Our “Course Outline” Display

Our “Course Outline” Display

I teach chemistry, but I am a kindergarten teacher by heart.  I favor the bright, vibrant, tactile, and physical.  I’m also deeply of the meta persuasion, believing that one must care about the details but never lose sight of the bigger picture.

As the school year kicks off, I mused about how to present the course outline.  Do I send off two pages of PDF?  Do I send off a spreadsheet?  Should it be “moodle-lized”?  The progress should be planned, and the plan clearly communicated to students and co-teachers.  But the plan must also be flexible.  The best of planners draft plans that survives unscathed with reality; I am not one of them.  (There are also plan-pushers-come-hell-or-high-water, but I’m not one of those either.)

There happened to be an empty board outside the lab/classroom, and I decided we’ll do a bright, vibrant, tactile, and physical display!

How should it be structured?  The structure of the display has to conform with the inherent structure of the calendar.  At UWC Hong Kong, academics are structured in cycles, with 7 different academic days in each cycle.  Each day contains 5 classes.

The 7 different academic days — note that A always precedes B, B before C, and so on.

The upshot is that each class is present for 5 times in a cycle.

All classes happen 5 times in each cycle.

Which means that instead of labeling lessons sequentially with 1, 2, […] 40 for a term, they can be organized instead into cycle 1 – class 1 (1-1), cycle 1 – class 2 (1-2), […], 2-1, 2-2, […], 8-5.  Which means a single term with 8 cycles can be planned with a grid like this:

Or, in my world of card-board and stickies, this:

Planning an academic term
Term planning with color stickies and big sheet of paper

Now it’s time to work on the actual board!  Outside our lab there’s a pair of big white-boards, so I went with measuring tape and markers, to doodle and erase and doodle and erase while contributing to the mosquitoes’ welfare.

Scribbling on the white-board with markers. The basic idea here is conserved to the end, but the final display was corralled into the board on the right.

Some drawing, fidgeting with sizes, printing, shopping, cutting, laminating, more cutting, more shopping, and a thousand little unexpected minutiae later (quoting Sally Brown, “Fold? Crease? Cut?! WHY IS IT SO COMPLICATED?!“)… we have our bright, vibrant, tactile, and physical display!

The “course outline” display by mid-term time.


Hong Kong is humid and sometimes windy, which means that anything affixed by tape falls off shortly.  Tape also makes it (relatively) hard to move elements around.  A solution to this dual problem is to use neodynium disc magnets (1mm thick, 10mm diam.) to attach all pieces to the board — they are at once strong enough to keep things on, and allow simple repositioning.

A cycle is represented by a laminated strip with 5 boxes, each perfectly sized for a 3″ post-it note.  I got 5 colors of sticky-notes, each signaling a different kind of event:

  • yellow: a HL/SL class
  • orange: a HL only topic
  • green: lab
  • pink: test!
  • blue: homework.  This sits on a parallel track, and comes with arrows to show when they are expected.

Each sticky-note describes the subject for the day, the relevant topic in the IB syllabus (e.g., “periodic table” is 3.1), and page number references for different textbooks.  I try to update it about a week ahead, so students can read ahead for class if they care enough.  (Some EAL students appreciate being able to do this.)  It seems fine enough for what we need (survey to students at end of term), but this was not the original idea.

The original, more ambitious idea was to hold all the additional information (syllabus, text page#) in a companion website which has systematic URLs.  (For example, topic x.y is always represented as www.jkwchui.com/IBchem/xy)  Then we can paste onto the post-its stickers with only topic numbers and QR-codes: all that the students need to do is either to search the topic number in the website, or scan the QR-code.  This will be tied in to the Badges system too (a “Steam achievements”-like awards for above-and-beyond efforts):

What happened?  To my chagrin, I greatly overestimated my abilities.  I thought I can teach new curricula (chem+ToK), lead new activities, supervise 5 EEs, and simultaneously be writing and illustrating “the best interactive IB chemistry” website.  It’s so crazy I don’t even know why I tried…

(But then, it’s so crazy it might just work!)

2 thoughts on “Our “Course Outline” Display

  1. I love this!!! Also, your pictorials are very helpful for a struggling O Chem 1 student such as myself! Please, please, please consider doing something for the Sn1/E1/Sn2/E2 hell that I can’t seem to escape!

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