3 approaches to joining the crowded margins of November’s #marginalsyllabus

The digital margins of Nicole Mirra and Antero Garcia’s article, Reimagining Youth Civic Engagement, are crowded with notes. As the second reading in Writing Our Civic Futures, this year’s #marginalsyllabus project, their piece has drawn a lot of reader response from educators interested in equity, civic education, and innovation. For the uninitiated, this professional project invites educators to mark up texts about equity using hypothes.is, a social online annotation tool. The notes respondents have written so far on this text include links to related reading, summaries of work that readers have done related to the topic of youth civic engagement, and even debates about the content of the article. (For a detailed discussion of the activity in the text to date, read Remi Kalir’s thoughtful analysis here.) Since the text, the marginal space and the notes are digital, the already-crowded margins don’t prohibit others from joining in the reading and discussion. On the contrary, we’d love it if more readers weighed in. Still, like a book club meeting that has morphed into an overly noisy party that spilled out of a house into the front lawn and onto the street, the volume of images, videos, commentary, and discussion in this margin might seem daunting to interested participants who want to respond. In this post, I’ll offer a few ideas for how would-be participants might navigate the crowded margin and join our social-reading-as-professional-learning project, which might seem at first glance like a noisy party.

This screenshot shows the crowded margin of November’s reading

Approach #1- for the student on assignment

A participant’s approach to participating in the annotation of Mirra and Garcia’s text would depend on her purpose for joining. For readers who have been steered to the piece as part of teacher education coursework, it might be particularly important to read the text carefully before looking at the marginalia. As a co-organizer of this project, I’ve found myself in circumstances just like a harried student might find herself- with a day or so to read a chapter, needing to come away from the reading with something intelligible to say about it. On these occasions, I prioritize reading first, and online discourse second. I like to print the article, read it on paper and make notes with a highlighter and pen in order to have a grasp of the text. Then, I look back at my notes in order to decide which I want to make public. This keeps my attention from being drawn away from the text to the margins and the discussion there. In the same way I used to pick over the overly scarred used books while shopping in the college bookstore, in this medium I prefer to avoid navigating too many markings when I’m trying to make sense of what I am reading.

Clicking the eyeball hides and reveals annotations in the hypothes.is sidebar.

Another way to read an unmarked, clean text the first time through without printing it out, is to click the eyeball icon on the hypothes.is sidebar. When clicked, it hides the notes and accompanying highlights in the text. Click it again and they’re back.

Approach #2 – for readers in search of interaction

Other participants might be drawn to this social reading in order to interact with the authors of the text, or to discuss the subject matter with other interested educators. For readers who want to extend the text in a social way, looking at the margins first might be the place to start. Skimming the interaction among readers and authors shows the social layer to this reading. This kind of interaction-focused reading holds potential for educators to share earnest questions about equity issues and civic education, or promising practices that they connect with the text.  Jumping into the collaborative annotation for the purposes of discussion could be very much like jumping into a conversation at an overcrowded party, it will require a quick study of the context and a reliance on social instincts. When marking up the text for this purpose, I could look for and respond to a note written by the author, or I might share a note I’ve written with the author on social media. (As luck would have it, Mirra and Garcia about both terrific folks to follow on Twitter, their handles are @Nicole_Mirra, and @anterobot, respectively). Using the hashtag #marginalsyllabus on Twitter amplifies the response and broadens the invitation for others to participate.


In the Tweet embedded above, Remi Kalir shares a link to an annotation, tags the authors of the piece, and incorporates hashtags to broaden the open invitation for educators to participate.

Approach #3 – for MOOCers and online learning enthusiasts

Skimming the crowded margins of Mirra and Garcia’s text, I see images, videos and links in addition to the text notes. Some readers might join this project out of a sense of curiosity about social annotation as a professional learning experience. The #marginalsyllabus project was hatched as an idea born out of experiments with playful annotations using hypothes.is, and in keeping with those roots, digital innovators might take to the text with a production-centered focus. When I come to a text with the goal of remixing it, I ask myself, “What does this text inspire me to make?” Would-be readers familiar with the work of the #clmooc community might ask, “How could these margins be a make cycle?” These digital margins of a text could be a creative canvas for connected teachers interested in testing the affordances of the hypothes.is tool for remixing, and tinkering with the way digital reading response might transform a text or spawn stimulating networked interaction among readers.

This screenshot illustrates how the margins provide a a creative space for response.

These recommendations are just a short list of possibilities born out of a very short history of online annotation-as-professional learning. For my part, social annotation causes me to be aware of my reading process, and to think about how I move from the text, to my notes, and then to a public and social layer of response. Surely, thoughtful readers, writers, and innovators, drawn to the crowded margins ofReimagining Youth Civic Engagement, will bring new ideas about how such a professional learning experience might serve them best, and vital reflections about their experiences reading, responding and participating. My hope is that the potential problem of a crowded margin in this text becomes a larger problem of practice for an expanding community of practice of educators who are drawn to reading about equity and compelled to act, respond, make and inquire.

Reading Pathways Into and Beyond An Annotation Conversation

This post was authored by Remi Kalir and first appeared on his blog.


Summarizing an Annotation Conversation

November’s Marginal Syllabus conversation – the second of the 2017-18 Writing Our Civic Futures syllabus hosted by the National Writing Project – has been rather distinctive. For those less familiar with this project, the Marginal Syllabus convenes and sustains conversations with educators about equity in education via open and collaborative web annotation. This approach to sparking and supporting educators’ interest-driven learning embraces an intentional political and technical double entendre; the Marginal Syllabus partners with authors whose writing may be considered marginal – or contrary – to dominant education norms, and our online conversations with authors and text-participants occur in the margins of online texts using the web annotation platform Hypothesis. The Marginal Syllabus was piloted throughout the 2016-17 academic school year; the first syllabus features nine conversations with ten partner authors about topics including digital redlining, curriculum co-design, critical literacy, cultural relevant pedagogy, research writing, the business of educational technology, and narrative truth, among others. Marginal Syllabus conversations are publicly available open educational resources (or OER) and analyses of these conversations support ongoing research about how open web annotation mediates educators’ interest-driven and professionally-relevant learning.

A core commitment of the Marginal Syllabus are author partnerships. This month, as a part of Writing Our Civic Futures, we partnered with Nicole Mirra and Antero Garcia to read, mark up, and discuss their article Civic participation reimagined: Youth interrogation and innovation in the multimodal public sphere The article, published earlier this year, appears in the journal Review of Research in Education; as such, openly accessing, sharing, and annotating this text meant that Marginal Syllabus organizers had to partner not only with Nicole and Antero but also with Sage Publishing, the journal’s publisher. This multi-tiered partnership (i.e. scholars as partner authors, publishers of academic content, and Marginal Syllabus organizers) is a new and exciting aspect of the Marginal Syllabus that suggests important inroads for curating public learning opportunities that open access to knowledge.

Following a dedicated week of online annotation-as-conversation, this month’s discussion evidences several impressive indicators of educator engagement. As of Sunday, November 12th, this Marginal Syllabus conversations features:

  • 192 total Hypothesis annotations, including original in-line annotations (when a text-participant highlights and then writes about a passage in the focal text), replies to annotations (or reader-to-reader exchanges), and also page notes (comments attached the entire text);
  • 23 text-participants active in the conversation, many of whom are educators, teacher educators, or higher education faculty;
  • 8,652 written words authored by text-participants; and
  • 24 links to related resources, such as scholarship, reports, news media, and videos.

Of course, these numbers tell us little about the qualities associated with educator annotation and interaction, such as shared discursive practices like debate, resource-sharing, and questioning that can be found throughout the conversation. This public commentary about youth civic engagement, media practice, and civic innovation and interrogation is a rich, multimodal, and divergent discussion; readers of this post are invited to join as text-participants and further grow the conversation.

Reading Pathways

So how, in just over a week, did almost two dozen educators co-author a conversation as long as an academic article? As the Marginal Syllabus’ approach to open educator learning develops, the November conversation suggests a number of promising reading pathways into and also beyond an annotation conversation. Reading pathways, in the context of analyzing this annotation conversation, were distinguished by the following characteristics:

  • Reading pathways crossed multiple settings, including classroom (i.e. embodied), online (and digital), professional, and also interest-driven spaces;
  • Reading pathways were sociotechnical and featured a range of interrelated social relations (i.e. those between teachers and students, or among colleagues) and social networks (such as Twitter), technical platforms (i.e. Hypothesis), digital media, and media literacy practices; and
  • Reading pathways established entry points into the mediated annotation conversation of Nicole and Antero’s text and also beyond into other texts, spaces, and activities crafted by participants according to their needs and goals.

The five reading pathways I’ll briefly describe include: annotating as course activity, annotating text and video, annotation brokering, annotating via flash mob, and annotating via complementary texts.

Annotating as Course Activity

The week began with an exciting announcement from Kira Baker-Doyle, a university-based teacher educator who is helping to lead national #CLinTE (or connected learning in teacher education) efforts:

Kira incorporated both collaborative web annotation and the Marginal Syllabus into her literacy course. Annotating as a course activity likely required multiple steps and supports: Onboarding students to a new tool (i.e. creating a free Hypothesis account); modeling and encouraging new media practices (i.e. annotating with Hypothesis); introducing the Marginal Syllabus as an open and public approach to educator learning that leverages web annotation; and then facilitating the simultaneous reading and annotating of the focal text. Kira’s approach echoed a similar one taken by Christina Cantrill and her ED677 course last February (for the record, Christina is Associate Director of National Programs at the National Writing Project, and is an organizer of the Marginal Syllabus). And because Kira shared her process publicly via Twitter, she elicited a number of encouraging responses:

Annotating Text and Video

Thanks to support from the National Writing Project, select texts in the 2017-18 syllabus will be complemented by Connected Learning TV webinars featuring partner authors. Joe Dillon and I had the pleasure of speaking with Nicole and Antero prior to November’s annotation activities, and you can watch the entire webinar here:

Shortly after this webinar went live, Kevin Hodgson, a middle school literacy educator and regular Marginal Syllabus participant, shared the following:

Kevin uploaded the Marginal Syllabus’ Connected Learning TV webinar to the Vialogues platform. Vialogues affords viewers the ability to annotate video, using time-stamps to organize written (and potentially collaborative) commentary. Kevin, in this case, extended the text-based annotation of Nicole and Antero’s article to video-based annotation of the webinar featuring both authors. Whereas Kira curated a learning environment (i.e. a class session) that brought new readers (her students) into the online annotation conversation, Kevin initiated a new pathway beyond and outside the annotated article so that Marginal Syllabus participants could apply a shared literacy practice (i.e. annotation) in a novel digital setting (via the Vialogues platform).

Annotation Brokering

Annotation brokering was a third reading pathway present in the November conversation. Brokering, in this respect, invited new text-participants into the conversation and established both context and purpose for these newcomers’ subsequent contributions. Consider how Sarah Lohnes Watulak (SarahLW), on November 6th, began one of her annotations by noting: “One of my former doc students who graduated last year…” And, two days later, ltwiss appeared in the margins and replied: “For my research (I am the doc student), I defined…” A screenshot of the exchange is included below, or you can click here and read the annotations in situ.

ltwiss has, to date, authored four annotation replies. Her contributions share findings from her dissertation research and reference resources about civic life online. Perhaps most importantly, her annotations elicited four responses from three other participants, suggesting ltwiss’ comments were valuable to other people and helped to carry the conversation forward. It is important to emphasize that annotation brokering, like that practiced by Sarah, can be present in varied settings (i.e. not only online in the margins of a text, or oriented outward toward other digital spaces like Vialogues). Kira, for example, incorporated Marginal Syllabus annotation into a face-to-face class session, thereby brokering newcomer participation that established a clear context for conversation (i.e. a literacy course studying civic engagement) that spanned embodied classroom and digital media spaces.

Annotating via Flash Mob

Sundi Richard, a higher education instructional designer, is an organizer of the digital pedagogy, identity, networks, and scholarship community, also known as #DigPINS. As another reading pathway into the annotation conversation, Sundi organized an annotation “flash mob” of Nicole and Antero’s text. By promoting the flash mob via Twitter, Sundi invited anyone – though specifically those people who actively follow and contribute to #DigPINS – to gather atop the focal text and engage in a synchronous conversation via public Hypothesis annotation (hence a flash mob; for additional information about annotation flash mobs read my co-authored article in TechTrends and also this activity description). The flash mob model was initially used during the Marginal Syllabus’ pilot year to organize conversation; however, we shifted our approach to week-long conversations based upon participant feedback. Nonetheless, this month’s #DigPINS flash mob lasted about an hour and attracted multiple first-time participants – johnclawless, marisgillette, reruhlen, thefieldworker, and slrichard (Sundi) – and injected a more frenetic (and playful!) synchronous energy into the largely asynchronous week-long conversation.

Annotating Complementary Texts

Via her interests and annotations, Sarah also helped to organize a fifth reading pathway that, in this case, extended beyond the primary annotation conversation and into other discursive and digital spaces. The seeds of this reading pathway are evident in an extended exchange between me and Sarah (read it in full here):

remikalir: Speaking of the DML conference and community, have people seen Justin Reich and Mimi Ito’s new report? From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Technologies. The complexity you all speak of here is echoed in Reich and Ito’s stance, as they suggest: “Evidence is mounting that these new technologies tend to be used and accessed in unequal ways, and they may even exacerbate inequality” (p. 3).

SarahLW: It’s on my reading list for this week. Wouldn’t it also be a great reading for Marginal Syllabus? (hint :))

remikalir: Yes! This year we’re playing around with the idea of the syllabus having both “core” and also “complementary” texts. If we start annotating this report – or any other text – and tag our annotations with “marginalsyllabus” (as I’ve done below) then we can easily curate a list of recommended “complementary” texts to appear on the Marginal Syllabus website. Let’s do it!

SarahLW: I just started annotating the report, available here: https://via.hypothes.is/https://clalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/GIROreport_1031.pdf and I tagged with marginalsyllabus. Hope others will join in!

And, indeed, other Marginal Syllabus participants joined in and sparked a complementary conversation atop this recently published DML report. Sarah – joined by Jeremy Dean (Director of Education at Hypothesis) and tutormentor1 (a regular Marginal Syllabus participant) – have added 34 annotations over the past day. Why not join them, too!

A Concluding Note of Thanks

The five reading pathways described in this post were possible because of intentional planning and dedicated participation. There are many people to thank, and I am most appreciative of:

  • Marginal Syllabus organizers Christina Cantrill, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Joe Dillon;
  • Nicole Mirra and Antero Garcia, our partner authors;
  • Kira Baker-Doyle, Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Sundi Richard, and Kevin Hodgson for crafting reading pathways that invited and broadened text-participation; and
  • All the newcomers and regulars who joined and shaped this month’s Marginal Syllabus conversation. We hope to learn with, and alongside you, next month.

Marginal Syllabus at the National Writing Project Resource Development Retreat

During the week of July 10th, we – Joe Dillon and Remi Kalir – are attending 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 is 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’ve also been 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 blog post 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 the 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.

Marginal Syllabus Announces New Conversation Format and Partnership

Three Major Announcements

The Marginal Syllabus is pleased to announce a new conversation format and partnership. First, the final three conversations of the 2016-17 academic year (during March, April, and May) will occur via annotathon, whereby participants are invited to read, annotate, and discuss a given text for a week. Second, the Marginal Syllabus’ March conversation will feature Dr. Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor of Science Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. And third, starting in April the Marginal Syllabus will launch a partnership with the National Writing Project’s Educator Innovator to provide robust open learning opportunities for educators via author partnerships, annotathons, webinars, and other online resources. Suffice to say, we’re really excited!

A Bit of Context

Given these notable announcements, it’s likely that some people reading this post may be unfamiliar with the Marginal Syllabus. If so, here’s a brief bit of context. The Marginal Syllabus is an informal educator professional learning effort that convenes monthly annotation conversations about issues of educational equity. Marginal Syllabus organizers partner with education experts whose scholarly perspectives may be considered marginal to dominant conventions of schooling and education. The openly accessible texts of partner authors – whether book chapters or blog posts – are selected as online forums for conversation among K-12 and postsecondary educators via the open educational practices of web annotation (conversations that occur in a text’s margins). Selected texts have examined digital redlining and information accessibility, critical literacy education, the politics of educational technology, and curricular design. Monthly annotation conversations seek to amplify collaborative discourse among authors, their texts, and a participatory readership. Both the individual texts where monthly dialogue occurs – and the syllabus as a cohesive, growing document – represent a dynamic, dialogical, and intertextual conversation that seeks to open texts as contexts for educators’ interest-driven learning.

From Annotation Flash Mobs to Annotathons

Since August of 2016, Marginal Syllabus conversations have been described using a flash mob metaphor. While flash mobs convey excitement and spontaneity, the metaphor fails on multiple fronts. First, flash mobs are quick bursts of activity. While the first six Marginal Syllabus conversations were scheduled for a given hour on a specific day, the resulting dialogue has often lasted many days. It is not uncommon for multiple participants to respond to other annotators for days on end, spanning nearly a week of sustained activity. Second, flash mobs are quite sophisticated, but they can also model collective uniformity (many people doing the same thing at the same time). While it’s accurate to note that Marginal Syllabus participants are all engaging in the social and collaborative practices of web annotation, annotation content is frequently divergent, sparking debate and evidencing critical thinking that uniquely conveys participant’s voices. Third, flash mobs are distinctive precisely because they orchestrate something improvisational among the mundane everyday. Yet the traces of such dissonant creativity are often fleeting, and the casual observer might never know that a flash mob occurred in that location just over there about an hour ago. Alternatively, web annotation affords searchable curation and descriptive tagging, creating an indelible and sharable record that can be referenced and joined by others who stumble across a recorded conversation even months later.

Given the limitations of the flash mob metaphor, as well as feedback from K-12 partners indicating that week-long annotathons are far more accommodating for educators’ busy schedules, it is necessary that we shift both our root metaphor and our conversation format. Where does the annotathon model originate? We’re inspired by Maha Bali, an early advocate and convener of annotathons; her model was recently adapted by learning scientists to discuss the need for a political theory of learning. The annotathon, as Marginal Syllabus’ new conversation format, will span a week, and we’re excited to see how partner authors and participants adapt this new discussion model to meet their interest-driven learning needs. Flash mobs were a useful pilot structure, and we anticipate annotathons will be a meaningful second iteration structuring Marginal Syllabus conversations.

March Annotation Conversation with Dr. Christopher Emdin

Starting on Monday, March 27, the Marginal Syllabus is excited to welcome Dr. Christopher Emdin as a partner author. Dr. Emdin is an Associate Professor of Science Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author most recently of the highly acclaimed book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Beacon Press, 2016). If you’re not familiar with Dr. Emdin, he was recently featured on PBS Newshour:

Throughout the week of March 27, the Marginal Syllabus will convene a conversation with Dr. Emdin via an excerpt of his book posted on Colorlines titled How Can White Teachers Do Better by Urban Kids of Color?

How can you join Dr. Emdin in an annotation conversation? Here’s the plan:

  1. When: Monday, March 27th through Friday, March 31st. As noted, we’ll adopt a multi-day annotathon model and invite educators to participate in a public conversation via the web annotation platform Hypothesis.
  2. Where: Visit How Can White Teachers Do Better by Urban Kids of Color? in order to access both the source text and the Hypothesis annotation layer.
  3. Who: K-12 educators, pre-service and in-service teachers, school administrators, and others interested in dialogue about “how White teachers at urban schools can overcome their class and race privilege and truly connect with their students.” Dr. Emdin will participate using the Hypothesis handle chrisemdin, and Marginal Syllabus organizers will include Remi Kalir (remikalir), Joe Dillon (onewheeljoe), and Jeremy Dean (jeremydean).
  4. How: We will use the web annotation platform Hypothesis for public conversation. If you are new to either open web annotation or the platform Hypothesis, follow these steps:
  • It is recommended that you use Google Chrome as your browser
  • Visit Hypothesis and select the red “Install” button (mid-page)
  • When prompted, select “Add Extension”
  • Follow instructions in the newly opened tab – create a username, enter your email address and a password, and that’s it!
  • Also, at hypothes.is/welcome note how to toggle the annotation menu via a button in Chrome’s location bar, as well as the different types of annotation you can add to a text – including page notes, highlights, comments, and replies to annotations.

The Marginal Syllabus & Educator Innovator Partnership

Starting in April, the Marginal Syllabus is humbled and honored to launch a partnership with the National Writing Project’s Educator Innovator initiative. Educator Innovator is “both a blog and a network of networks devoted to creative and connected learning.” In late February, leaders with Educator Innovator and the NWP, alongside Marginal Syllabus organizers, began a series of conversations about how to creatively support educators as they pursue professionally-relevant, openly networked, and interest-driven learning. The NWP and Educator Innovator have an established track record of distinctive accomplishments organizing and facilitating educator learning at the intersection of digital media and new literacies. Moreover, leaders at both the NWP and Educator Innovator are familiar with Hypothesis and the potential of collaborative web annotation to support transformative teaching and learning practices. Collectively, we’re excited to explore open learning opportunities for educators via author partnerships, annotathons, webinars, and other online resources.

April’s programming will feature the book By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism (NYU Press, 2016) authored by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson (who is Program Associate at the NWP), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman. The Marginal Syllabus annotathon will feature Sangita Shresthova and her chapter “Between Storytelling and Surveillance: The Precarious Public of American Muslim Youth.” The annotathon will occur from Monday, April 24th through Sunday, April 30th. In addition to the annotathon, Marginal Syllabus organizers Joe and Remi will join Sangita and Liana for a Connected Learning TV webinar at 7p ET/4p PT on Tuesday, April 25th (broadcast details announced soon!).

And in May, please join author Bronwyn Clare Lamay as we read and discuss Personal Narratives Revised: Writing Love and Agency in the High School Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2016). The annotathon with Bronwyn will occur from Monday, May 29th through Sunday, June 4th. And while the annotathon’s focal chapter will be announced soon, in the meantime listen to Bronwyn discuss her book on NWP Radio. Similar to programming in April, a Connected Learning TV webinar will be streamed at 7p ET/4p PT on Tuesday, May 30th featuring a discussion with Bronwyn about her book, and blog posts and related resources will be featured via various online venues.

Marginal Syllabus as OER and OEP

Yesterday, thanks to authors Dawn Reed and Troy Hicks, we launched the sixth Marginal Syllabus monthly flash mob via our emerging model of public and collaborative web annotation-as-conversation. We’re now more than halfway through the academic year, and as a Marginal Syllabus organizer I’ve been thinking a lot about how this experiment in equity-oriented, publicly networked, and interest-driven educator learning relates to open educational resources (OER) and open educational practices (OEP). This post is a rough attempt to connect dots by addressing the following question: How are everyday digital spaces transformed into open learning environments, and what might this look like for educator learning?

My motivation to explore the Marginal Syllabus as both OER and OEP can be traced, most immediately, to a few influences. First, I recently read Leo Havemann’s chapter “Open Educational Resources,” which will appear in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory (here’s the preprint).

This brief and easy-to-digest encyclopedia entry traces the history of educational openness, defines OER and summarizes pertinent debates in policy and practice, and includes an important discussion of OEP as a means of shifting from static (and presumed to be freely available) “resources” toward the messier (and – here’s my bias – more organic and transformative) efforts “to open educational spaces, or open other spaces for education.” Havemann concludes by suggesting: “Openness in education is not a movement for the emancipation of resources, but of people and practice.” This is a great piece and useful foundation for practitioners and scholars alike who appreciate both historical perspective and conceptual clarity. Moreover, Havemann’s analysis helps to frame the Marginal Syllabus as a dynamic OER – a curated document of texts, and texts which contain layers of conversation. And as the Marginal Syllabus grows from month-to-month, dialogical and intertextual conversation using the web annotation platform Hypothesis evidences OEP that open these curated texts as educational spaces.

The second influence motivating this exploration of the Marginal Syllabus as OER and OEP is an emergent collaboration also opening new educational spaces and spaces for education. January’s Marginal Syllabus annotation conversation was organized in partnership with Christina Cantrill, Associate Director of National Programs for the National Writing Project. In addition to wearing her NWP hat, Christina teaches ED677 Seeking Equity in Connected Learning and Teaching at Arcadia University for preservice and in-service educators. Whereas the first five Marginal Syllabus conversations partnered with authors to discuss their texts (and so, too, yesterday with Dawn and Troy), in January we partnered with Christina and her course to read an excerpt from John Dewey’s The School and Society. Christina recently wrote about her course design and decision-making processes that led to our collaboration, and it’s illustrative to quote at length:

In the past I asked everyone to engage in recent work by John Seely Brown and the authors of the Connected Learning Design and Research Agenda while also reading the first chapter of School and Society by John Dewey, a publication of lectures he gave at the turn of the 20th century.

In the past, the Dewey piece has got short shrift from participants in my class and I kept wondering about it – maybe it was less interesting or relevant than I think it is when I read it. So I read it again. No, I decided – this article, despite a few archaic words and gendered descriptions, is still interesting and relevant today, 100+ years later. And JSB, in his 2012 keynote, directly challenges us to tackle Dewey’s ideas in the context of flowing on the tides of change today. So I decided to try something new this time around…

That “something new” was pairing both instructor facilitation and students’ social reading with participation in January’s Marginal Syllabus flash mob. In a distinctive pedagogical move embracing openly networked collaboration, Christina aligned formal course work (something that may be solitary and private) with the less formal – and rather improvisational – public activities of a conversation mediated by web annotation. As much as the Marginal Syllabus values partnership with authors to seed conversation, this decision emphasized the importance of partnering an emergent OEP collective with ED677’s established community of practice.

Because ED677 encourages public blogging, it’s possible to share some of Christina’s students’ reflections on their Marginal Syllabus participation. And in sharing their thoughts, let’s recall that these learners are themselves preservice and in-service educators; as such, their responses directly concern how everyday digital spaces can be transformed into open learning environments, and what this might look like in support of educator learning.

On the differences between independent and social reading:

Typically, in my online graduate classes, my study is conducted independently or through interaction with the teacher. The marginal syllabus allowed me to follow the thinking process of my classmates as they read an article and therefore broadened my own learning experience as I read.

On peer-to-peer exchange:

This method allows for a wonderfully free exchange of ideas and information, where future educators like myself can learn from each other.

On annotation as a teaching method:

I have already shared our annotating activity with my colleagues and I have decided to try to use it in my classroom… annotation is another skill that I would like my students to acquire, so when I introduce Romero Britto this week, I am going to require my students to create a Hypothes.is account to annotate the reading.

On pacing and thoughtfulness during the flash mob:

I initially anticipated that the annotation flash mob would resemble a Twitter chat… While I find these types of exchanges to be valuable and exciting, they can also sometimes stress me out. So many people respond to questions and prompts at once that the experience can feel a little overwhelming. It was to my pleasant surprise, then, that I was able to annotate through the Marginal Syllabus event at my own pace. I felt no pressure to rush through comments or responses. Rather, I was able to carefully construct my thoughts before sharing them.

And on active contributions to communal learning:

My appreciation for online annotation has grown significantly.  I LOVE the fact that I can read an article first then click annotations on so that I get insight into what sparked other readers’ interest.  I read through everyone’s annotations and felt as if I was in an actual class discussion of the text.  Leaving my own responses to other readers’ questions made me feel like I was not just passively learning but actively contributing to the understanding.  I had a definite feel of belonging to a group of communal learners.

These are powerful reflections and indicate generative learning opportunities associated with open and collaborative web annotation. Furthermore, the testimonials may be useful evidence for other educators and designers who are interested in open education and open pedagogy, and in particular the types of OER and OEP that usefully support such approaches to online and digitally mediated learning.

Perhaps because of these students’ enthusiasm and satisfaction, Christina made a second distinctive instructional decision. In the weeks following January’s flash mob, she encouraged her ED677 students to read and contribute to the Marginal Syllabus’ October text by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. This marks the first time that a group has taken advantage of the curated feature of this syllabus and re/turned to a previous text to reinvigorate those layers of conversation. As this took place, I shared a few comments on Twitter about why this was notable:

I hope other educators follow Christina and ED677’s lead, and find useful perspectives and learning opportunities layered among the many texts and conversations curated within the Marginal Syllabus.

The Marginal Syllabus is both a OER and a source of OEP because some online platforms are particularly well-suited for architecting the technical and social conditions of collaborative and open learning. In this regard, the web annotation platform Hypothesis is an exemplar. Collaborative web annotation affords a repertoire of OEP, and the social practices afforded by collaborative web annotation have the potential to transform static online texts – whether news media or scholarship – into dynamic OER. As such, web annotation is a promising means for creating more open – and participatory – educational spaces, and the Marginal Syllabus’ advocacy and modeling of collaborative annotation-as-conversation is opening documents as new educational spaces for learning.

A New Year, a Few Thoughts, and More Conversation

The Marginal Syllabus is moving into 2017 building upon a successful and meaningful first semester during the fall of 2016. Throughout the 2016-17 academic school year, the Marginal Syllabus aims to foster a participatory and open experiment in educator professional development through critical conversations about education and equity. The Marginal Syllabus primarily does so by convening monthly web annotation flash mobs. These flash mob conversations use the annotation platform Hypothes.is to provoke interest-driven discourse among educators and the authors of consequential and equity-oriented texts. This past fall we discussed digital redlining and information accessibility with Chris Gilliard (in August), curriculum design in a “writing race” course with Mia Zamora (September), critical and culturally proactive literacy education from Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen’s book Pose, Wobble, Flow (October), and the politics and contradictions of educational technology with Helen Beetham (November).

The next Marginal Syllabus conversation will occur this Wednesday, January 25th at 6p ET/4p MT/3p PT with Christina Cantrill, Associate Director of National Programs for the National Writing Project. Join Christina – and some of participants in her ED677 course at Arcadia University – in discussing via annotation the first chapter from John Dewey’s classic book The School and Society. Visit our resources for additional information, including directions for using the Hypothes.is platform and joining the public conversation. And in the coming months, anticipate additional updates about our developing collaborations with the National Writing Project and other NWP-affiliated authors.

As much as we’re excited about moving forward into 2017, the remainder of this post looks back at what happened during 2016. The following table provides some additional context and descriptive statistics that help to summarize Marginal Syllabus activity from this past fall. The table was put together over a month ago, in early December, so the total number of participants and annotations may have increased just a bit (such is the case with Helen’s post Ed Tech and the Circus of Unreason). Nonetheless, a few notable trends emerge from this data and provide useful reminders about the ongoing design and facilitation of Marginal Syllabus conversations via annotation flash mobs.

First, participation gets stretched over time. The term “flash mob,” by definition, connotes intense activity over a short period of time. In one sense, Marginal Syllabus annotation flash mobs echo related approaches to educator interest-driven and openly networked professional learning, such as Twitter chats (which occur at a designated time, last about an hour, and are facilitated following a set question-and-answer structure).

The activity of an annotation flash mob has also occurred for about an hour… kind of, but also not so much. Unlike a Twitter chat, participants have conversed based upon their availability, regularly annotating a text, interacting with the text’s authors and other readers, and receiving replies both prior to and after the designated flash mob. As noted above, sustained activity typically gets stretched across at least a few days (August seems to be an outlier, at least at this point). Given that annotation-as-conversation is anchored in an easily referenced source text (unlike the more ephemeral threads of a Twitter chat), our team is learning an important lesson about social annotation – such activity has blurred beginnings, remains open-ended, and there is no hard start and stop. To test a playful analogy, the Marginal Syllabus creates both the temporal conditions for a scrimmage (that is, people playing together at the same time) as well as the field upon which activity occurs (that is, the playground where people show up to play at varied and different times).

A second trend: We have had, on average, about a dozen participants each month, including k-12 educators and administrators, higher education professionals, graduate students, non-profit leaders, and others. With groups of this size regularly participating, focal texts tend to get pretty saturated with annotations and replies. This raises some interesting questions about facilitation, as well as what might occur over the coming months. What if closer to 20 people participated regularly, would that overwhelm the text and create too many incoherent conversational threads? On a related technical note, a big thanks to Hypothes.is for the recent updates feature which really helps people to manage the flow of information during a live event like our flash mobs. And what if our participation numbers grow to the point where a flash mob structure creates more noise than signal? In that case, perhaps we might shift to an “annotathon” approach that can be scheduled over multiple days, as modeled by Maha Bali and Nadine Aboulmagd during a recent annotation conversation grounded in Maha’s text about digital literacies. These are but a few questions, among many, that have emerged as a result of our ongoing activity. Perhaps regular participants might raise other questions you care to see our organizing team address – our thanks in advance.

And finally, something else that happened at the tail end of 2016: A conversation between Remi Kalir and Jeremy Dean about Web Annotation as Conversation and Interruption for the Journal of Media Practice. It wasn’t too surprising to see some regular Marginal Syllabus participants jump into that conversation, too, and our thanks for growing an important exploration of web annotation as disruptive media.

Annotation: Toward Resistance and Solidarity

An update on Marginal Syllabus activities is long overdue. Here are a few thoughts about what this emergent experiment in informal educator learning has done, where it may be going, and what some of us are thinking – particularly in a post-election context that demands critical thinking, resistance, solidarity, and activism. As a complement to this post, please read Joe Dillon’s rough thinking about annotation and online activism (Joe is a Marginal Syllabus organizer).

What has the Marginal Syllabus accomplished over the past three months?

The Marginal Syllabus has begun to:

  • Establish a community of practice that is driven by interest and curiosity;
  • Curate public conversations about education and equity that are grounded in texts and guided by experts; and
  • Leverage an open online platform (Hypothesis) and the social practices of collaborative web annotation as a sociotechnical learning environment for educators’ informal professional development.

Monthly annotation “flash mobs” are a hallmark of the Marginal Syllabus. These flash mobs are interest-driven conversations with educators and authors about issues of equity in teaching, learning, and education. For the past three months we’ve partnered with authors who are advancing necessary and critical conversations about digital redlining, emergent design, and critical literacy (these links will automatically open Hypothesis so that you can read – and join! – conversation in the text margins). Our thanks to the authors of these texts – Chris Gilliard, Mia Zamora, Antero Garcia, and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. Moreover, during our August and September flash mobs, Chris and Mia joined in real time, providing a distinctive opportunity to converse with authors via annotation. We have had, on average, 12 people participate in each flash mob, including classroom teachers and university professors, school administrators and graduate students.

Regarding these flash mobs, we are excited to announce our November author and text! We’ll be reading and annotating Helen Beetham’s blog post Ed Tech and the Circus of Unreason on Wednesday, November 30th at 6p ET (Helen has graciously agreed to join us at 11p GMT – thank you!). Helen is an education consultant, writer, researcher and commentator whose work concerns digital capability, digital citizenship and digital wellbeing, the learning experience, and curriculum design. Prior to our next flash mob please visit Helen’s site and follow her on Twitter (@helenbeetham). And thanks Britni Brown O’Donnell for suggesting that we read Helen’s post and for making an initial introduction.

Where – and how – might the Marginal Syllabus expand?

In spite of our accomplishments, the Marginal Syllabus remains somewhat centralized. Of course it’s important to have a hub. And – by design – this site offers a curated and growing set of resources for others to access, learn from, and share. On the other hand, it is necessary to always question the organization and leadership of these conversations. As noted on our home page, this project draws inspiration from, and seeks to encourage, what bell hooks calls “the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.”

So yes, monthly flash mobs will continue throughout this academic year. Please send our small organizing team your text suggestions, connect us with provocative authors, and challenge our blind spots and assumptions about the types of public conversations that are necessary in this historic moment. And yet, we also need to encourage new social and technical practices that are more distributed and divergent.

What might this look like? It may be reasonable to assume that if you have participated in a previous annotation flash mob, that if you are reading this post, and/or that if you are interested in public and creative acts of resistance and solidarity, then you may be inclined to read and annotate other texts of social and political importance. In the wake of the presidential election, perhaps you want to read and annotate:

Whatever you may chose to read, if you annotate a text with Hypothesis you are invited to include the tag marginalsyllabus. That’s marginalsyllabus (all one word), with no # (as when tagging something on Twitter). If needed, here is a tutorial on how to add a Hypothesis tag to an annotation. As an example, check out how the educator Kris Shaffer and his students have publicly annotated Edward R. Murrow’s famous “wires and lights in a box” speech, including the tag marginalsyllabus in many of their annotations (thanks Kris and students!).

Why include the tag marginalsyllabus when publicly annotating a text with Hypothesis? In the coming days we are going to update this site with a public aggregator that will pull together all annotations tagged with marginalsyllabus into an easy-to-read feed. Right now it is possible to visit the Hypothesis stream and filter by the tag marginalsyllabus. However, we’re going to create something like this “latest activity” feed that will feature information about who is publicly annotating with the tag marginalsyllabus, what text they are reading and annotating (with a link to the text), and the content of both the annotated selection and the annotation. We hope this encourages people to:

  • Annotate any text that they deem to be important, knowing that tagged annotations will subsequently appear in an aggregated feed;
  • Visit the feed to learn about other texts that people are reading and annotating with the marginalsyllabus tag;
  • Jump off to other texts that have been annotated and tagged as part of the growing marginalsyllabus; and
  • Expand conversation in the margins of multiple texts about divergent topics, concerns, and curiosities.

Stay tuned for updates, and please send feedback (or add atop this post via Hypothesis!). Reading and writing has long served as forms of creative resistance and solidarity. Let’s add public and collaborative web annotation to the mix. Do take care.

– Remi

Introducing The Marginal Syllabus

I always enjoy the start of a new school year; it’s an exciting transition, a time to play with new ideas, launch projects, and (most importantly!) collaborate with – and learn from – other people. This year, I’m excited to help organize and facilitate The Marginal Syllabus in partnership with colleagues from Hypothesis and Aurora Public Schools.

Why this project? There are many reasons to create and curate an open and participatory space for educator professional development that (re)marks upon education and equity. There are also many people and influences who have helped create the conditions for us to plant this seed.

  • Educators like Paul Allison, and efforts like Youth Voices and Letters to the Next President 2.0, have helped lead creative and critical conversations via social reading and writing, many of which leverage web annotation tools.
  • Designers, educators, and scholars – all learners! – are regularly using web annotation platforms like Hypothesis to deepen equity-oriented conversation about, for example, the openness and ownership of school work, whose voices are included and listened to when designing learning, and how to define and critique disciplinary commitments.
  • Among some critical education communities, such as the Digital Pedagogy Lab (#digped), there is ongoing interest about – and commitment to – the ways in which our digital tools and practices support professional development in service of more inclusive and equitable learning.
  • In my own teaching, I have been experimenting with annotation flash mobs as a means to spontaneously – perhaps even playfully – leverage in/formal networks for more open-ended, connected, and interest-driven learning. Here’s one reflection on an annotation flash mob about online teaching and learning from this past spring.
  • Regularly scheduled Twitter chats have become an indelible staple of educators’ interest-driven professional learning. Yet the scale and speed of certain chats, alongside notable limitations of Twitter as a platform, have motivated some to consider other approaches to multimodal and networked conversation. The affordance of web annotation to ground such conversation in the margins of a shared text – and to also include text authors in the layered discourse – is a promising avenue to explore. Hence our approach to monthly annotation flash mobs.

In many respects, The Marginal Syllabus is a blank canvas anticipating unknown brushstrokes and emergent brilliance over the coming days and months. Most immediately, my thanks to Chris Gilliard for joining as our inaugural author. We’ll be reading and annotating Chris’ co-authored piece Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy via Common Sense Education. You can learn more about Hypothesis, web annotation, and annotation flash mobs in our Resources section – we hope to learn with you this coming Wednesday!

– Remi