Chris Margolin

The Script Is Bad, and the Audience Left: Keeping Your Students Engaged

In this latest column of an ongoing series “Confessions of an Educator,” Chris Margolin reveals that sometimes the best lesson plan is the one taken completely off script and improvised.


Say the following to your students: “Today I will sound like a robot, and I will not be looking at you because I will be following a script for the lesson. Unfortunately, this will be the way the class will work for the next several weeks. This is the last time you will hear my own thoughts; I will not be deviating from the aforementioned script. I do not have a choice in the matter. No, I will not entertain your creative thoughts, nor will I allow for any full class discussion beyond the times allotted, as this would throw off the timing of the lesson, and if I don’t finish this prior to the bell, then we will never finish on time.”

Now look around the classroom and watch every student slump in their chairs, take out their cell phones, talk with their elbow partner, get up to go to the bathroom, and openly huff and puff, and roll their eyes.

If you’re this teacher, and you have been, you’re familiar with these thoughts: I can feel my soul shutting down. These articles aren’t even relevant to these kids. How will anyone succeed when we don’t have any input in what we are doing in the classroom?

Lately, it feels as if the world of education is moving toward scripted lesson plans. It’s almost like the remnants of the Arne Duncan regime has forced the hand of educators to not just teach toward the test, but teach only the materials that will directly affect the results of the test. This, however, is not teaching.

I’ve always told my students that 20% of education comes from within the walls of a schoolhouse, and the other 80% from their worlds outside. There is no research to this, no background information, just the basic knowledge that while seven hours a day they are supposed to be sitting in classes, they are spending the rest of their day being kids, or taking care of needs at home, or dealing with bullying, or being bullies, or playing sports, or skateboarding, or seeing, doing, or selling drugs, or watching little two-year-old Johnny because Mommy and Daddy—or some combination—are working, or not paying attention, or are abusive, or overbearing. The list goes on and on, and none of what’s on it means anything to “the script” from which the teacher is supposed to teach.

Last year, smack dab in the middle of the Michael Brown trials, I was supposed to teach a scripted lesson on race relations in the 20th century. It didn’t make sense. I was sitting there, contemplating how I was supposed to teach 132 students—all of varying backgrounds—about race relations through articles that, while strong in material, meant absolutely nothing to them in the wake of such harrowing events. Everyone was talking about the situation in Ferguson, and I had students fighting on both sides of the case. It was very obvious that readings from a former Pope and Mother Teresa weren’t going to cut it.

Instead of sticking to the plan, I brought in current articles that dealt with the same type of subject matter. I fit the material to the Core Standards—because after all, we need to remember that the Common Core allows for deviation from the materials as long as the core skills are being taught. Every student was engaged. We watched news footage, discussed what we had each read or heard via social media, and how that affected the current climate at the school, at their homes, and in the country. It wasn’t robotic; it was real. I could have taken the majority of eight weeks to go through a scripted lesson, or I could make a little more work for myself and, in turn, make sure that my students were absolutely invested in the work we were doing.

So, yeah, maybe I wasn’t teaching exactly what I was supposed to according to some guide that someone outside of a classroom had put together. Instead, I was not only sticking to the scope of the Common Core, but I was helping the students make important connections to their own lives, and their beliefs. Even with students picking sides in an incredibly controversial issue, they were engaged in critical conversations within a comfortable environment.

Sometimes the script doesn’t make any sense, and the only thing to do is improvise.


Chris Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter. 

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