Why don't you have a syllabus yet?


In this series I'm going to cover some classroom basics, these are the things that any teacher who has been in the classroom for more than a few years probably takes for granted. For the most part, anyone willing to stay in the profession for more than a few years will eventually find their "teacher identity". This identity includes how you see yourself as a professional educator, how you manage relationships with your students and their families, and how you want the administration to view your work. All of these things evolve over time, but until you've made a conscious effort to develop and improve these processes, you're probably going to feel unarmed every school year. That being said, let's talk about why you don't have a class syllabus yet, and why you should probably create one as soon as possible.

When it comes to course syllabi, you probably fall into one of Three categories

To be completely transparent, I'm not talking about a 15 page summary of your courses. In fact, the syllabi I used for my courses were three or four pages. They are simply a roadmap for students to follow as the year progresses. 

Below, I've linked the syllabi I used for my classes. I also printed and posted these syllabi in my classroom for students to snap photos of with their phones. 

Note: I used the chapters in my textbooks along with pacing guides to plot my course

Example Syllabi I used for my classes:

How I broke my syllabi down

(Select an above syllabus to preview)

  • Marking Period 
  • Chapter
  • Topics

I decided not to add my procedures, contact info, and any supplemental resources because students already needed to be on my website in order to access the syllabus. And there were plenty of other resources there. 

Things you might want to include in your syllabus

  • Chapter/Unit/Theme Titles

  • A few sub-sections under each theme

  • Important resource links (books, websites, handouts, etc)

  • Teacher information

  • The current school year

  • (Optional: Classroom Procedures)

Why did I create a syllabus?

I noticed that there wasn't much emphasis on the syllabus when I was in high school. I also noticed the stark juxtaposition when I got into college. Almost every one of my professors in college provided us with a syllabus. Some were long, detailed, outdated, and very obviously a knowledge/resource dump for the sake of compliance. Other professors took a different route and kept it short and sweet. This is the philosophy I adopted when I started teaching; the students are going to get a roadmap, not an almanac. 

I knew it was time to cut my losses, do a better job differentiating, and move on.

The addition of a syllabus also helped me to digest the amount of coursework I was about to teach. When I started teaching, I only had 3 preps. But, the next year I was given an additional prep on top of the 3 laboratory classes I was also teaching. So I guess I was teaching 7 different high school science classes at the same time? Just thinking about that gives me the shivers. There wasn't any way I was going to go in there without a map of my own. Whether you're teaching one class or 10 I suggest you take some time to create a syllabus of your own. (Please tweet me if you're teaching 10 or more classes, I have lots of questions - like, "are you ok?") 

The addition of a syllabus also helped me stay on top of my pacing. If it was the third or fourth week and I was still harping on a topic that I should have finished the week prior I knew it was time to cut my losses, do a better job differentiating, and move on. A short syllabus also helped me set a communication schedule for reaching out to parents. If I could do it all again I would send the parents a monthly email with the unit I was going to be covering, along with a few questions they could ask their kids week by week. This would have ended the age-old dialogue between kids and their parents; "What did you learn at school today Ashley?", "...I dunno."

Things to consider when putting your syllabus together

  • Holidays
  • Standardized Testing Days
  • Midterms
  • Finals
  • Benchmarks
  • Snow Days
  • One or two days of buffer between chapters/units/themes for differentiation

Instructional Strategies associated with having a syllabus


the syllabus as a guide for students to reflect on each chapter

After each chapter ask your students to write a page (one paragraph per topic) on what their key takeaways are, and what questions they still have. I'm also a huge proponent of having the students write their own guidebook for the course throughout the year, these chapter summaries would be great additions towards that end. This strategy is also fertile ground for student collaboration. 


Student-created syllabi

You're going to be the one to create your first syllabus, but why not also let your students pass on the knowledge they gained to future students? (deep smarts!) Think of it as a student syllabus; here's what you'll "really" be learning kind of thing. Have students rename the chapters and the units with anecdotal pieces of advice. This might also be an interesting professional asset that you can use to reflect on how your instruction has changed over time. 


syllabus topics as labels 

After you've listed all of the chapter titles, units, and themes in your syllabus, why not standardize these titles across your files and planning docs? (I covered creating your own CMS in a previous post if you need help getting one up and running) This way you don't have to create arbitrary titles for what you're doing, and you don't need a tremendous amount of familiarity with teaching the course before you commit to a naming convention. 


Syllabus as a means of communication with parents

I eluded to this earlier in this post, why not use the syllabus as a means of communicating with parents? or even better, creating a system where parents can communicate with their children (about your coursework)? Here's what you do: First, grab a few questions associated with each chapter/unit/theme and send some questions home with a new copy of the syllabus every month. Or you can include these questions in the syllabus at the very beginning of the course. This way your students' families have concrete questions to ask their children when they get home - leading to greater reinforcement of what you're teaching in class.

Warning: make sure you actually address the questions you attach to your syllabus! 


Syllabus as a way to capture questions

Let's say that you've really run away with many of the strategies I discussed in my post on Google Apps. Instead of creating a static syllabus, why not make it a Google doc (with view only permissions)? Students can comment in questions they have about each chapter as they arise. This document also has the potential to look really amazing by the end of the year. Imagine a syllabus with hundreds of student questions associated with each chapter, topic, sub-topic - These questions can also help you drive your day to day instruction. 


Syllabus as a pathway to collaboration with colleagues

I wasn't the only environmental science or biology teacher in my school, in fact there were 3. Looking back it's pretty obvious that there were instances where each teacher's personality, experience, or ability enabled them to go in a different direction with the content than I did (towards the same end, of course). When was the last time you looked at one of your peer's syllabi? If you did, was it the same? if not, why not? And if your school has standardized the courses, therefore standardizing your syllabi, maybe you can leverage this conversation to address where you think there might be gaps, or where your students can be better served (using the questions from my previous suggestion). 

Keep the conversation going!

That should get you started when it comes to creating your own syllabi, or possible improving/updating the syllabi you already have. Please leave a comment letting me know what you think of the post, what strategies you liked/used and which ones I should add. Also, feel free to leave general feedback in the comments section, or reach out on Twitter

and remember to share, sharing is caring...

Thanks for reading!

[header photo credit: Aaron Burden]