Professional Learning

How Geeky Is Your Book Club?

Author: Christina Cantrill

Summary: Teacher leaders looking for opportunities to engage with new professional literature online, either personally or with colleagues in a study group, might find the Marginal Syllabus a useful support structure. This article describes the genesis of the Marginal Syllabus and points to ways for teacher-leaders to get involved or visit its archives.

Original Date of Publication: February 2020


Around 2015, as the Aurora Public Schools District was preparing to introduce new technologies in schools across the district, instructional coach Joe Dillon (@onewheeljoe) from the Denver Writing Project was looking for ways to keep equity at the forefront of the district’s technology planning. It was in this mix that, along with various colleagues, Joe first coined the hashtag #techquity and used it to engage local educators with extended groups of others in online conversations about technology and equity issues. 

Learning from the #techquity work, Joe approached colleague Remi Kalir (@remikalir) from the University of Colorado Denver to see if they could design what became their first “geeky book club.” Starting first with in-person meetings and then moving online, the book club invited educators to connect and geek-out together by reading equity-oriented articles and annotating them online using an open-source tool called Hypothes.is

Focusing on one reading a month that focused on topics of importance to the Aurora Public Schools community, the project was re-named “Marginal Syllabus” and employed a relatively simple yet fully participatory design, creating an online professional learning opportunity for educators eager to join critical conversations about equity and education. 

The new name captured their desire to bring “marginal” conversations into the center of our work. In a recent book chapter about educators’ ethical digital literacy practices, Joe and Remi write that “[e]ducators must endeavor to craft their own ethical stance toward digital literacy if they are to teach at the intersection of ethics, equity, and literacy in a digital age.” The Marginal Syllabus supports this work by encouraging educators to read and interact socially via online spaces while bringing to the center research, practice, and perspectives on issues often marginalized in mainstream educational discourse. 

The Marginal Syllabus Goes ‘NWP’

Intrigued by the potential to support national conversations, the National Writing Project began to co-host the Marginal Syllabus in 2017. Recognizing its simple yet flexible design through her own use of the articles and annotations in teaching, NWP staff member Christina Cantrill saw that the Marginal Syllabus could support both individual educators as well as communities at local sites who might want to hold their own ‘geeky book clubs.’

As participation spread, it became important to consider how to use the Marginal Syllabus with a range of professional literature, much of which might be unavailable to teachers. In 2018, NWP and the Marginal Syllabus approach the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) to form a three-way collaboration to take up this challenge, and a new Marginal Syllabus titled Literacy, Equity and Remarkable Notes, or LEARN, was created.

LEARN: Marginal Syllabus focuses specifically on the intersection of literacy and equity and features one NCTE journal article each month for educators to read and annotate together. (See the 2018-2019 syllabus as an example). Partner Authors give permission for their articles to be part of the syllabus and agree to participate in a public video discussion about their text. In this way, readers have an opportunity to hear from the authors about the context and inspiration for the work before adding their own thoughts and annotations. All articles featured on the Marginal Syllabus remain open and available online along with collected annotations and associated author videos. 

Reading Together While Writing in the Margins

Reflecting on her experiences with the Marginal Syllabus, Michelle King of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project wrote that “to annotate is to observe, remark, and/or note down. [It is] an act of love because of one’s commitment to stay in relationship with the creator and other readers and observers.” LEARN: Marginal Syllabus is committed to building these relationships among authors and readers while extending the scholarship and discussion about the scholarship with the annotations of interested colleagues. It is a place to collaboratively connect to important work in the field as well as a space to practice and model discussions around critical topics. LEARN: Marginal Syllabus can, therefore, support for literacy educators organizing around important issues in education and equity; it can also be a model used for the design of one’s own custom annotatable syllabus around issues critical to your context and community.

You can find links to the Marginal Syllabus articles and videos at the NWP’s Educator Innovator and at the marginalsyllab.us websites. You can also get links to each month’s post by following #marginalsyllabus on social media.

This post is part of the Reading Together at NWP Sites and Beyond collection.