The Magic of Margins!

The margin between a forest and an open field.

Margins, in our world, are not valued as they should be. Whether it be pushing certain communities or cultures to the side, ignoring the blank edges of our papers, or excluding people that just don’t seem to fit in, we give little value to the margins and those in the margins. But imagine what we are missing! The rich cultures, the new ideas, the spaces to doodle, and the new friends we could make are all available to us if we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone.

From a more scientific standpoint, the margins are the zones between different ecosystems. Just like the margins in our lives, these places are often overlooked, their extreme diversity completely disregarded in light of studying the ecosystems we are already comfortable with. They are largely undiscovered, yet could contain some of the most interesting organisms. But here, in the margins, new ways of life can be created, because organisms have the freedom and opportunity to explore a new area. New species can interact at the intersection between their two worlds.

But what does this mean for our classrooms? What do these margins look like, and why are they important? Let’s find out!

What The Margins Are NOT

In order to establish how to travel to the margins, we first need to establish what they are not. Hopefully the next few points won’t remind you of what your science classes were like, but if they were anything like mine, they probably will.

  • Using the Textbook: The textbook can only offer one point of view on a topic. When the textbook is constantly used throughout the school year, how could students imagine any other ideas? If students are not exposed to other explanations or ways of thinking, they have no way to sort through information to discover what they believe the best answer to be.
  • Worksheets: When students are told exactly what to do and how to do it, there is no room for the insertion of their own original ideas, or much room for the production of original thought. Students cannot explore their own interests when the path of their thinking is already laid out for them.
  • Artificial Dialogue: Teachers often ask students questions they already know the answer to in an effort to move the conversation in a certain, predetermined direction. While this tactic has good intentions, it doesn’t allow for students to move the conversation in their own direction, a direction that they want to explore. If teachers want to go to the margins, they cannot plan every step of the way all at once.

    All of these, including lectures, are what we call the “center” of the classroom. In the center, the teacher simply transmits information to students. The center is not always a bad thing, though- without it, the margins wouldn’t exist! The center definitely has its place in the classroom, as there are some things that can’t be taught by more inquiry based, student centered activities. However, the center is not where the most growth and memorable experiences come from.
Here, the teacher is at the center of the classroom.

Teachable Moments vs Margins

While we are on the topic of what the margins are not, we need to make the distinction between a teachable moment and going to the margins. While teachable moments may seem valuable, they are actually more teacher centered than student centered, which is a more “center” of the classroom technique. Teachable moments do involve moving away from what was planned in order to capitalize on an important idea that has come up, but those moments are directed by the teacher, as they take over and do the explaining. The margins, on the other hand, involve the students and their ideas along with the teacher, rather than the teacher only.

What Are The Margins?

The margins in the classroom are a place where new ideas can come alive, and where students lead the charge. In order to go to the margins, the teacher has to give up some control and head into what can be seen as uncharted territory. “Margin moments” are the classroom experiences that students will remember forever, the unconventional times where they learned something new.

  • Teacher as facilitator: You may have heard the phrase “guide on the side” when talking about the job of teachers in a student centered classroom. This is especially true for margin moments and activities, where teachers should be facilitators of instructional conversations. Note the use of the word “conversation”- both the students and teachers are involved in these discussions, as students are not just blank slates for teacher to add information to.
  • Planned and unplanned: Some moves to the margins are unplanned and spontaneous, such as when a student asks a real-world question during a lesson, or when a current event is unable to be ignored. Other moves to the margins can be planned, such as inquiry based projects where students follow their own interests. Teachers must be willing to be flexible and capitalize on these moments when they come, but they can also plan out times for these sort of activities to happen.
  • Make science real: Going to the margins makes science come alive for the students. More specifically, it makes science relevant, personal, and interesting for the students. When teachers facilitate experiences and conversations that the students are actually interested in, they come to realize that science is much more than just words on a Powerpoint slide. Science is something that can be explored and discovered and developed, which can’t always be understood when you are passively receiving the information as a learner.

    The margins can feel risky and, to be honest, trips to the margins might not always end how you want them to. However, you will never know what the margins could be like if you never to go them! Here is a great video on the value of risk taking as a teacher:

What Do The Margins Look Like?

Many exemplary teachers have given us some amazing examples of what going to the margins can look like, although the options certainly aren’t limited to the following examples! The beauty of the margins is that they can look however they need to- each student and each class is unique, and what stimulates the minds of one set of students may bore another.

  • Planimal House: This is an example of a planned trip to the margins. It involves students getting their very own organism (plant or animal) and caring for it, observing it, and learning from it. This project can go for a whole semester or even a year, with students bringing their animals or plants to class if possible. Organisms could range from crickets to hermit crabs to snakes to pea plants- whatever each student desires! Being responsible for an organism teaches students to respect the world around them, and can even be good for their emotional and mental health.

  • Social justice in science: Students often compartmentalize different subjects such as science and social studies, failing to see the endless connections they have. Margins can be great times to bridge the gap between multiple subjects and ideas. Students can research the ways in which science has hindered and advances issues of social justice in the form of a project, and/or teachers can facilitate conversations about these topics when they come up in class. Interesting students in science and world news sets them up to be life long learners.
  • Throwing out the lesson plan: This is a much more general example, but teachers cannot be afraid to steer away from the lesson plans they have for the day. Sure, they risk missing standards based instructional time, but if they refuse to travel to the margins, they risk not interesting their students in science as a whole. Sounds pretty scary, right? Plus, if students can see that their teacher is willing to be flexible to tend to the students’ interests, then the students themselves will realize that there really must be value in the real life applications of science.
This is definitely an extreme example, but shows the benefits students can have from interacting with animals!

Other Benefits of Adventuring To The Margins

If what you read above wasn’t convincing enough, here are a few more reasons that the margins are, well, awesome.

  • Student strengths: Seeing students work in these margins can show you strengths they possess that you may not be able to see when you are the teacher are teaching in the center. Maybe they have great scientific argumentation skills, or maybe they have a deep passion for research, or maybe they are a great artist!
  • Class connections: Classes grow closer when they travel to the margins together. In the margins, they explore, discover, and have fun together, which can change the way they work with each other, even when you are back in the center.
  • Spark your own interest: Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the margins. You as the teacher can also have fun and find new interests during these excursions! You all get to discover together- remember, teachers are life long learners.

TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read)

The margins are an exciting place to be as a student, teacher, and class. The margins are unique teaching and learning experiences that stray away from the typical lecture or worksheet, also known as the “center”.

The margins…

  • can be spontaneous or prepared for, but always look different
  • are student centered, with the teacher as a facilitator rather than a leader or boss
  • make science come alive for students
  • require teachers to be flexible and attentive to the needs and interests of their students
  • benefit both teachers and students, as they bond a class and keep science relevant

    My hope for you is that you will be willing to go with your students into the margins, even when you feel unsure or uncomfortable. Students and teachers get to learn together through these experiences, and while the margins certainly aren’t the place to be all of the time, the offer benefits that the center cannot. What is one way you’d like to go into the margins with your students? What hesitations do you have about the margins?
All of these qualities help teachers head to the margins with their students.

Until next time!

– Miss Karlock (@MissKarlockChem)


  1. Hi Nathan!
    Thank you for your comments! I agree that talking about social justice is not something often done in the classroom, which is definitely sad. Even doing activities such as meet the scientist can be a great way to have students go into the margins- obviously it would need to be a toned down version of what we are doing in our class, but it would show students the wide variety of people that have contributed to science vs the white men they usually see in their textbooks.

  2. Hi Steven!
    Thank you so much for your comment! I think the most important part of structuring lessons to promote marginal learning is to leave some wiggle room for those margin activities to occur. If you as a teacher constantly plan bell to bell with no absolutely no free time in order to cover all of your curriculum, then taking time away from the center to go into the margins will feel almost impossible for you and will stress both you and your students out. I also think that making sure students stay on task has to do a lot with knowing the students you have, as this will look a lot different from class to class and from year to year.

  3. Hi Michael!
    Thank you so much for your comments- I like the more chunked layout of your blogs and should definitely follow that more like you said, per your comments. I think sometimes it can be good to show students misconceptions first (such as what the margins are not in this example) to start pulling those out of their head at the beginning. That way, they can directly confront and alter their initial thoughts, rather than having to rethink later on!

  4. Hi Rachel!
    Thank you for your kind words 🙂 It definitely makes me nervous giving up some of that control in my classroom in order to go into the margins, but I need to remember that the margins can still be guided! Also, I need to remember that I am not the only one with knowledge in my classroom and that the contributions of the students are, at times, much more important than mine. It will definitely be a learning process, and it will also depend on my students that year- but no matter what, I need to be comfortable going to the margins.

  5. Hey Grace!
    I really enjoyed reading your post! I liked how you included clear examples of what margins are not in the classroom. It’s sad, but all of these components: using the textbook, worksheets, and artificial dialogue, are all very popular in most classrooms, and certainly were in the science classrooms in my high school. I liked how you included using animals to go to the margins, and especially your advice on talking about social justice in the classroom. This is something that is not often done, and would be great to make science more real for the students. I loved your tweet, and I agree completely. If we as teachers want to challenge our students, we should challenge ourselves as teachers. We should take our classroom to the margins, despite the difficulty and challenge this poses to us as educators. The journey will definitely be worthwhile!

  6. Hey Grace,
    Awesome job on a well-rounded post ! You hit many key topics when it comes to marginal teaching. I enjoyed your embedded youtube video as well and thought it was very interesting and informative. I want to incorporate animals into my classroom so this video gave me an awesome perspective on how to do this. I think that marginal teaching can be very beneficial when it comes to the development of our students and it needs to be something we all incorporate in some way. I think that it promotes scientifically based learning through inquiry and self-discovery. A question I have for you would be what do you feel is the most important part of structuring lessons to promote marginal learning? In addition, how can we ensure that students stay on task without going to far out of the center?

  7. Hi Grace!
    Your inclusion of a TLDR is such an incredible idea! Without a doubt, I’m gonna end up stealing it for some of my own lessons in the future — and maybe even my future blogs. With regards to a few of the lists: it might be beneficial to change how you accent the topic of each bullet point. I feel like the italics don’t highlight the key points in each list well enough. I found it interesting that you started with what “Margins” are NOT, and then followed it up with what they are. Do you feel you’ll continue that pattern for other complex ideas in the classroom? It wouldn’t be my first instinct but I feel like it flowed so well in your blog, that it’s making me rethink how to format discussions. Another amazing blog from you: Keep it going!

  8. Hey Grace!
    I loved your intro to your blog, it was so creative and made me think about margins in different contexts! Also, your section on what margins are not reminded me a lot of my previous schooling experiences, but I thought it was a great addition and made me consider how to avoid constantly teaching in the “center” of the classroom. I loved that you talked about the “guide on the side” tactic in terms of facilitating student discussion; it replaces the idea that the classroom is all about the teacher leading the class. I thought your blog was so thorough, the media was a great supplement, and very well written! I also loved to TLDR at the end! How does it make you feel to have less control as a teacher when you go to the margins? Or how would you ask students questions that you don’t already know the answer to?

  9. Hey Luke!
    That’s a great question- I definitely anticipate some push back from parents when going into the margins in my classroom. I think I first would need to make sure that I understand where they are coming from, aka from classrooms that were nearly always in the “center”. I know that even I am a little taken aback by the idea of the margins because I was a student in many center heavy classrooms! But understanding that, I think that I would explain to the parents the real-world value of going to the margins, and stress that I am trying to get their child interested in science for the long term, not just to get a good grade in my class. I would also refer back to my lesson plans to show them how I am still hitting all of the standards, just with some interesting activities and discussions mixed in!

  10. Hi Grace!
    I really enjoyed reading your blog, and I thought that your examples and resources were very insightful. Some of the examples that you used were so cool to read and watch, especially the school that let students care for a wide range of animals for two weeks at a time! I think that your emphasis on social justice-minded instruction, and its possibility to bring students to the margins was very important. Finally, I appreciated that you talked about how going to the margins is risky because it means giving up some of your classroom control, and because of that, it might blow up in your face. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! How would you respond to a parent who wondered why the student didn’t use a textbook or was engaging in activities seemingly outside of the curriculum?

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