Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Soften Your Syllabus

This week students in Oklahoma City Public Schools returned to class, since the district follows a “continuous learning calendar” which shifts the start of school earlier but provides additional vacation time for students and staff in October, December, and March. This year our kids are in middle school, high school, and college in 3 different places, so the start of classes (for our high schooler) meant course syllabi coming home for us to sign. One course syllabus stood out for both my wife and I, in its confrontational tone and the overall “negative vibe” it gave us for the teacher and their approach to students. In this post, I’ll highlight some of these issues, the insights which came from my one-on-one meeting with the teacher yesterday afternoon, and some lessons we all might be able to apply both as parents as well as teachers. I’m omitting the teacher’s name and course name, since my goal is to focus on the issues and not call out an individual.

College Course Syllabus - Fall 2005 by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
College Course Syllabus – Fall 2005” (CC BY 2.0) by  Wesley Fryer 

First of all, I’ll attempt to provide some background by sharing quotations from the teacher’s syllabus as well as some personal responses to them. Here are six quotations from the teacher’s syllabus which got my attention and both my wife and I found troubling at several levels.

Syllabus Quotation 1: Myopic Text Prep Focus

Everything we do in this class is preparation for the AP exam you will take on May XX, 2017. From the first day of class to the day of the exam, every reading, every assignment, every class activity, and every bit of discussion that takes place is designed to get your ready for this exam.

While I understand this course is preparing students for a specific AP exam, I’d hope there are also broader and even more important reasons for taking this class and completing required assignments. Developing a better understanding and appreciation for the course topic and further developing research, writing, and communication skills are some goals which are important beyond the scope of an AP exam. Call me an educational idealist, but I firmly believe student learning should focus on much more than “just test preparation,” whether that examination is administered by AP, the state department of education, or another organization. From the opening paragraph, this course syllabus gave the impression the only important focus and goal of the course is test prep.

Syllabus Quotation 2: Instructor Convenience Comes First

Students who are absent will complete a substitute assignment outside of class that must be done to receive credit. Substitute assignments will be given when convenient for the instructor and will be due within one week of the date assigned. (underlining in original)

The words in this second quotation which stood out were, “…when convenient for the instructor.” No where in the syllabus were accommodations required by law for student learning mentioned or the importance of meeting individual student learning needs addressed. The syllabus verbiage has a very legalistic tone, giving the impression that the teacher created it primarily as a CYA document which could be used later to support his/her position in disputes with students and/or parents. “I get” the importance of using language in a syllabus that helps you CYA as an instructor. I’ve taught undergraduate and graduate courses at three different universities, and this is an important element of syllabi at the college level which faculty and instructors ignore at their peril. That said, however, it’s not necessary to have an extreme focus on “what’s convenient for the instructor.” This statement got my attention and helped me understand (correctly, it turns out) the overall legalistic purpose of this document. Since there was not any cover letter or other note from the teacher to accompany the syllabus, this was the first piece of information, interaction, and information I’d ever had with/from this teacher. This was a significant and also avoidable situation. More on this below.

Syllabus Quotation 3: No Accommodations Provided for the Digital Divide

These online quizzes will be done outside of class through Google Classroom. Students must complete each online quiz before the beginning of class on the due date.

I am pleased this teacher is using Google Classroom, Google Sites, as well as other Google apps (like Google Presentations) to provide a more robust, blended learning experience for my daughter as well as other students. I found it troubling, however, that because my middle daughter’s school isn’t BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) or 1:1, there is a strong emphasis on daily use of online assessment tools without any mention or reference of ways students can complete these digital assignments if they don’t have personal or home access to a computer or Internet access. My middle daughter’s school in OKCPS still does not have (and never has provided) wifi connectivity at school for students. This means even if students have a smartphone and have downloaded the free Google Classroom app (available for iOS and Android) there is NOT any school-provided wifi connectivity to complete any assignments. Students have to use their own cellular data plans to use smartphone apps like Google Classroom, and it’s inaccurate to assume all students have cellular data plans or enough monthly cellular data to accommodate all the digital requirements of a blended class like this one.

The digital divide is real at our middle daughter’s school, where this course I’m referencing is taught. One of my wife’s former students attended last year as a 6th grader, and she was homeless. Even through she’d graduated from my wife’s school (which exclusively serves homeless students and their families) the staff there helped her get a laptop to use for her coursework… as well as a mobile hotspot she could use at home for Internet connectivity. Many students in poverty do NOT have these kinds of advocates and supports to bridge the digital divide, however. Knowing this background about students at the school, I was troubled that no reference was included in this teacher’ syllabus to ways students without home computers or connectivity could meet the digital course requirements.

Syllabus Quotation 4: Digital Devices Unwelcome in our Military Boot Camp Style Classroom

There were several statements and references to electronic devices in the teacher’s syllabus. Under classroom rules:

Do not use phones or other electronic devices in the classroom unless directed to do so.

Also, in the same section (further highlighting the overall tone of the syllabus, but not referencing electronics):

Do not get up to leave until I tell you class is over. The bell does not dismiss you, I do.

Under the section titled, “Electronic Devices:”

If a student is found listening to music, texting, or otherwise not fully engaged in learning the device will be confiscated and held until the end of the day. A second offense will result in confiscation and a call to a parent. A third offense will result in confiscation, a call to a parent, and a discipline referral. Misuse of electronic devices may result in disciplinary  procedures  in addition to the confiscation of the device.

Taken in aggregate, these syllabus statements painted a picture of this teacher’s classroom as being more like an army boot camp environment, where students are afraid to move or take any independent action without explicit teacher instructions and verbal approval. Since this school is the pre-eminent fine arts and international baccalaureate school of the entire school district serving 55,000+ students, this was a troubling perception to have as a parent reading this syllabus.

flickr photo shared by United States Marine Corps Official Page as a Public Domain United States Government Work ( PD )

This perception of a “boot camp classroom atmosphere” was perhaps most alarming, amidst all the other issues and concerns I’m highlighting here.

The specific statements about digital devices being unwelcome in the classroom were also troubling, however, and contrasted starkly with the emphasis placed on blended learning and use of digital course materials elsewhere in the syllabus. We’ve purchased and provided a laptop computer for our daughter to use at home and at school, and last year she sometimes took the laptop to class to take notes, access online materials, or share a presentation. I want her to be able to use digital devices, whether it’s a laptop, iPad, or iPhone, for learning when she needs to. I understand and appreciate that a course syllabus (which adheres to district policy) needs to address issues about inappropriately using digital devices in class. The statements in this syllabus, however, gave me the impression that students could never voluntarily bring and use digital devices like a laptop or iPad to this teacher’s class. After meeting with and talking with the teacher I learned this is NOT the case. The impression I got after reading the syllabus, however, was different. This is a problem.

Syllabus Quotation 5: Group Work Forbidden and Treated as Plagiarism

The teacher’ included the following statements in the syllabus under the heading, “Cheating/Plagiarism”:

Unless I specifically say otherwise, all assignments are to be completed individually. Do not work on assignments in groups unless instructed to do so.

Without a doubt, academic honesty and integrity are vitally important elements of character development which should be prominent topics of focus in every classroom. Group work and collaboration, however, are also important. These statements forbidding any group collaboration which is not explicitly ordained and blessed by the teacher deepened my impression that students would be treated more like prisoners rather than intellectually curious and gifted learners in the classroom. This statement, taken with others, suggested that the instructor wanted to prevent (or “chill”) all student discussion or collaboration on course topics, materials, and assignments. These statements were so extreme (again, taken together) that I wondered if this teacher even wanted students to talk at all about the class or the topics they were studying with anyone else outside of class.

Reading this instructor’s syllabus made me question, overall, whether the type of classroom learning environment which was portrayed was one that I wanted my daughter in for the 9 months of this 2016-17 academic year.

Syllabus Quotation 6: No Excuses or Accommodations Ever

This is the final statement at the end of the instructor’s syllabus. Capitalization and bold text is included in the original, I have not added these elements for emphasis:

NEVER FORGET: The world doesn’t stop turning because you choose to participate in extracurricular activities, go on a family trip, zone out for a day, or just not get out of bed in the morning. Whatever else you have going on in your life doesn’t excuse you from the requirements of this class. All deadlines are set well in advance of the due date. Plan accordingly. Accept the consequences of your choices.

As I read these closing sentences of this syllabus, I was not only thinking of my own daughter, but also other students who attend her school who I know face many socio-economic and family challenges that she doesn’t. These statements struck me as very cold and uncaring. No where in the entire syllabus did I read or understand that the teacher has an interest in helping each student succeed, in building positive relationships with students, or in working together through the challenges which the school year would bring. Instead, I understood this instructor to be completely inflexible, uninterested in individual student learning needs, and unwilling to accommodate student special situations.

Taken together, all these issues were very alarming to me as a parent.

Part 2: Results of a Teacher Parent Conference

The morning last week when I read this syllabus before sending it back to class with my daughter, I was upset. I took a few photographs of some paragraphs from the teacher’s syllabus and tweeted several of them, and also shared a link to the course syllabus itself. My reminder to myself as both a parent and educator is this: It’s rarely a good idea to tweet when you’re upset at something.

Several other teachers tweeted me back and asked why I was calling out this teacher and publicly shaming them. I definitely DID want to call attention to the issues I’m trying to now highlight in this blog post, but my intent at that time and now was/is NOT to publicly shame that teacher. I decided to delete the tweeted photos of the syllabus and syllabus link that I’d shared, setup a conference meeting with the teacher, and then (when I had more time – like this Saturday afternoon) reflect on this experience in greater depth and with a less emotional / upset frame of mind.

In the course of these interactions with other teachers, I learned a new term that I hadn’t heard before: “throw shade.” It certainly wasn’t my intent or desire to “throw shade” on my daughter’s teacher. I did and do, however, want to highlight the important issues which this syllabus and interaction with the teacher raised.

I was able to setup and attend a meeting with my daughter’s teacher, who is the author of this syllabus, yesterday afternoon at school. Initially this was a little awkward, because I explained that I didn’t want anything I shared to negatively affect the teacher’s relationship with my daughter or her work in the class. I explained that I wanted to share how I had felt and responded after reading the syllabus, because I was pretty sure that my response and the negative conclusions I’d jumped to about the class and about the teacher were not intended.

In the end, we had a good conversation and I was reassured on several fronts, but not all. The teacher explained that s/he (I’m using that pronoun to not reveal the teacher’s gender) had indeed crafted the language of the syllabus as a legal document. S/he explained that from past experience, this approach had worked well with helicopter parents as well as students who dispute course requirements and course communication. S/he explained the syllabus is an important tool employed when a parent comes with a statement like, “You never told my child that.” S/he also explained that prior to becoming a high school teacher, s/he had been a lawyer. This was instructive.

The teacher told me that in over five years of using this syllabus at this school, I was the first parent to ever raise an objection or share the responses that I described to him/her. I’m not entirely surprised by this, given the aggressive tone of the syllabus, but it’s probably also unfortunate. Of the parents who have actually read his/her entire course syllabus, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who found the tone concerning.

When we met, I was glad to learn that it’s fine for my daughter to bring a laptop to class and use it for notes and coursework. I explained that wasn’t something I understood from the syllabus. I was also glad to learn about how the teacher has been able to collaborate with another teacher at school this summer who taught the same students, and has started making some plans for how students who struggled with particular aspects of that course, test anxiety, etc, could be addressed in her/his class this year. As I hoped, I found the teacher to be more relationally oriented toward students and caring about them than the syllabus suggested s/he was and is.

I told the teacher I wasn’t wanting to tell them to change their syllabus or courses expectations as a parent, but did want to communicate how the tone of the syllabus struck me and affected me. Since the syllabus was the first communication I’d ever received from this teacher, and the first interaction I’d ever had with her/him, I suggested s/he consider adding a cover letter or note to the syllabus which could provide a more positive, encouraging welcome to the class and the year-long study of the course topic. This suggestion is the basis for the title of this post, “Soften Your Syllabus.” Certainly it is important to include all course requirements as well as class policies in a syllabus for high school or university students. Understanding that the syllabus may be the first written communication a parent may read and receive from you as a teacher, however, could and likely should (for pre-college students, especially) influence the tone and language used in the document.

The teacher was receptive to this suggestion and stated her/his appreciation of my time and effort to communicate about these issues in our conference. Our meeting was positive overall, and I’m feeling better about my daughter spending a considerable amount of time in this classroom in the next 9 months. Schedule changes can be very disruptive and traumatic, and I don’t think one is needed or called for in this case. This situation highlights some BIG issues, however, which I think are important enough to have (hopefully) thoroughly articulated in this post.


Summarizing, therefore, here are some of the key conclusions which can be drawn from this situation and these interactions. I’d love your feedback and ideas on these, either as a comment to this post or shared as a Twitter reply to @wfryer.

  1. As a teacher, consider the course syllabus may be the first written communication your students receive as well as parents. Attend to the overall tone of your class, learning philosophy and approach to teaching. Try to build bridges and focus on the positive aspects of course learning, rather than simply preparing legalistically for later possible confrontations with students and/or parents.
  2. As a parent, don’t tweet when you’re upset with a teacher or your child’s school.
  3. As a parent, make the effort to meet individually with your child’s teacher early when you have concerns about the teacher, the course, an assignment, or anything else. Face-to-face communication can help build a relationship and clarify issues which may be unclear when prior communication has been only written down.
  4. As a teacher, consider providing a welcome letter to students as well as parents, especially if you’re a K-12 teacher. First impressions are huge, and you only get one opportunity to make one. Make an effort to focus on the positive, share your enthusiasm for the topics of your course as well as the opportunity to teach your students, and your desire to help this be a fantastic semester or year-long learning experience for every student.
  5. As a teacher, address digital divide issues. Explain what options are available for students who do not have a computer/digital device or home Internet connectivity to complete assignments. (In the case of my daughter’s school, library computers are available to use before and after school, and course materials can be downloaded to a USB flash drive.)
  6. Remember to include statements about student accommodations for learning in your syllabus. The three universities I’ve taught for provided these statements to copy and include verbatim on all instructor / faculty syllabi.  If your high school or middle school doesn’t have required verbiage for course syllabi addressing accommodations, suggest to administrators that this verbiage be created and shared. Public educators are required by law to accommodate student special needs for classroom learning and assessment when identified by a formal 504 plan / IEP. All teachers should work to meet individual learning needs, to the greatest extent possible. Explicitly address this in your syllabus.
  7. Address the positive as well as the negative aspects of students using digital devices for learning both inside and outside the classroom. Again, if the school requires inclusion of specific district policies for consequences of cell phone abuse or other inappropriate use of digital tools, include that as a cited quotation from the “student discipline handbook” or other source. Also include, however, statements about your own acknowledgement of the positive and constructive ways digital tools can be used for learning inside and outside of class.
  8. Remember the vital importance of building a positive classroom culture for learning, and strive to reflect your understanding of this importance in your syllabus and every other communication you share with students as well as parents. No one wants to feel like they’re in military boot camp or a prison when they’re in a school classroom. Never forget the importance of kindness and love, alongside the importance of high expectations and high standards. Both of these things can and should co-exist in our classrooms. Remember as you include language to CYA in a course syllabus, you don’t have to take on an entirely confrontational and aggressive tone.
  9. Remember the purpose of going to school, taking a class, and learning should be far more than simply test preparation. Even if you are teaching a course which culminates in students taking an examination like those administered by AP, your role as a teacher and educator extends beyond test prep. While high marks on a test like an AP exam can bring the reward of college credit, we should never diminish our professional role and focus as teachers to exclusively focus on test preparation. While our educational culture, and even our administrators, may suggest or even demand that our exclusive role is test prep and student performance on tests, as moral educators we must focus on more. For more on our moral responsibilities as educators, read the works of John Dewey and Paulo Freire.
  10. Remember our words matter.

That’s it. There’s certainly a lot more here than I could adequately communicate in 140 character tweets. As a result of this post, I hope at least one other teacher or parent will think differently and act differently when similar issues or situations are encountered with a course syllabus.

I hope this interaction with Sarah’s teacher is constructive for all concerned.

Sarah is ready to fly! (Colorado July 20 by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Sarah is ready to fly! (Colorado July 2016” (CC BY 2.0) by  Wesley Fryer 



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One response to “Soften Your Syllabus”

  1. troy sonnen Avatar
    troy sonnen

    While holding the position of classroom teacher in the district I was in last year, a syllabus similarly worded would be championed as the necessary and model example. Needless to say I’m fortunate to be back at a campus that is less concerned with CYA tactics and test prep. Ostensibly, neither approach is wrong. The culture of the community, and the nature of a school’s leadership will determine most of what’s in the syllabus. Thank you for speaking about education and teachers honestly, but I’m sure most recognize a reality that sees schools thrive or falter based on the connections teachers build with students and their relationships with the community. In public schools, whether parent or teacher, “Get in, where you fit in”, or prepare for a turbulent and unempathic journey that will ultimately mold you stronger, but perhaps misses elevating student potential.