Screenshot of article on Kelm.


Some of you may remember that  back in April, SFU published a feature with Mary-Ellen Kelm, interviewing her about her recent experience co-creating her syllabus with her students. My interest was immediately piqued, since you know how much I love learning about new pedagogical techniques and methods for facilitating student engagement with history. While the article provided a little bit of information about how this worked, I was dying to learn more. Thankfully, Mary-Ellen Kelm was extremely gracious, and agreed to be interviewed about her process! So I am super excited to be able to bring you this interview today, especially since we’re in the middle of prime syllabus-writing season (I’m crying with you)! Enjoy!


CHA Reads - Mary-Ellen Kelm

Mary-Ellen Kelm is a professor of history at Simon Fraser University specializing in settler colonial and medical histories of North America. Her first book, Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia 1900-1950 (UBC Press, 1998) won the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize and the Clio award for British Columbia both awarded by the Canadian Historical Association. In 2007 she received the second place award in the BC Historical Federation’s annual history writing competition for editing The Letters of Margaret Butcher: Missionary-Imperialism on the North Pacific Coast (University of Calgary Press, 2007), which tell the story of the Elizabeth Long Memorial Home, an Indian Residential School in Kitamaat, BC, from the perspective of an English teacher and nurse at the school. Her history, A Wilder West: Rodeo in Western Canada (UBC Press, 2011) is an illustrated examination of rodeo’s small-town roots, and a look at how the sport brought people together across racial and gender divides. She is currently examining the ideas and methods medical researchers brought to the study of Indigenous health in North America from 1910-1990. She is co-editor of the Canadian Historical Review.


Where did you get the inspiration for this approach?

I’m fairly certain I heard of this approach in the 1990s from my UNBC colleague Theresa Healy, but it had never worked as well when I tried it. It was hard to get students to just tell me what they wanted to learn. Then two years ago, I did a concept map in a teaching workshop where I figured out what I wanted my students to get from the course (HIST 326: Aboriginal Peoples since 1850) and how I would assess whether they got that or not. So I started presenting the concept map to the students in the first class so they could see where I was coming from and where I thought we were going. Then I could ask them to fill in the details.


Most of the time we have to submit syllabuses ahead of time, both for the department and so that students have something in hand when it comes to deciding whether to continue in the course or not. How did your collaborative syllabus work with these requirements?

We have to have a course description ready in advance. I write about a range of topics that we might cover but mainly I tell them what I want them to get out of the course (to be able to use historical and Indigenous methodologies to explore Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples from historical perspective). The thing that we are not supposed to change is the grading structure. So I simply say that they will have a “Research Project” and a “Writing Project” and will be graded on a presentation and on participation. Then we can leave the details of these projects for the students to work out with me. Lately I’ve learned that if you say that the grade distribution may change in the course description then you can change that once the semester starts if you want and the students consent.


How did you develop the collaborative-syllabus in this course?

So on the first day, I present them with the concept map for the course.

Then I ask them to contemplate these matters:

  1. a) what do they want to learn more about?
  2. b) what questions do they have?
  3. c) what skills did they want to develop during the course?
  4. d) how do they like to learn?

For the first three – I group them together and that informs my syllabus. I assign overview texts and then supplement them with podcasts, other readings, films, etc. as the assigned ‘readings’. Of course, I add things they don’t know about or think are not important so I’m not totally tied to what they say. Truthfully there is a lot of repetition based on what they already know, so I have to add my own ideas.

Then I present the whole thing back to them. Is there anything they forgot? Anything they are not comfortable with? Why not? Do it anyway? And then we proceed.

The fourth question helps me gear how I’m teaching to what they say they prefer.


How did the course assignments fit into this model?

The assignments are generic: “Research project,” “Writing Project,” “Oral communication” and “In-class contribution”.

In the first weeks of classes, I meet with every student to develop their own assignments. I start by asking what’s next for them. Do they have career goals? How can we make the projects in this class help them towards their career goals? Or what they want to do next? Of is there someway that they can do something in this class that relates to something they are passionate about? We figure out what they are going to do for their assignments and we set dates based on their schedule.

Then, as the assignment dates approach, we meet again to check in but also to devise a grading rubric. What do they want to accomplish in their assignments? How will we know if they accomplished this? What do they want me to learn? How will they know if I’ve learned it? For projects that are beyond my critical capacity, I ask colleagues (sometimes in other departments) to act as second reader, using the same rubric that the student and I designed.


How did this collaborative model continue throughout the entire course?

Mid-way through the course, I do a pre-post assessment. What did they know about the topics we have already discussed before they took the course? What do they know now? What’s changed?

Then, in class, I ask them to evaluate the course (also week 6) formatively: What’s working, what’s not working, what do they want more of? or less of?

Then, I report back to them. The first assessment helps us see what they are learning (for themselves); the second helps me tweak the course.

I do the same assessments at the end before I do the ‘real’ teaching evals. We also talk about what they can do in the fight for justice for Indigenous people based on what they’ve learned in the class.


How did your students do? Were you happy with their level of engagement?

I was. And truthfully the assignments were so much more engaging. They ranged from videogames and short films, to graphic novels and short stories as well as more traditional papers. I get a lot of pre-teacher training students, so they want to do curricula. That’s okay, but they don’t often know of the many great resources that there are for teachers on First Nations / Indigenous history (created by First Nations teachers) so I can direct them to those resources now before they go into their own classrooms.


What kind of response did you get from your students?

The level of engagement has skyrocketed. They have to take charge of their learning and they do. They want to produce something for the class that they are proud to share. They often talk about wanting to take what they’ve learned home with them. For students on a commuter campus like SFU’s I really feel like this is ‘real-time’ community knowledge translation.


Would you do this again? If so, is there anything you would do differently?

There is a caveat. This is a relatively small class (18-20). Just meeting with all the students to set up their assignments takes 8-9 hours. I include that time as contact hours on the week we do it (so we might meet for 2 of the 4 regularly scheduled contact hours but not the second two-hour slot) but I’m still over-doing it. If I had more students I would need to do the assignment piece differently I think which would be too bad because that is what makes for those really personalized assignments that are so particular to the student.


Do you have any recommendations, suggestions, or advice for instructors who want to use a co-written syllabus in their course?

Remember this is co-created – you get to play a role too! In terms of content it really is not that scary – you are still the expert. If you can swing the personalized assignments it is definitely worth trying. Marking is so much more fun when the assignments are diverse and creative.


A big thank you to Mary-Ellen Kelm for agreeing to this interview! I know I totally want to try this the next time I get to teach a small class. I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did! If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice! And don’t forget to check back in on Sunday for our regular Canadian history roundup. And next week we’ll be back to just little old me again. 🙂 See you then!

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