Striving to Teach in the Margins

I walk in to class and see twenty-five desks lined up in five rows. I take a seat in the second row. The bell rings and the teacher immediately begins lecturing. I frantically begin copying down notes, not retaining the information I write down. After about fifty minutes, the bell rings and I walk out of the classroom confused as ever.

The story above took place in my tenth grade U.S. history class. This is an example of teaching in the “center.” What does this mean exactly?

  • Desks arranged in rows
  • The teacher is at the front of the room
  • The teacher is lecturing while students take notes
  • Text dominated
  • No teacher-student interaction
  • No student-student interaction

Although the center of the classroom is important, because this is where the main curriculum of the class is, students will get the most out of a class if teachers strive to teach in the margins. So, what are the “margins” and how do teachers teach there?

The margins are the edges of the curriculum that explore the unknown, the mysteries and the possibilities. What does this look like?

  • Whole class discussions
  • Spontaneous lessons
  • Connecting real world events to curriculum
  • Encouraging critical thinking
  • Answering and expanding on students’ questions
The Ted Talk above discusses the importance teaching outside the box or going to the “margins.” It talks about the importance of not structuring the class around the textbook, or not lecturing constantly to students because that is not the most effective way of teaching.

The Margins vs. Teachable Moments

Let’s not confuse teaching in the margins with teachable moments. What distinguishing factors do each of these have?

Teachable Moments

  • unplanned
  • Teacher-led
  • Does not lead to teaching in the margins
  • Often times kept short/brief

Teaching in the Margins

  • Can be planned or unplanned
  • Can lead to teachable moments
  • Often times led by students
  • Longer more detailed activities

How Does One Teach in the Margins?

For future educators, it is important to be comfortable with the idea that some of the lessons will not be completely structured. One should be ready for conversations and lessons to steer down a different path. Below are some ideas a teacher can plan to do in order to teach in the margins.

  1. DO NOT ignore a students question. Expand upon their curiosity and explore the uncertainty together as a class.
  • Example: If a student asks the question “Why do birds migrate south?” instead of telling the student that this does not fit into the lesson plan, get the class to discuss their ideas of why birds might migrate south. This will increase the opportunity for personal experiences, ideas, and thoughts to be shared.

2. Explore a current event

  • Example: A hurricane recently hit the Bahamas. Acknowledge the hurricane and discover the science behind how and why hurricanes happen. Students often times spark interest in science that is currently relevant.

3. Bring animals into the classroom

  • Example: Bringing caterpillars into the classroom and watching them develop into butterflies will not only spark the interest of students, but help the students better understand the life cycle of a butterfly.

Exploring the margins will help student growth, keep students engaged, and overall make the classroom a better place. I’m so excited to teach in the margins in my future classroom, which will hopefully allow my students to come back the next day excited and ready to explore science!


  1. Great blog post Shelby! I really enjoyed the part of how to teach in the margins. Specifically, I enjoyed the example of bringing animals into the classroom. I always liked when biology teachers had animals in the classroom, kept everything exciting. I was wondering if you had any specific ideas to implement current events into the classroom! Let me know!

    • I definitely want to incorporate current events into my future classroom and one fun way to do so is to have a debate. For example, say there was a news article on evidence of life on a different planet, the class could debate on whether or not they thought life actually existed outside of Earth.

  2. Great post Shelby! I loved how you gave detailed descriptions of how we can bring students out into the margins using different lesson plans. I think using current events are a great way to bring students out into the margins as it engages students with real-world events and allows them to apply them into their lives. As you described, the “center” can be boring for students. Do you plan on making it more interesting and engaging for students? If so, how?

    • I definitely plan on making the center more interesting for my future students. I want my kids to enjoy coming to my class and enjoy the subject of science. In order to make it more interesting I plan on doing hands on activities pertaining to the content. I will arrange the desks in table form so students can have discussions over material as opposed to having the desks in straight rows.

  3. Hi Shelby! I loved reading your post! I especially enjoyed your various strategies for moving your classroom into the margins. I definitely agree with your point that exploring the margins with students will help them to be not only more engaged, but will make science fun for them and help their growth as learners (and your growth as a teacher too!). In your introduction you talked about your experience in your U.S. History and how it was taught completely in the center. Did you have any classes in high school that were taught in the margins and if so, how did they differ from your history class? How will you use your prior experiences to grow as an educator?

    • My sophomore year chemistry class was definitely taught in the margins, which helped my love for science grow. We went outside and did different activities. My teacher also allowed us to pick the experiments we did, in order to spark our interest. As a future science teacher I will use some of the techniques that my chemistry teacher did in order to make my classroom the most enjoyable it can possibly be.

  4. Hi Shelby!
    I love your post! I 10000% agree that teaching in the margins is so much more exciting for your students and for you! I think that incorporating current events and culture relative materials is a great way for students to become engaged inside the classroom and out. You can even take it one step further and encourage your students to present their findings to the school and or raise money to support these issues such as the hurricane in the Bahamas. My question is so many teachers teach in the center that this is all the students know, how do you get your students to wanting more out of the classroom and become comfortable with the margins?

    • I love your idea of having students raise money to support current event issues! It’s a win-win situation, the students get to learn and the community/organization raising money also benefits.I think the way to get students to become more comfortable with the margins is to constantly lead your lessons to the margins. The more you practice something, the better you become at it. For example, when I first started dance as a 4 year old, I was not comfortable on stage until I had many more recitals.

  5. Hi Shelby! I agree with you that we cannot, nor should, be in the margins 100% of the time. But does that necessarily mean that the center has to be as mundane as you describe? Although this is unfortunately the norm for many teachers, I like to believe that the center can still be engaging and interesting to students. Not every discussion will lead into the margins, but they may leave students more curious than a typical lecture would have. How do you think we can keep students engaged and learning when teaching in the margins is neither appropriate or even possible?

    • You’re so right that the center doesn’t necessarily have to be as mundane as I describe it. Thanks for bringing that up! I think as teachers we need to figure out ways to make the center as enjoyable as possible because that is where a big bulk of the curriculum is. In order to keep students engaged in the center of the classroom I think having student led discussion based on a topic in the curriculum would be appropriate. Another idea would be to have students master a subtopic of a chapter and have them teach the class.

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