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The Marginal Syllabus: (re)Marking on Equity in Education

The Marginal Syllabus: (re)Marking on Equity in Education

Written by Joe Dillon
July 26, 2017

The image below is a one page .pdf intended to illustrate conceptually The Marginal Syllabus project at a glance. In the upcoming 2017-2018 school year, the project will continue in partnership with NWP’s Educator Innovator network. Read more about the first year of the project on the pages associated with this resource, or take a more in depth look at marginalsyllab.us, the project website. For those interested in joining and spreading the word about this annotated conversation, the .pdf is available for download below. 

Open marginal syllabus onepager v2.pdf

During the week of July 10th, we – Remi Kalir and Joe Dillon- attended the National Writing Project’s Resource Development Retreat (RDR; and check out #NWPRDR17 on Twitter) in Denver, Colorado. Throughout the 2016-17 academic school year, we played key roles in organizing and facilitating the Marginal Syllabus, an openly networked experiment in educator professional learning that leverages web annotation, social reading practices, and author partnerships to advance conversations about educational equity. Part geeky book club, part digital learning resource, the Marginal Syllabus embraces an intentional double entendre; we partner with authors whose writing may be considered marginal – or contrary to – dominant education norms, and our online conversations with authors occur in the margins of their texts by using the web annotation platform Hypothesis.

Our passion project has grown, and the NWP RDR was a welcome opportunity to reflect, design, receive feedback, and plan for next year. As an entry point into the week’s collaborative work, we began by clarifying some of the core values that have guided our organization and facilitation of the Marginal Syllabus. These values include:

  • Fostering transparency and openness;
  • Designing experiments via technology;
  • Inquiring through partnership; and
  • Sustaining critical conversations about equity.

We were tasked with two broad responsibilities for our work during the RDR.

First, our retrospective activities will include the development of resources for educators that summarize what happened during the first year, curate information about our conversations, and make the entire syllabus accessible as an open educational resource (or OER; also, read more the Marginal Syllabus as OER). One example of this curation includes our recently published The 2016-17 Syllabus, a summary of author partnerships, nine annotated texts, and some educator takeaways (thanks to our many partner authors and participants!).

Second, our forward-looking efforts are all about design – sketching out a plan, sustaining and growing partnerships, and detailing concrete next steps for Marginal Syllabus activities during the 2017-18 academic year. Last year, Marginal Syllabus programming concluded on a notable high thanks to an emergent partnership with the NWP’s Educator Innovator initiative. While we welcome and are very thankful for this emergent partnering, we’re now eager to more proactively shape future collaborative activities.

The purpose of this page is to address – provisionally and formatively – one aspect of our retrospective work that, most simply, boils down to this question: What did we learn from the first year of Marginal Syllabus activities? As reflective educators who are both active in the world of digital media and learning, engaging a question about our own learning is a welcome opportunity for introspection, iterative design, and strengthened collaboration. We also approach this question from different yet complementary perspectives: Joe is a K-12 educator, Remi is a professor; Joe has a history of collaboration with the NWP and the Denver Writing Project, and has facilitated the Young Writers Camp, whereas Remi is a newcomer to NWP activities and communities. We’re engaging with the RDR – and, more specifically, this question about what we’ve learned – from both varied experiences and also shared commitments.

So, what have we learned? On the RDR’s second morning, we sketched out a poster that introduced the Marginal Syllabus to other RDR participants. As a part of this poster session, we literally spent five minutes detailing provisional inquiry prompts that have consequently helped us to answer our “what did we learn” question. What resulted were three writing prompts which suggest broad lessons related to partnerships, the design of professional learning, the emergence of a community of practice, and research.

Here are some of those prompts; we’ve each responded individually to highlight our personal experience, useful divergence in our thinking, and some common insights.

1. How has partnership defined activities, and how will partnership sustain activities?

JD: For Remi and I, our different vantage points – he’s from higher ed and I’m from K12 – have resulted in a diverse set of texts that frame marginality differently. Our different personal connections have also helped this work intersect with the work of organizations like Virtually Connecting and Educator Innovator. As we experiment with emergent design and seek to form a community of practice, we’ve had to think about the interests of partners and participants, and reflect on their reactions to social annotation and equity issues. In a couple of instances, a partner’s idea led us to include synchronous Google Hangout discussions as part of the monthly reading and response. Partnering with authors and publishers moving forward will allow us to continually surface new texts about equity issues and responses to the processes we use to facilitate social online annotation. Partnering will also surface emergent interests in annotation technology.

RK: We launched the Marginal Syllabus with a core commitment to author partnership. It was important that authors consented to have their writing annotated – and annotated publicly as a means of conversation and professionally-relevant learning. Accordingly, we set clear expectations with authors about how to access, mark up, and talk about their texts. In some cases, we also consulted with authors about how to annotate texts published according to copyright standards. Partnership also meant establishing participation expectations, such as how authors would engage during live annotation activities and, eventually, Educator Innovator-hosted webinars (as we did last April and May). The lessons we’ve learned about author partnership indicate opportunities to improve how these partners develop and/or leverage their technical fluency (especially with web annotation), share their public participation, and continue to reference their annotated texts as learning resources.

2. How has this experiment in professional learning changed based upon structure and supports?

JD: We made a structural shift when we changed the time window for annotation from a one-hour “flash-mob” format to a week-long “annotathon” format. This may not have changed participation drastically, but it did change the way our invitations sounded – we created more opportunity – and increased potential participation.

Another structural consideration that arose was the technical barrier to entry, which snuck up on me as an issue because the first few authors and groups of participants picked up Hypothes.is readily. It wasn’t until the last month when Bronwyn LaMay, our participating author, asked a few good clarifying questions in the lead up to our synchronous annotation and the webinar to discuss the chapter that I realized how much we’d asked of her technically. She needed to create a Hypothes.is account and familiarize herself with the tool at the same time we asked her to read over the planning document for the Educator Innovator webinar. The addition of the Google Hangout as a structure made the monthly reading increasingly social and also raised a technical hurdle.

RK: As I wrote about last January, our early annotation conversations were structured around the idea of a “flash mob,” though that organizing metaphor failed to capture people’s sustained participation in annotation over longer periods of time. Accordingly, one of the first major changes to the Marginal Syllabus structure was a shift toward week-long “annotathons.” This change in conversation format coincided with our Educator Innovator partnership, and was a new means of supporting and scaling how educators might access, learn about, and contribute to conversation activities. Among these changes to structure to support, we were reminded that web annotation aligns well with a broader media ecology; participating educators were not only using Hypothesis to mark up texts, they were also sharing publicly via Twitter and blogging to reflect on their distinct efforts. We’ve learned that it’s important to be flexible about the structures that support open and collaborative annotation, to welcome a broad range of complementary social media practices, and to amplify participant experiences.

3. What have we heard from our participants, including partner authors, and how does this help us inquire about what’s happened during our first year?

JD: Participants in social annotation comment about their reading process, which is notable. They sometimes reflect that the annotations pull them away from the text to engage in a discussion thread in the margins. Repeat participants have remarked to me that they prefer to read a text one time through before they annotate and consider the annotations of others. Why is this important? Increasingly, I’m familiar with definitive claims about the way people read in online spaces. It seems generally accepted that people read more closely on paper while they are more likely to skim digital texts. Still, If reading on paper is superior for close reading, research is needed about the potential for digitally-enabled reading and its capacity to support extended cognition. The reading people do using annotation software and encountering other readers’ thoughts, might prove to be closer reads because they consider different viewpoints and questions they otherwise wouldn’t while reading.

As for what we hear from authors, everyone we have asked for permission to read and mark up their work so far has granted permission. It bears noting that Bronwyn LaMay remarked that the conversation we had with her online was an uplifting experience, probably because it was the end of a school year and she appreciated us considering her work so carefully.

RK: As someone who regularly wears a researcher hat, I’ll keep my response here brief. First, it’s important to remind people that by using Hypothesis publicly, annotators agree to license their annotation content according to a Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain Dedication (check out Hypothesis’ Terms of Service). Second, my research about educator participation in open and collaborative annotation as professionally-relevant activity is summarized and publicly available here. And third, I’m quite thankful to have begun collaborating with amazing doctoral students, professors, Hypothesis staff, and others who are committed to inquiry about the ways in which (digital) annotation is changing reading, learning, scholarship, and publication. From a research perspective, the Marginal Syllabus embraces a design-based research methodology, and my retrospective analysis about the first year – as an initial iteration – is a focus of forthcoming presentations and publications.

Though these “lessons learned” read as somewhat declarative and definitive, we reiterate that these are rough draft thoughts and, as such, we welcome your responses, questions, and criticisms (and, it should go without saying, you’re very welcome to engage via Hypothesis annotation!). Moreover, we would be thrilled to hear responses from Marginal Syllabus participants, partner authors, or our colleagues at the NWP RDR.

Finally, a brief note of thanks: Throughout our experiences at the RDR, we’ve been deftly and graciously supported by NWP staff, most especially Tanya Baker, Christina Cantrill, and Liana Gamber-Thompson. We’re grateful for their support and critique in helping us to advance open and interest-driven educator learning about educational equity via the Marginal Syllabus.

What follows is a summary of the nine texts, author partnerships, and annotation conversations that comprised the 2016-17 Marginal Syllabus. Read more about this project at marginalsyllab.us

August: Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy by Chris Gilliard & Hugh Culik

Conversation Context: In August we read Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy, a blog post for Common Sense Education written by Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik. The authors explain the way IT safety nets and employee management efforts can create inequitable educational opportunities for learners. Chris Gilliard joined us to mark up the text during our first “flash mob,” as well as for a discussion in a Google Hangout.  Thanks to Autumm Caines for organizing the post-flash mob hangout (and check out her great work as part of the Virtually Connecting project).

This reading might help educators:

  • Respond to student curiosity online with positive assumptions and curiosity.
  • Consider the assumptions we make about a youth’s Internet searches and their use of  digital tools.
  • Ask critical questions with IT leadership about acceptable use policies, Internet blocks and filters in order to determine their impact on learning.

September: Speculative Design for Emergent Learning: Taking Risks by Mia Zamora

Conversation Context: In September we annotated Mia Zamora’s blog post, Speculative Design for Emergent Learning: Taking Risks, which appeared at dmlcentral.net. Mia writes about the way she changed her approach to a course she taught called “Writing Race and Ethnicity” at Keane University. Mia joined in the synchronous annotation as we discussed the risks she took as an instructor with co-design. In particular, this post shares her public reflections about instructional decision-making that was timely and urgent in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that influenced changes to her course.

This reading might help educators:

  • Plan instruction to take into account current events and the civic climate.
  • Allow students to share in shaping the content of a course, or produce work that is personally meaningful as a result.
  • Plan course content and structure so that the teacher, too, is learning.

October: What it Means to Pose, Wobble, and Flow (Introduction) by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen

Conversation Context: In October we marked up a chapter excerpted from Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen’s book Pose, Wobble, and Flow: a Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction. Antero and Cindy introduce yoga as an inspiring metaphor for teacher learning, and they provide concrete examples of culturally relevant pedagogy that exemplify their model of Pose, Wobble, and Flow. Their analogy frames in decidedly realistic and human terms the way real teachers develop and improve their craft. In addition to October’s synchronous annotation flash mob, another group of annotators contributed substantially to this text in February.

This reading might help educators:

  • Think about the “pose” we hope to strike in our practice and consider equity in professional goal setting. 
  • Prepare for the iterative process of teacher learning and improvement in the classroom, in order to learn from inevitable “wobbles.” 
  • Develop new flexibility and strengths in our work with students. 

November: Ed Tech and the circus of unreason by Helen Beetham

Conversation Context: In November we read Helen Beetham’s blog post Ed Tech and the circus of unreason right on the heels of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. In it, she reflected on his victory as well as the state of educational technology from a higher education perspective. She delivers a list of responsibilities for educators based on the stunning election result and, in doing so, synthesizes political reality with the shifting landscape of the Internet. She joined us in our annotation of her post, and commented in the margins with participants who were grappling with the political news and the questions it raised about educational technology.

This reading might help educators:

  • Unpack our response to the political climate and the way it might change the way we view digital tools and our work in online spaces.
  • Consider our responsibilities in response to civic events.
  • Determine the real promise of digital tools as we investigate some false promises propagated in educational technology circles.

January: The School and Social Progress (from The School and Society) by John Dewey

Conversation Context: In January we annotated John Dewey’s historical educational text The School and Society with Christina Cantrill of Arcadia University and the National Writing Project. Christina chose the text and invited her teacher education course at Arcadia to join us in our annotation. Dewey’s words reminded us of how social change is interwoven inextricably with education. The responses in Dewey’s margins grapple with that marriage, and serve as a kind of signpost toward contemporary social change efforts and implications for educators, students, and schools.

This reading might help educators:

  • Grapple with time-honored theory as it relates to modern communities and schooling.
  • Contextualize community responses to civic events in order to determine our responses.
  • Challenge traditions in our contexts and in our practice.

February: Reading, Writing and Inquiry with Adolescents by Dawn Reed and Troy Hicks

Conversation Context: In February we read Reading, Writing and Inquiry with Adolescents, the preface of Dawn Reed and Troy Hicks’ book Research Writing Rewired: Lessons that Ground Digital Learning. Both authors joined us to mark up this short excerpt of their book, which shares three core principles they employ in the planning for, and instruction of, research writing. The text speaks to the way research writing has evolved for them in response to new content standards, the ubiquity of digital tools for writing and publication, and the prevalence of the Internet as a site of inquiry and research.

This reading might help educators to:

  • Plan writing instruction in response to promising practices established from educational research.
  • Explore the principles of Connected Learning to plan for authentic uses of digital tools in the classroom.
  • Create an active role for the student researcher that responds student interest.

March: How Can White Teachers Do Better by Urban Kids of Color? by Christopher Emdin

Conversation Context: In March we read Christopher Emdin’s How Can White Teachers Do Better by Urban Kids of Color? This was an excerpt from his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, which appeared online at Colorlines.com. The post discusses race in the classroom and contrasts the voices of students of color with those of white teachers, all while intermixing Emdin’s reflections and advice as an educator and researcher.

This reading might help educators:

  • Empathize with youth of color who perceive and experience cultural disconnects in their interactions with white teachers.
  • Re-envision how we might approach our work in a way that honors the assets of the communities we serve.
  • Listen to students’ perceptions about the fairness of teachers and schools.

April: Between Storytelling and Surveillance: The Precarious Public of American Muslim Youth by Sangita Shresthova

Conversation Context: In April, during our first week-long “annotathon” in partnership with Educator Innovator, we marked up Between Storytelling and Surveillance: The Precarious Public of American Muslim Youth, a chapter from the book By Any Media Necessary, by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman. The chapter author Sangita Shresthova joined us in the annotation of her study of American Muslim youth’s experiences online. We learned about the ways in which American Muslim youth experience islamophobia online, and also how they endure the criticism of older community members who take issue with some youth’s desire to have expressive and creative online identities. As a part of the week’s professional learning activities, we also joined a Google Hangout conversation with the book’s authors hosted via EducatorInnovator.org.

This reading might help educators:

  • Discuss issues and opportunities germane to Muslim American youth with learners interested in culture, identity, and expression in our contemporary political climate.
  • Expand their online networks to include Muslim American youth and/or to engage around pertinent cultural conversations.
  • Include positive media representations of Muslim American youth in classroom teaching and learning.

May: Revising Narrative Truth by Bronwyn Clare LaMay

Conversation Context: In May we read Revising Narrative Truth, a chapter excerpt from Bronwyn Clare LaMay’s book Personal Narrative, Revised. Bronwyn joined us for the annotation and for a Google Hangout hosted via the EducatorInnovator.org network. The chapter shares the story of LaMay’s work with one student who reveals traumatic personal details about his life in response to her encouragement to write personal narratives in search of truth. Her responses to conflicts that arise with that student – and the larger classroom community – offer an inspiring story about relationship negotiation among all learners (including educators).

This reading might help educators: 

  • Support students to investigate their own stories and values.
  • Learn from productive conflict with learners that inevitably arises in classrooms.
  • Develop inclusive classroom communities that nurture student risk-taking, expression, and learning.


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