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


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.

A Note on the Power of Suggestion

Some students love the freedom of seeing a blank syllabus, and some shrink from the challenge of starting from scratch, so when it came to elements of the syllabus such as Attendance, Participation, Learning Outcomes, etc., I decided to give students options and language to play with so they would have something to start with. It helped students think critically about different potential paths they might take and to weigh the benefits and consequences of each. However, after many semesters of experimenting with co-creation in the classroom, I know the immense power of suggestion. Students are all too quick to assume that I would *know best* so I recommend that, should you decide to do this, you proceed with self-awareness and a willingness to relinquish some authority in the classroom. Your way isn’t the only one, and I urge you to offer students multiple potential pathways if you suggest any at all. If you only list one pathway, it’s hard for students to imagine another. Offer multiple approaches to attendance and participation, for example, that aren’t ableist, etc.

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.

Student-Elected Course Content

If you read my previous post, you know that I left the Reading Schedule blank after October 4th. Now that we’re at the end of October, I want to share what students have come up with thus far. After reading several captivity narratives and accounts of the *dangers* of living in the wilderness, we witnessed a disappearance of the discussion of Native Americans in the Federalist period. Students wanted to know what was going on with Native Americans before and after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, so they voted to read Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (I had also suggested James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok). I added the introduction to Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian, which critiques the white appropriation of American Indian identity by looking at the masks and costumes of the Boston Tea Party, to bridge the gap between the Federalist period and early nineteenth century. One of the wonderful things about having a blank syllabus is that when you need more time to really cover the material at hand, you have it, so instead of talking about Hope Leslie for two days, we extended it to three.

One of my favorite exercises was to ask students to analyze one character’s ending in the novel and then to write a creative alternate ending. We went around the room and everyone shared: 100% participation. Many alternate endings included lesbian love stories involving Magawisca and Hope or Esther and Hope, one featuring Diana Ross. The fun we had was productive because interpreting students’ desired alternate endings revealed very thoughtful critiques of Sedgwick’s storytelling as well as her biases.

Here’s the final result for our “Encounters (Re)presented, (Re)imagined” unit:

Oct 11: Sedgwick, Hope Leslie

Oct 15:  Sedgwick, Hope Leslie

Oct 18:  Sedgwick, Hope Leslie

Oct 22: Zitkala-Sa, “Impressions of an Indian Girl hood,” and “The School Days of an Indian Girl”

Oct 25: Zitkala-Sa, “The Widespread Enigma of Blue-Star Woman,” and Apess, “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man”

Zitkala-Sa via wikimedia

After Sedgwick, students voted to read Zitkala-Sa because even though she was writing beyond our designated time period, her writing was really her own (not translated/white-washed by a colonist editor) and it would help us better understand the history of what many Native Americans endured after the Trail of Tears. I chose “Impressions of an Indian Girlhood” and “The School Days of an Indian Girl” for Day 1, and “The Widespread Enigma of Blue-Star Woman” for Day 2. In light of recent news about Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test, the “Blue-Star Woman” was particularly relevant to our discussion. (Side note: we take collaborative notes in a Google Doc as a class, and a student posted a link to an NPR interview with Chuck Hoskin, Cherokee Nation secretary of state, which we listened to in our next class.) Since we had learned a great deal about the Pequots, Mohigans, and Narragansett, but not the Sioux, to better understand Zitkala-Sa’s stories, we did a Know/Don’t Know exercise on Day 1: we brainstormed all the things we knew about the Sioux and then brainstormed all the things we didn’t know (e.g., about the Sioux, Standing Rock, Sitting Bull, and schooling programs). Students got into groups and did research on things we didn’t know, then presented their findings to the class to help us fill in the gaps and better understand the context for Zitkala-Sa’s stories.

I also added William Apess’s “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” to Day 2 because it’s short and poignant, and because Apess was Pequot, making his story particularly relevant to our class since students were so compelled by Magawisca, a Pequot character in Hope Leslie. Magawisca is a fictional survivor of the Mystic Massacre whose story is characterized by death and departure when she *nobly* bows out of the plot to reunite with her father in the wilderness, whereas Apess is living proof to students that the Pequots did not disappear.

Planning The American Renaissance Reading List

To help students plan the next few weeks of the syllabus, I broke them out into groups again (I devoted 20 min of class time on Day 1 of Zitkala-Sa to this) and gave them a list of potential authors and suggested readings. I asked each group to come up with a list of priorities for the next few weeks, encouraging them to revisit the Learning Outcomes, and to develop a detailed plan for a reading schedule that would address their priorities. To help them with the planning part, I added the number of days I would recommend spending on each text next to each title on my suggested readings list.

In our next class (Day 2 of Zitkala-Sa), each of the five groups had three minutes to present their proposal to the class and answer any questions either from me or from their peers. I also came up with a potential plan (which I hid from them until the end of their proposals) that included, at minimum, two readings from each group’s proposal. The class voted, and, even after we chose the final list, we continued to deliberate and negotiate. One group really wanted to read Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” for Halloween but others really wanted to read Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and the class was tied (9 votes for Irving, 9 for Hawthorne, and 5 votes to read both). One student brought up the excellent point that it would be hard to discuss both in a single class period and do them justice. Once again, because the rest of the syllabus was still blank, I found a solution so we could have our cake and eat it, too: I extended the number of days we would spend on this unit of the syllabus so we could devote one full class period to each short story.

Here’s the final result for our “Gender and the Environment in the American Renaissance” unit:

Oct 29: Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Nov 1: Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern 

Nov 5: Ruth Hall wrap up; “A Law More Nice Than Just” [the latter to be read in class]

Nov 8: “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nov 12: Nature by Emerson [Nature walk sometime after 11/7 on your own, write reflection on it and any relevant readings that strike you for 11/15]

Nov 15: Where I Lived; What I Lived For,” and “Winter Animals” from Walden by Thoreau; “The Beasts” by Whitman [read in class] 

Nov 19: “Sounds” and “Brute Neighbors” from Walden, “Vanishing Sounds” by Dimock; “The Raven” by Poe [in class]

The Learning Outcomes of Democratic Co-Creation 

There was a tremendous boost in the confidence-level of students compared to the beginning of the semester. Students spoke up freely, pushed back, asked each other questions to clarify their plans, joked with me about potential pathways, and they seemed generally at ease with facing blank spaces and filling them in with their own priorities and ideas. I asked them, after the fact, to give me a sense of how confident they felt with planning a syllabus, and on a scale of 0-5, most students rated their confidence levels at 4 out of 5. That’s a huge difference from the quiet panic I witnessed at the beginning of the semester.

What I think this teaches them is that the future may be blank, which can feel ominous and produce anxiety about making mistakes, but with some team work, effective prioritizing, and planning, the right path will slowly materialize. My hope is that by the end of the semester our co-created, still-in-progress syllabus will have helped us achieve one of our five Learning Outcomes:

“…this course will be (4) driven by student work and participation with a low reliance on lecturing in an effort to de-colonize the classroom and empower students in a safe space to become better citizens and future leaders.”

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