Breathing Life Into the Syllabus: How Teaching Preservice Educators Hones My Practice

By Nawal Qarooni, 2023 Conference Speaker

I have the honor of serving 21 pre-service educators in a children’s literature course this semester at Brooklyn College that covers the art of teaching reading and writing for elementary kids. And it is the best part of my week. 

My students are hungry for information, diligently taking notes and discussing in table groups, co-creating artifacts for their thinking together, and readily asking questions. But what I have found in our few months together so far are a handful of critically important reminders that keep my own teaching pedagogy sharp, relevant and equitable. 

In every session together, I have strived to model validating teaching practices that my students will remember and take back to their own classroom experiences. That they feel part of a warmly-cultivated community with belonging remains at the center of my mind and moves, regardless of what’s written on the syllabus. 

Photos courtesy of the author.

Staying Flexible; Staying Multimodal 

I have been carefully observing the way my undergraduate students learn. About half of them come prepared with analog notebooks and writing utensils. A handful of students solely take notes on electronic devices. One student takes notes on her little iPhone. Another uses a notebook so tiny it would fit in my pocket. Another handful just listen. All of these versions are okay.

After group discussions, I ask that students share their learning with the larger community however they wish. Sometimes we don’t share with the whole group; sometimes they can email me. That could be:

  • a screenshot or a photo of their notebooks. 
  • paragraphs of writing. 
  • a low-pressure recording or video clip of what really stuck with them that day. 
  • a few slides the group co-created during talk time.
  • a drawing, potentially with captions that depicts the content. 

The wide variety of learning artifacts have astounded and impressed me. I’ve been saying aloud, “You are learners with agency. You get to decide how you want to digest and share back what you’ve learned and are still thinking about.” While there is sometimes the tendency to demand that turned in materials for grading or otherwise must be required to look one specific way, I philosophically believe that there are no prescribed musts. I value creativity and individualism. The options I give are meant to serve a wide variety of learners. I want to breed the opposite of fill-in-the-blank thinkers – and future teachers. This openness and leeway is working. 

Revealing My Own, Nuanced Reading Identity 

Each class begins when I shout out a text I recently read and am excited about. I talk about them with equal passion, criticism and wonder. I tell them why I found the text ridiculous, and what questions I had for the author, the characters or our world as a result. I’m honest when my concentration fails. And I am careful to diversify the texts, with an ever-expansive definition of what counts. 

I do this because I know teachers of reading must be readers themselves. But also because the text our students consume are all valid, from new Never Have I Ever episodes to belting aloud and questioning Tems’ Try Me (which I love and sometimes play during writing time) to books they choose on their own, like When We Make It: A Nuyorican novel in verse by Elisabet Velasquez (which my daughter is currently devouring). When I’m modeling in K-8 classrooms, I do this with my own adultish text, too, so the young ones see authentic reading identities too. For every text I ask at least this same, repeated question: what does this text teach us about being human?

Here’s a partial list of what I’ve text-talked recently: 

  • An interesting piece in The Atlantic October 2022 magazine about the rise of myopia in young people worldwide. Because my daughter is experiencing a rapid rate of increased near-sightedness, this article felt especially pertinent.  I told my students about my personal connection and they readily made similar parallel ones, quickly tabbing the piece online for their own reading. 
  • The statement art of an Iranian and Black queer artist I admire greatly, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. I shared the pieces she has currently housed all over my alma mater’s campus at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and asked them to analyze a few pieces with their discussion groups using the questioning stems ‘I see,’ ‘I notice,’ and ‘I wonder.’ Thinking critically about art is no different than thinking critically about alphabetic text, I told them. They were convinced.  
  • Angie Cruz’s recent novel, How to Not Drown in a Glass of Water, which I loved and tore through in a day. One of my students is Dominican and as soon as I read the title, she announced that the author, too must be Dominican, because it’s an idiom she knew well. 
  • A new novel in verse I just read aloud with my young ones, Aida Salazar’s A Seed in the Sun. I told them how reluctant one of my daughter’s was about reading “a whole book of connected poems,” but how, in the end, she thought it was “so fun and easy to understand actually.” 

Naming Aloud My Teaching Moves 

By paying careful attention to my students and what they love, thrive on, and still have questions about, I have been able to tailor each week’s learning to their needs. I go back to the syllabus and jot notes about what else I layered in, and ask them to do the same. I explain that the syllabus- or classroom curriculum they might be handed at their future schools – is solely a guide. We must breathe life into those guides with all of our passions, knowledge about the world, and personal experiences: each valid, valuable, and important. Naturally, the students in my cohort are getting a Professor Q version of this course- a version I have infinite pride in. And it is my specific teaching identity that I bring to the classroom that will positively shape these future educators. I have taken to creating a secondary slide deck – not the actual content, but the teaching behaviors –  that explicitly names the validating pedagogical approaches I have been careful to model each week. That too, is a teaching artifact I am proud of. 

Last week I ended the class with these words. “Remember, your curriculum isn’t meant to be read verbatim. You need to be nimble. You need to know your students. They’ll all be different and perfect. Adjust accordingly.” 

Nawal Qarooni is an educator and writer who works in learning spaces to support a holistic model of literacy instruction. She and her team of coaches at NQC Literacy work with teachers and school leaders to grow a love of reading and composition in ways that exalt the whole child, their cultural capital and their intrinsic curiosities. She is the proud daughter of immigrants, and mothering her four young kids shapes her understanding of teaching and learning. She is a former international newspaper reporter and currently a contributing writer for We Need Diverse Books. Nawal holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan; a master’s degree in newspaper, magazine, and online journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School; and a master’s degree from Brooklyn College via the NYC Teaching Fellows program. In her daily literacy coaching and school-based support, Nawal draws on her years as a middle grades classroom teacher and professional writer, as well as her love of photography and connection to nature. You can find her reading aloud to her kids, running in Liberty State Park, or on Twitter @NQCLiteracy. Learn more about her work at 

Author: CCIRAblog

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