A Lesson Plan for Democratic Co-Creation: Forging a Syllabus by Students, for Students

A Lesson Plan for Democratic Co-Creation: Forging a Syllabus by Students, for Students

This is an excerpt from a longer post published on November 12, 2018. Read the original post here.

Earlier in the semester, I wrote a post about Structuring Equality in my early American Lit classroom. On the first day of class, I asked my students (individually and then in pairs, using Think-Pair-Share) to determine their goals and priorities for the year. Then, in larger groups, students revised and added to parts of the syllabus to ensure they would achieve their goals. Coming together for open discussion on the second day of class, students deliberated on (and voted to implement) changes to multiple elements of our course syllabus. In the process, we learned in real-time, through experience, how amendments (friendly and not) change key words and phrases before laws become ratified. We also learned the pains of majority voting and tried to reconcile that with what would have happened if we had practiced consensus voting.

To give you some idea of what has transpired between September and November: this was our skeleton syllabus on the first day of class, and this is our syllabus as of November 2, 2018.

Effective Co-Creation Requires Strong, if Invisible, Scaffolding

Although much of my syllabus was made up of suggestions to students or entirely blank spaces, this two-day activity of democratic co-creation required a lot of planning and preparation. I didn’t just throw students into the deep end of creating a syllabus on the first day: I structured our first class periods to make revising the syllabus manageable by breaking students up into groups and by giving those groups specific parts of the syllabus to grapple with, revise, and present to the class for deliberation and voting. I asked the class to first agree on Learning Outcomes, and then to vote according to how well their Learning Outcomes would be met by proposed changes to the syllabus. By starting with negotiating Learning Outcomes, in dialogue with the class, I could suggest we read outside of the canon, and that we attend to different critical lenses (e.g., gender and race theories). One of the things I could have done better was to push them to address the needs of dissenting voters in our voting process. When a minority dissents, it’s a failure to ignore their concerns and simply move forward with the majority. Addressing the concerns of dissenters usually makes a plan stronger, not weaker. So after the votes were cast (on the third day of class), I suggested a compromise between two opposing groups, and students voted to accept the compromise (to offer the option for some students to write reading reflections and others to opt for a midterm paper instead). Sometimes it takes a night’s reflection to find the solution you can’t see when the majority sways in one direction.

Student-Driven Innovations

One of the biggest interventions students made in their co-creation of the syllabus had to do with how attendance would be taken and how participation would be measured. They opted for a 5-minute writing response to the reading on index cards at the beginning of each class. This allows quieter, more introverted students the chance to engage in nonverbal participation, and it allows me to engage with students on a one-on-one basis. I read their index cards and read some of their questions aloud to the class. We answer student-authored questions together and thus talk about what students are most interested in. Although I add my two cents along the way, this process really turns a classroom sideways: instead of me lecturing at the front of the room, we play intellectual tennis, going back and forth, taking turns serving and responding. I also take their index cards home and read them and respond in-line before handing them back.

Another intervention students made was to receive ungraded feedback on reading reflections (take-home, meta-reflections that are longer than the attendance exercise). Their desire was to have low-stakes assignments scattered throughout the semester (most opted for this instead of a midterm paper) that would hold them accountable for doing the readings and thinking critically about them. Originally, they started suggesting grading alternatives (e.g., check plus, check, check minus). Then I suggested the possibility of removing the grading element altogether. This was my response to our shared desire to focus on quality instead of trying to guess at what would earn a higher grade. In my grade book, I mark student reflections as simply “done,” and, in some cases, I mark them as “strong,” or “weak” reflections. I give them feedback (but because these are low-stakes, it doesn’t take up as much time as grading a formal assignment) and I ask them questions in the margins that direct them toward thesis statements for the final paper. I remind students throughout the semester that they should work to incorporate my feedback and try to avoid making the same mistakes twice. This interaction helps students focus on quality writing and applying learned skills.

To read the full post, click here.