison. We should not treat our students as if they’ve preemptively done something wrong. Detrimental tone is commonplace:

If this is the first impression students have of your class, how do you think they’ll judge you? No person wants to be put down or assumed to be doing something wrong, and I’d highly disrespect those who initially disrespect me. There’s absolutely no reason to judge students. (Notably, even if they have done something wrong. School is a place of learning, which goes beyond memorizing traditional academics.) To presume students don’t want to learn or that they will dislike your classroom policies mirrors your distaste for student behavior and self-image of the course’s procedures.

Instead, we can craft syllabi that value students for who they are.

Classroom Expectations

During this course, you will expect to encounter, question, and empathize. Most of this course is in your hands. You will guide, cooperate, and compromise to ensure each project is successful. Throughout, we will always ensure that we work together to find solutions that are realistic and also, not patronizing or demeaning. It is expected that you will respect your classmates, your community, me, and yourself.

Due to our limited class time, it’s expected that you stick to your work as much as possible. If there’s ever any concerns or personal issues going on, please let me know (it doesn’t need to be specific!) so we can come up with an action plan going forward.

Please ask questions! If you don’t know what to do next or have a concern, reach out.

Our classroom will be tolerant of each other and each other’s viewpoints. We all come from different backgrounds. We do not discriminate because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or sexual orientation, economic situation, or handicap with regards to treatment. Harassment and hurtful comments will not be tolerated.

These expectations are firm and direct, yet not patronizing. I’m not insinuating that students are going to do anything wrong — but I’m setting firm guidelines on how this class will operate. Further, I use language that establishes myself as a partner — a friend — who is there to help, not judge. I want to explicitly state that I will help them in times of need, and I’m not going to be upset if they’re behind on work or need extra assistance. Again, school is not a job, it is not prison — it is a place to learn — and it is my goal to find solutions that work for students.

I place an emphasis on tolerance and cooperation to center classroom policy and expectation on the group rather than on me. I don’t police my classroom because I want power over my students, I want them to keep each other in line to maintain mutual respect. Again, I am not making judgement calls of my students nor “pre-calling them out.” Nothing feels worse than someone assuming that you’re doing something wrong because of your age or past behavior.

We must be very careful of using the phrases “it is a privilege” or “your responsibility.” What power differential are we establishing when we police what is a privilege and what is a responsibility?

Student First Responsibilities

There is absolutely no reason to restrict bathroom access. Even young children are more than capable of using the bathroom on their own. If the tracking of students is an issue with administration, find the most efficient and nonjudgmental way of letting students “go.” It’s an utterly absurd and dehumanizing policy to shame students for using the restroom, and I couldn’t imagine being called out at a staff meeting for taking a quick step out. Will some students potentially skip a class because of this policy? Perhaps. But that’s the point of teaching responsibility. That’s when I step in and have a one-on-one conversation about why a student missed class for a substantial period of time. (And rarely are they skipping class. Students have a lot going on and educators need to empathize before anything else.)

Almost any interaction that involves freedom of movement or speech should be considered on a case by case basis. We should lean on the side of allowing students freedoms. It should be self-explanatory, but if we’re controlling what our students can and cannot do as human beings, we are policing more than just educating. Obviously, there are certain circumstances that warrant supervision, but simple things (talking while working on assignments, checking one’s phone, getting a glass of water) should be allowed in a caring, student-centered environment.

Student First Assessment

There’s no reason to impose faux rigor through “engagement grades.” Participation, “behavior grades”, and “work ethic” are not a measure of engagement, but of compliance. As Susan Cain writes in Quiet, introverts struggle in classrooms that force conversations. In addition, the stress and anxiety that’s mandated in grading for answering questions or speaking in a discussion is not part of the learning process. People do not learn in high stress situations. The idea that stress is key to performing well is not true. Just because you potentially had to “go through it in school” does not mean it’s good practice.

As Susanne Vogel and Lars Schwabe researched in 2016,

While stress around the time of learning is thought to enhance memory formation, thus leading to robust memories, stress markedly impairs memory retrieval, bearing, for instance, the risk of underachieving at exams. Recent evidence further indicates that stress may hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information and induce a shift from a flexible, ‘cognitive’ form of learning towards rather rigid, ‘habit’-like behaviour. Together, these stress-induced changes may explain some of the difficulties of learning and remembering under stress in the classroom. Taking these insights from psychology and neuroscience into account could bear the potential to facilitate processes of education for both students and teachers.

Therefore, the use of “Popsicle stick” questioning or calling out non-speaking students is going against leading educational research. I remember deeply the anxiety I felt within classrooms where compliant speaking was assumed. The stress of knowing I hadn’t spoken in a couple weeks and was afraid of judgement by peer and adult. Then, I may get called upon and not know the answer. Does the teacher think I’m dumb now? Do my peers think I’m stupid?Absolutely none of this is required, and many students learn by simply listening to discussions.

These are real concerns and make no sense in how we design a classroom. Further, the racial implications of judging students on “behavior” and “work ethic” are biased and dangerous in their use (Gregory et. al., 2016).

Grades, if they must exist, should be determined by a student’s conveyance of knowledge and process of designing complex experiences (which can be done through portfolios or conversations between teacher and student.)

Another percentile category, extra credit, is unneeded at best and inequitable at worse. Typically, extra credit assignments involve long hours spent outside of school (or horrendously, spending money), which disproportionately affects students with a lack of resources. An unscientific review of classroom syllabi showcased “taking pictures on vacation of historical monuments”, “bringing in tissue boxes”, and “staying after school to watch a 2 1/2 hour documentary.” What we’re saying by this practice is that if I can’t afford extra classroom materials, I’m worse academically than my classmates, or if I don’t have the time nor money to arrange rides, I’m judged worse than others. None of this makes sense. Just let students retake assignments.

To take it one step further, organizing grades within percentiles eliminates valid alternative pathways for students to showcase learning. If I state that 50% of my grade is homework and another 50% is tests, yet a student aces all their tests and doesn’t complete homework, does that mean they still fail? Am I grading their knowledge, test taking ability, or compliance after school? Why not make homework and tests optional? I believe we should keep our assessment open. Knowledge can be demonstrated in many ways. As stated in my syllabus:

The Digital Media & Design portfolio strand requires the following content (see next page) to be displayed at some point. Due to the amount of coverage, I will suggest specific pieces to present at each portfolio meeting[*]. This may be different depending on where different students are at in their work.

Students will bring their own works within a creative confine. For example, you may be required to present a piece that utilizes at least two font families and an image. That could be a lot of different things! And depending on what you present, you may knock a lot of other content off our “required list” as well. At times, we may suggest reviewing skills to boost our foundational knowledge.

*We have a monthly portfolio check-in where students conference, showcase their work, are given feedback, and remediate/go on to other targets as needed. I don’t want students to focus on “gaming the system” and figuring out what Excel-sheet breakdowns are possible to pass my course. All of the language I use is focused on learning and grades are rarely mentioned. When a grade is required, the student and I discuss and come to a conclusion, together, on what it will be.

Student First Access

If materials are required for your course, the school has an obligation to pay for those materials. Public schools are for everyone, including those with non-privileged backgrounds. This is an uphill battle — it is not the norm for schools to provide teachers with budgets to purchase materials for their students. Including a simple note, “Please see me with questions or concerns.” at the bottom of your material requirements page is a start, but educators should be working together to eliminate any financial requirement to participate in a public service.

Other simple access issues can be addressed in the syllabus or on the first days of class, such as: having snacks on hand for students who want them, being available before and after school for academic and nonacademic questions/concerns/assistance, introducing yourself as a resource for help if they need it. The real work of teaching, I find, is not in the academic connections I make with students, but the emotional support, structure, and resources I find for those that need help the most.

In Closing

Almost every syllabus includes a parent/student contract at the end. “I agree that I’ve read and will follow the syllabus.” In this hand-off, we’re finalizing that this is “our domain” and what we say, goes.

Remarkably, the same teaching ethos of “never smile until December” has been passed down in our syllabi. I used to write my syllabus the same way and believed that I should set the tone of my classroom early on: “obey me.” But looking back at my own experiences in school, I’ve recognized how harmful the practice is of establishing the classroom as an authoritarian regime. The stressors we place on students when we set rules that dehumanize them, or judge their ethics, are not beneficial to learning and will hurt them — psychologically, emotionally, and academically.

Learning is relational. It’s driven by an intrinsic drive that can be bolstered by teacher support. Any barrier we enact between the relationship we’re developing is harmful for both of us. Our syllabi should reflect our focus on the individual’s well-being and our goals for the course (it’s not perfect, this is my syllabus for the upcoming year.)

I recognize that many districts require certain verbiage on every syllabus that may include rules or policies that go against student first language. However, we can communicate and/or “creatively noncomply” to lessen these tensions and find ways to counteract these proposals.

In high school, we were required to sign a hand-book to use the restroom. It was a school wide policy that students could only have this book signed 3 times a quarter, and teachers were required to sign-out in the book. My English 11 teacher went to great lengths to ensure we knew that he was on our side of this ridiculous policy, and would sign his name in the book without a date. “If they ask you, just say I forgot to write it.” Sometimes he’d even step into the hallway to make sure no one called us out.

It may seem like a trivial thing, but I trusted and respected him for this. I knew he had my back, even though I never even used the privileges he granted. That relationship instituted by his trust of students bled into us being more comfortable asking questions, participating in class, and going to him when we had problems. The “chill teacher” approach often means “the teacher who respects me.” It’s a ridiculous thing when you think about it. But our blind observance to prison-like school policy does have a substantial effect on the culture of our rooms.

Our focus of compliance is destroying livelihoods and emotionally damaging children. To conclude, here are excerpts from Naya Green, Haanya Ijaz, and Karla Sanford’s piece on culture in their buildings, who are high school students who contribute to Student Voice.

‘Every day was another struggle to get up. I was up until two AM every night, finishing work. I had no one to turn to一teachers didn’t seem to acknowledge or realize how much of a burden school was, and administration did nothing to help or fix it.’
It requires constantly pushing yourself. Teachers are always piling on assignments, which is anxiety-inducing, and there’s no time or space to step back and re-align. Any day off for self-care makes it that much harder to catch up, and it’s easy to start spiraling under the pressure. How do you get an education when the act of going to school triggers a panic attack? It’s a vicious cycle and it becomes hard to function.’
‘One might think that such a small community would be adept at nurturing its students through the most formative years in their lives — and the school must be given credit for the proficient college counseling suite which is separate from the guidance counseling suite, the lack of class rankings, and the peer counseling system in place. However, every year, a member of the senior class gives a talk about their anxiety or depression and how it got worse at this place. Why is this so?'
Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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