Teaching in the Margins: Space Suits and Bagels

This week, I ordered a space suit.

Yes, a real one, straight from the NASA training camp of the late 80’s-early 90’s.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this pic:

Now, why on earth (no pun intended) am I talking about a space suit?

Honestly, I bought it for a class project.  Our goal is to dress up like a famous scientist (I chose Anna Lee Fisher) and, essentially, become that person for an hour and a half during one of our class periods.  The project is called Meet the Scientist (I’m sure you’ll hear more about it in future blog posts), and it’s supposed to give us the opportunity to use this same form of presentation in our future science classrooms.  This activity is a perfect example of teaching in the margins.

What is teaching in the margins?  I’m glad you asked.  Teaching in the margins is, simply put, a style of teaching that allows for expansion beyond straight curriculum into real-world, applicable situations for students.  This form of teaching is absolutely essential in the classroom—it allows students to be curious about the world around them and teaches the same subject in multiple manners.  In order to illustrate this, check out the photos below. (Please excuse my annoying house cat’s paw in all of the following photos.)

This first picture is an example of chemistry notes.  Many classrooms are set up in the same way as these notes, using only lecture and strictly instruction-based laboratory activities to teach the subject of solutions.

This second picture is a slightly more margin-based example of chemistry notes.  From first sight these notes are already more appealing—more colorful, intriguing, and creative.  There are plenty of classrooms that are set up in this manner, balancing the margins with a decent amount of lectures/curriculum-focused teaching.  Spending half of class lecturing and the other half of class doing hands-on labs and group activities would be an example of this kind of teaching.

This third picture is the exact opposite of the first—mostly margins, with very little notes.  Colors and ideas bounce around the page, everything mapping together in a unique way.  It is also clear that the student did an activity in order to illustrate the concepts surrounding solutions.  It includes the same amount of information as the first set of notes, but it’s displayed differently.  A classroom like this would spend maybe one or two days lecturing on a subject, then three or four days simply allowing the students to explore it through group work, projects, field trips, experiments, activities, and much, much more.

Now, if you were to show these three pictures to a kid in school, which set of notes do you think they’d like most?

Some students (if I’m honest, students like me) will be just fine with the first set of chemistry notes.  Straight forward, evenly placed, everything makes sense because it just does.  But most students don’t think in a textbook-style, curriculum-memorizing way, and I think it’s safe to bet that most kids would pick the last set of notes.  Why?  Because they’re bold, creative, and give the students an opportunity to not only learn the information but to express themselves.

Shouldn’t our classrooms do the same?

If this idea isn’t clicking just yet, here’s another example that may make my point more clear: imagine teaching students directions.  Since I’m a college student here at Miami University, I’m just going to use the example of teaching students the directions to our favorite uptown local food stop, Bagel and Deli.  Here are three different sets of directions:

1: Take Chestnut St. to Main St.  Turn right.  Turn left onto High St.  Bagel and Deli will be on your right.

This set of directions is an example of curriculum.  The bare minimum; the straight facts students need to know.  Or, comparing it back to the first example, this set of directions is like the straight lecture-based notes.  But often times, giving students facts just like this leaves room for many questions that go unanswered.  How far do we go on Main Street?  Where is Chestnut Street?  What does Bagel and Deli even look like?

2: What if I as a teacher included more details?  For example, giving students some pictures along with the set of directions.  You’re going to go about X miles on Main Street, past the four way stop, up to High Street.  You’ll turn left right next to the Phi Delta Gates, and here’s a picture of what Bagel and Deli looks like.

It’s located next to Skipper’s.  These directions are better, and parallel with the second set of notes—still plenty of instructions, but a few different ways of remembering the instructions.  But it could still be better….

3: What if I as a teacher just walked the students to Bagel and Deli myself?  My instructions to them would be, “Bring along a notebook and a camera, and keep track of anything that might help you remember these directions.”  Along the way, I could give them the “curriculum” instructions—“Right now, we’re turning onto Main Street.”  But I’m giving students the opportunity to truly learn the route whatever way that they want to, which is exactly what the third set of notes is doing.  Plus, walking them there means they get to enjoy the bagels themselves.  This is teaching in the margins—giving students the chance to experience their world and learn at the same time.

So now that we know more about why margin-based teaching is important, the question becomes this: how do I teach in the margins?  Here are a few ideas I have:

Schedule guest speakers.  Or (if you have a spare NASA space suit laying around, or maybe another cool costume) dress up as a famous scientist yourself to give a presentation.  This allows students to see how what they’re learning in the classroom is applied in the real world.  You can even do this virtually–check the link below!

Take field trips.  These don’t have to be complicated—you can take a field trip to the football field to work on velocity-based problems in a physics classroom by tossing the football around and calculating the velocity together.  Still, getting the students out of the classroom and out into the world is a perfect way to create margins for them to flourish in.

Create an intriguing classroom.  Have interesting decorations, maybe a class pet, and student-made posters/displays.  Create an environment that encourages creativity and individuality, one that is safe and fascinating.  You want a classroom that catches students’ attention so that they’re asking questions and wanting to learn!

Encourage students to create and solve their own problems.  For example, when teaching chemical reactions, give students a list of different chemicals they’re allowed to mix (be careful that they’re mixing the right ones, so there are no classroom explosions), and ask them to figure out what form of chemical reaction is happening.  This allows students to facilitate their own learning and ask their own questions, while still learning the curriculum you’re wanting them to.  This method is also great because it lets students solve the problems themselves, which will help them remember it better!

Utilize teachable moments.  Teachable moments and teaching in the margins are different, but overlap quite a bit!  Make sure you’re taking advantage of moments in the classroom that provide an opportunity for teaching, such as an unexpected behavior of a class pet or a unique natural phenomenon occurring.  Use the moments to enhance the margins!

Have more ideas?  Drop them in the comments below!  I hope you guys have a better understanding of what teaching in the margins is and why it’s important.  I’d love to talk about it more, but it’s time for me to blast off in my space suit!  Until next time, fellow scientists.


About Naomi Patten 13 Articles
Future Science Educator Miami University Class of 2019 Follow me on Twitter @MsPattenScience


  1. Today, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iPad
    and tested to see if it can survive a 30 foot drop, just
    so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.

    I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share it with someone!

  2. I really love your post. I like how you specify that learning that occurs in the margins can be valuable in all facets of life. I think this is because, referencing the examples later in your post, when you teach in the margins, you are creating outside experiences for the students. You are taking them places and bringing people in to speak. Teaching in the margins involves creating experiences for your students that they can hold on to forever, and I think you make that clear in your post!

    • That’s exactly what I was trying to establish in this post! Outside experiences are key to the margins, and thus key to any true successes in the classroom!

  3. I really enjoyed reading your blog post! I loved how you made the margins connections on multiple different levels. I really liked your example on taking notes. This can show us (and other teachers) that teaching in the margins does not need to be something huge and elaborate, but can just be changing how you have students take notes or just teach them how to take different notes instead of only having them take notes the typical way. Both of your teaching outside of the margins were so simple, but made perfect sense.
    Both of your social media links greatly add to your post and show different ways to get into the margins.

    • Thanks! I agree that margins don’t have to be a giant, elaborate plan, but can be simply implemented in the classroom! Especially for teachers who are nervous about expanding beyond straight curriculum and into the margins, starting with baby steps can be very helpful.

  4. First and foremost, Naomi, your spacesuit is awesome and I am extremely jealous. That aside, I think you did an excellent job on this post here. Your use of directions to the Bagel and Deli was an excellent analogy to what a difference some creativity and freedom can make in a lesson. Sure, you could just give out plain directions, you could even spice up said directions with some extra descriptors, but you could also make a more memorable and tangible field trip out of it with just a little elbow grease. This is a great example of how a truly exemplary teacher like you can use the margins to turn the ordinary into something special.

    • I am so glad you liked my spacesuit! And I agree; the directions idea actually came to me while I was walking to Bagel and Deli, which is why I included it! Margins are a great way to make an ordinary lesson memorable, and they also increase the chances of a student being able to remember the information and replicate what they have learned. For example, if I walked the students to B&D myself, they would have a better chance of finding their way there on their own the next time they went!

  5. Naomi, I really enjoyed your unique post. You showed the differenced between a classroom teaching in the center, the margins, and a combination of both. I thought it was a good way for readers to understand the differences and how they work. I also thought your examples of teaching in the margins were good. I loved your pictures of different notes that show the margins and the center. A suggestion I have is for you to add some other social media posts to get your point across better. I think you should think about the differences between the margins and teachable moments in the classroom. I think that is an important difference that was not mentioned. Overall, I thought your post was well thought out and explained teaching in the margins adequately. Also, I love your space suit!!!

    • I took your advice and added some social media posts! And I also mentioned teachable moments, and how they are a part of (but distinct from) teaching in the margins. Thank you so much for your suggestions! And I’m glad you liked my space suit! I love it too!

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