When you hear the term “the margins”, what do you think of? Most people probably think of the edges of a paper where you write comments and questions to yourself. But what are the margins in the context of a classroom? Surprisingly, both versions of margins are very similar! In the margins you question what is being presented in “the center”.
Now what exactly does it mean to be in “the center” in a classroom?
- Lecture based instruction
- Teacher at the front of the room
- Desks in straight rows facing the front
- Teaching to the test
- Student disengagement and boredom
And what does it mean to be in “the margins”?
- Student-led learning
- Interactions between students
- Connections to student interests and everyday life
- Spontaneity in lessons
- Experimentation and creation
- Inquiry based learning
Which sounds like a better way of learning to you? I would assume that the idea of being in the margin sparks interest in more people and sounds much more exciting than being in the center. So, in what ways can we begin our journey into the margins and how can we exist there as teachers?
What does it mean to teach “in the margins”?
One way I like to think about teaching in the margins is by connecting the idea to improvisational theatre. While improvising a scene, an actor is always supposed to accept any new situation, character, or dialogue introduced by another actor and expand on whatever was introduced. This is referred to as the “yes, and…” principle and is a kind of rule of thumb in improv. However, this “yes, and…” concept can also be applied to the classroom and is a good analogy for teaching in the margins.
Imagine that you’re teaching a unit about photosynthesis. A student notes that plants capture Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere to use in the process of making Glucose and later on in the process, Oxygen is released as waste. They then ask if there is a way to capture Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere on a larger scale in order to reduce the effects of global warming. If we follow our “yes, and…” philosophy that will lead us to the margins, our conversation with that student may look something like this:
Student: If there a way this process be created on a larger scale in order to remove Carbon Dioxide from the environment and reduce the effects of global warming?
Teacher: Great question! Everyone imagine you are designing a contraption that can produce artificial photosynthesis. Think about the theoretical components you would need to make it work, what it would look like and where you could put it that it would make the most impact. Feel free to work together to describe or draw what your contraption would look like.
From here you would be able to lead students into research about artificial photosynthesis and carbon sequestration and see how their ideas compare to those already established in science. You could also continue the idea by building models, conducting experiments, and connecting material to everyday life.
In this Ted Talk, Uri Alon explains why we need to explore the unknown in science and connects his thoughts to, you guessed it, improvisational theatre.
Teachable Moments vs. The Margins
If we continue with our “yes, and…” analogy, a teachable moment would simply be the “yes” while teaching in the margins would be the full “yes, and…”.
Take the example given above about photosynthesis: when the student asks if photosynthesis can be done on a larger scale to reduce the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, a teacher looking for a teachable moment may take the opportunity to describe carbon sequestration, responding with only the analogical “yes” and then returning to the lesson.
However, a teacher looking to move into the margins may begin talking about carbon sequestration and then continue on the topic, allowing the students to explore the question by researching, modeling, and creating. Thus, the teacher answers with a resounding “yes, and…”, moving them directly into the margins and beginning a journey of inquiry.
How Can I Get to the Margins in my Classroom?
My goal as a science teacher is to make my class as engaging as can be. I want to be about to spark curiosity in my students and question the world around them. Of course, to do that I need to teach in the margins. We’ve already talked about “yes, and”-ing our way into the margins but what are some other ways that I can take my students into the margins?
Here are some ideas that I plan on using in my own classroom:
- Hands-on labs in which the outcome is unknown
- Having students explore science in their own community
- Relating content to current events
- Bring animals into the classroom
- Participate in science fairs
- Student-led projects and research
- How is science being done in the world? Take students to real labs and science museums
- Inquiry based learning
- Let students create!
Here’s an example of teaching in the margins in action! This teacher inspires his students to research what interests them, create, and solve problems not just in their own community, but all over the world!
Our goal as teachers is to get our students engaged with what they are being taught. We want them to question the world around them and lead the way into new discoveries!
Great post Anna! I enjoyed the “yes, and..” analogy a lot and I agree with a lot of the points that you made. I was wondering if you had any teachers do this during your educational career and if so (or not) did you ever feel like a teacher responding like that elevated the teacher higher than the student, created a divide and took away from the inquiry environment?
Thank you for your question! I think the school yard could definitely be utilized by allowing students to explore the plant life and other physical features of the landscape surrounding the school. I could also encourage students to explore science in the community by collecting plant life around their community and bringing them into the classroom to classify and analyze. Furthermore, I could have students observe and survey the animal life around their community and make a class record of the kinds of life that are found. I definitely will have to do some more thinking about how to get my students to engage in science in their community, but I really appreciate you getting me thinking about it!
Thank you for your comments and questions! I honestly haven’t thought about using improv in my classroom, but that’s definitely something I will have to think about a little more! I have, however, thought about using acting in my classroom. Acting out certain concepts helps me to physically see how that concept works and allows me to understand it more, so it’s definitely a strategy I want to use in my classroom that will hopefully help my students to grasp concepts that may be difficult to understand.
I do not think that being in the margins all the time is realistic, therefore answering “yes, and…” to every question is not realistic. In a world where test scores and meeting standards are so important, we sometimes need to teach in the center in order to meet the requirements we are told by the state that we need to meet. Although I think we should teach in the margins as much as possible, the margins cannot exist without the center. So, while ideally I think every question should be answered with “yes, and…” I do think it is unrealistic to do so.
Thanks for your comments and questions! Unfortunately, I did not have many teachers in high school that taught in the margins. We often did not get the opportunity to explore what was important to us nor did we get the opportunity to be creative in science. All of my classrooms were teacher centered and did not vary much from the standard curriculum. We did however a few activities that were more geared to the margins. For example, in my biology class we had multiple activities in which we would go behind the school and look at plants or go out and look at the kind of trees in our community. As a teacher, I really want my students to be able to connect science to their community in order to show it’s relevance in their lives. There were also a few labs in my chemistry classes that we did not have step by step directions and it was up to us to figure our how to get to the the end product. I would also like to incorporate these kinds of labs to foster creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving in my classroom.
I’m so glad that you liked my ideas for teaching in the margins. I hope to develop my ideas further as I get more experience with teaching and hopefully, we as teachers will be able to share our ideas to teach in order to the margins more effectively! Thanks for your comments!
Oops, forgot to mention, I love the “yes, and” analogy!
Really great post Anna!
I really liked the bit where you modeled a conversation between you and a student. I was wondering if you had any ideas of how you will encourage students to explore science in their own community? Especially if you may be unfamiliar with your students communities.
Amazing post Anna! I loved the “yes, and..” analogy – it really helped me to understand more ways to incorporate margins into my classroom. I think this is a great starting path to bring the students out into the margins. I think it’s interesting how you can connect science to improvisational theatre – do you plan to do that in your own classroom? If so, do you have any ideas on it?
Hi Anna! I really enjoyed your blog post. I think the way you first explained what the margins were, how to approach them and then provided specific examples really allows the reader to understand the message you are giving. I thought using the specific example of photosynthesis was a great idea. This takes a conceptualized idea of travelling to the margins and provides a sample road map. Additionally, I liked your analogy of “yes and…”. Do you think that questions in the classroom can always be followed with “yes and..” or is that unrealistic?
Great post Anna! The part that stood out to me was how you connected the idea of teaching in the margins to improv theatre. I had never thought of it that way, and that was such a great comparison. I remember in high school having some teachers constantly teaching in the margins and others not so much. What was your high school experience like with this concept? Are there any margin teaching strategies that your high school teachers did that you would like to carry on into your future classroom?
I love the variety used in this blog post. I think it’s great how you broke down things into lists and used a wide variety of images but also took the time to explain things in paragraphs. I love your ideas that you have for teaching in the margins. I think this is really useful for other future educators.