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.
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.
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”.
- 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?
Until next time!
– Miss Karlock (@MissKarlockChem)