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THE VIRTUAL SYLLABUS

by Abigail Turley

Last fall, I decided I’d had enough of the traditional syllabus or course outline that either sat in my students’ notebooks untouched or ended up in the trash unread. I’d rather get to know my students before I put on paper some kind of calendar or sequence of units, which I’d never be able to stick to anyway.

My co-teacher and I came up with an interactive stations activity to help students physically navigate the classroom, get to know the teachers and the classroom norms, and learn about the course content through collaboration and inquiry. We were thrilled at the results: loads of engagement and a culture of community and respect.

We vowed to never handout the traditional syllabus again.

Now that we are virtual, I’m thinking of ways to turn the traditional syllabus into an ACCESSIBLE and ACCESSED online resource for students. The purpose of this “syllabus” changes a bit when we are in a virtual environment, doesn’t it? I want to create a culture of trust, autonomy, respect, and community while introducing some important information that students will need to know for navigating this new learning experience. I need to introduce them to the learning space, help them create new understandings of participation, and encourage them as they rethink collaboration. My syllabus needs to be constructed in a way that supports them in these endeavors.

The platform is important. Of course, your LMS would be an easy way to create and post the info. But linking to Google Slides or Padlet would offer some visual appeal as well as streamlined organization. Keeping all of the important beginning of the year info in one place will be helpful to my students and their caregivers.

Now let’s make it visually appealing. How about embedding a video where you talk through a part of your syllabus, demonstrate how to use an online learning platform, or introduce yourself? Those trendy Bitmoji classrooms provide visual hyperlinks to resources and information.

How do we decide what to include in this new syllabus? I’ve been thinking about what I would need as a virtual learner: a syllabus that addresses my fears about virtual learning, what I want to know that I can’t find out by looking around a classroom or asking the kid next to me, and what will help me as I work independently and asynchronously.

Check to see if a student can answer all of these questions by referring to your virtual syllabus:

  1. How do I reach the teacher?
  2. What is this course about?
  3. What are the major units of study and how will choice be part of the units?
  4. Where do I find (materials, resources, assignments, recorded lessons, live Zoom links)?
  5. How do I access texts, both assigned and independently chosen?
  6. What do I do if I’m going to be absent or need an extension?
  7. What are your expectations of me as a learner?
  8. What are my rights as a learner?
  9. What do my caregivers need to know to support me at home?
  10. How do I know that you trust and respect me?

What I will not include:

  1. Weighting, points, or any other mention of grades
  2. A late policy or anything that deducts points for lateness based on any formula

These two things go against my pedagogy and do not fit my purpose: to create a culture of trust, autonomy, respect, and community while introducing some important information that students will need to know for navigating this new learning experience.

I don’t envision this new virtual syllabus as anything like my old once-and-done, set-in-stone photocopied paper. It’s a living, breathing, evolving space. I imagine it will grow and change as I get to know my students and their strengths and needs.

Out with the old, in with the new. Let’s toss that old digital file in the trash and rethink the syllabus.

Abigail Turley is a 2019 Writing Project fellow. She is beginning her 22nd year as a high school English teacher in the West Chester Area School District, and she works as an independent literacy consultant. Abigail is currently preparing for virtual teaching and learning alongside her husband, also a teacher, and her three children who will be completing 5th grade, 9th grade, and freshman year in college online. In her free time, she enjoys peace and quiet and books. You can find more of her virtual teaching tips by searching the hashtag #twominutepd on Instagram.

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