Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
February 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 5

Conversations in the Margins

Conversing within and about a text creates a powerful connection for students, especially when you have the right book.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Instructional StrategiesEngagement
Conversations in the Margins thumbnail
Credit: ([None] (Photographer) - [None]
There is something about the margins of a book that has always fascinated me. They are where the words begin, and where they end. I've always thought that these small, empty spaces are left bare and open for more words. For students—and any writer—an unwritten page is typically more daunting than inspiring. Margins, however, are the opposite of that abyss. They are welcoming, inviting any writer to contribute, draw their own conclusions, and make their own choices.
As a high school English teacher who works in alternative school settings, I am a firm believer in writing margin comments, a firm believer in encouraging students to fill in the blank spaces with their own voices, experiences, and truths. During my teaching career working with at-promise youth in an alternative high school setting, I have observed that many students often felt stifled by the rigid conventions of school systems. Standard multiple-choice questions, prompts that direct singular responses, and teachers who expect automated discussions are not enough to ignite students' spark for learning. They deserve more space, time, and acceptance in order to feel safe enough to express their opinions.
For the better half of my teaching career, I have encouraged students to write within the pages of the novels we read as a means of privately engaging with the text. However, in recent years I have realized the powerful impact such discourse can have both in and beyond the classroom. Allowing students to create marginalia within socially relevant novels has sparked engagement in thoughtful discourse on issues of diversity, equity, and justice—not only for my students, but also for their families and community members.

Conversations in the Book

In 2018, I introduced my latest crop of students to the concept of having an unfiltered conversation with the text by writing notes in the margins. They were instantly curious and cautious. They wanted to know what was really allowed. Could they really write in the book? (Yes, they could, although sticky notes were a great alternative if they wanted their conversations to feel less permanent.) I told them to use the method they felt most comfortable with. I encouraged them to talk to the text the way they would talk to a friend—ask questions, write comments, note shared experiences—and to always do so with integrity and respect.
During the school year, student notes initially ranged from, "Why wouldn't he [the character] just be honest? Totally causing his own problems" to "Use this for essay—don't forget to draw comparisons." While the margins served as a space for students to write, I realized the notes were isolated observational comments or reminders on how they could utilize the text for future tests and essay composition. This, of course, was fine, and not detrimental to their learning process, but the students weren't having the meaningful conversations with texts that I'd envisioned. It then occurred to me that I hadn't given them a relevant text worth conversing with.
The students who come into my classroom are often facing the harsh realities of racial discrimination and generational poverty, on top of having been marginalized in previous school settings. I had given them a novel about a teenager who had never been exposed to the issues that they faced daily. There were plenty of notes and observations, but there were no conversations that breeched the surface of the text because there was nothing they had in common with the characters. They deserved novels and conversations that were richer and that sparked discussions around the social chaos compounding their daily lives.
Hoping for inspiration, I looked to my own bookshelf. At the time, I was reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (HarperCollins, 2017), and my own margin conversations were constantly flooding my thoughts. The novel's focus on the impact police brutality has on youth is socially relevant, considering the turmoil the country is currently facing as a result of racial issues. Nearly every newscast, periodical, and social media outlet is brimming with coverage of police brutality and the constant and terminal impact it leaves on communities of color. And if students were being forced to witness such acts of injustice, they deserved a safe space—be it within the pages of a novel or the walls of a classroom—to discuss them.
I was right—the book provoked intense conversations, both in the margins and in the classroom. Margin comments evolved into margin conversations. During one protocol, students had the option of exchanging their copy of the novel with another student's in order to engage in a silent discussion on the assigned reading (students who wished for their margin comments to remain private were able to opt for a different writing assignment). Once the books were exchanged, students reviewed their partner's "conversations" with the text before responding with their own comments on a sticky note. The margin notes were no longer simple observations, but critical dialogue that sparked engagement.
For example, during this protocol, one student questioned in the margin: "At what point is our silence not enough? At what point are our raised voices too much? When are we enough? Why can't we simply exist?" Part of another student's response included the following: "We can't. We're black, so we have to do more (than exist). We have to fight. We have to struggle. All that to breathe. They want us to have to focus on breathing so we can't focus on our voices coming out."
In our daily classroom discussions, as a result of their reading and writing, my students were more focused on current news and more engaged and attentive in class. Most important, they weren't just talking. They were crafting their words with intention, speaking with authority and experience, and engaging with power. They were finding their voices.
Better yet, others were listening.

Conversations in the Classroom

As the school year continued, a parent approached me, asking if I had an extra copy of The Hate U Give. She'd never seen her son so engrossed in a book, much less a school assignment, and wanted to be able to talk to him about it. I had never had such a request, and I didn't have an extra copy, but I promised to get her one as soon as I could. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait long. Her son finished the novel early and passed the book to her.
From there, our reading project took on a life of its own. Word spread among parents, books were passed back and forth within households, and the margin notes began to read like collaborative memoirs.
Often, when I'd take a peek in the students' books, I'd feel like I was witnessing something sacred, private, historical—and in many ways I was. This forum for dialogue found between the pages was one I helped create and curate, but it wasn't necessarily mine. When I read margin notes from a parent to a student that began, "Remind me to tell you about your Uncle Mike and the docks," I knew there was a shared significance taking place. There was an opening occurring in these families' daily lives—lives that didn't routinely allow the comfort or time needed for such discussions, especially ones that may refresh pain and injustices.
I still don't know the context behind the parent's notation about Uncle Mike and the docks, or why another student scribbled a note to their dad that they needed to talk about what happened on page 67, and while I know why one student added additional names to the list of people who were killed by police on the last page of the novel, I never interjected myself into those conversations because they were clearly not directed toward me, but to their family members or themselves. I always offered open journal time in which students could invite me into those conversations, but I respected the discourse that remained between the pages. Additionally, as part of our writing instruction time, students could opt to share those margin notes in the form of a letter-writing assignment to and from family members. Honestly, the best part of the entire project was seeing the writing in the margins and encouraging conversations that weren't mine.

Conversations in the Community

While students were having robust written "conversations" with each other and their families in the margins of their books, transitioning to a classroom discussion was a bit trickier at first. The sensitive and controversial topic of the text initially made for forced and stagnant discussions, as many of the students expected a quick discussion before the teacher lectured. They were unfamiliar with the nuances of having a back-and-forth conversation in which there was not a singular right answer.
Respectful dialogue about disrespect can be difficult. We had to muddle through some basic issues, like taking turns to speak respectfully without raising hands. Inside the classroom, we used a give-and-take protocol, where two students held a ribbon tied with six knots. Each knot represented a talking point; ideally each student was allotted three talking points per conversation. The student speaking gently pulled the ribbon toward them with each point they made, and once they passed a knot, they turned the conversation to their partner. If they reached the middle of the ribbon, the speaker had dominated the conversation. Students soon learned that conversations should be give-and-take.
Once we navigated the nuances of having respectful conversations about issues of racism and injustice, the students flourished in our classroom discussions. They spoke up without prompting, they questioned opinions that lacked critical thinking, and they created a space to encourage each other to traverse difficult, yet important, conversations that are often marginalized.
At one point, a student was adamant that systematic violence by the police was only a fictional aspect of the novel and cited their personal inexperience with police violence as evidence. This proclamation did not sit well with many students, who passionately and extensively noted unjust experiences with police they had endured themselves or witnessed. These disagreements left us uncomfortable, rattled, and with more questions than answers, but they also allowed students to be true to themselves and their emotions.
To bring the discussions to an even wider audience, the students, a few other teachers, and I hosted a community book club as part of the students' community service elective. Parents and teachers attended, but so did the retired Naval officer who volunteered at the local recreation center and the manager at the Burger King the students frequented across the street. These family and community members came in with respect and curiosity, as well as opinions of their own, to engage in civil dialogue about the novel and current political issues in our society.
As the school year continued, we explored different novels, and our evening book club meetings became biweekly and wide-ranging. Conversations shifted between the novel at hand and issues of injustice that students and community members felt daily. The conversations were always, always, focused on student voices. I, as a facilitator, never had to discuss this with the other adults in the room. We all wanted the students to be able to articulate their thoughts and experiences with power and authority. We all wanted them to be prepared to use their voices outside of the safety of the classroom.
By the end of the school year, students were engaging in meaningful and detailed conversations with texts, each other, and the community. We had begun the year dictating observational notes within pages of texts that did not represent my students' lives, but we ended the year having dissected and conversed with many student-selected novels, articles, and lyrics that did resonate with them. Once students saw the power their voices held within the school and community, they began searching for ways in which they could be agents of change. From organizing community petitions to presenting and facilitating similar book clubs for younger students, students learned the power that conversations in the margins can have when expanded to include marginalized voices within the community.

Voices Outside the Margins

As I make plans to continue this practice within future classrooms, I reflect on how the previous year has reshaped my pedagogy. If I were to itemize the successes of allowing students to have conversations in the margins of novels that are relevant to their lives, it would be quite a long list. From improved annotating and engagement with texts, to more thoughtful and comprehensive essay and letter writing, to increased classroom participation among students, parents, and the community—the successes were numerous. But more meaningful than all of the quantifiable achievements was the knowledge that the students felt safe using their voices inside of the classroom because our curriculum taught them that their voices deserve to be heard everywhere else—in their homes, in their communities, and in their futures.
Editor's Note: A version of this article was previously published in the San Diego-area newsletter Dialogue.
Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Instructional Strategies
Reaching Your Destination with Midcourse Corrections
Meredith Wendel
2 days ago

undefined
Get It Out There!
Matthew R. Kay
1 month ago

undefined
Readers React / Feedback for Impact
Educational Leadership Staff
3 months ago

undefined
Performance Tasks or Projects? Complementary Approaches for Student Engagement
Jay McTighe & John Larmer
4 months ago

undefined
Show and Tell: A Video Column / Co-Constructing Success Criteria
Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
5 months ago
Related Articles
Reaching Your Destination with Midcourse Corrections
Meredith Wendel
2 days ago

Get It Out There!
Matthew R. Kay
1 month ago

Readers React / Feedback for Impact
Educational Leadership Staff
3 months ago

Performance Tasks or Projects? Complementary Approaches for Student Engagement
Jay McTighe & John Larmer
4 months ago

Show and Tell: A Video Column / Co-Constructing Success Criteria
Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
5 months ago
From our issue
Product cover image 120040b.jpg
Rooted in Reading
Go To Publication