Curriculum Opinion

Can Boundaries Be For Crossing?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 22, 2014 5 min read
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A national crisis is at hand, arising without us even being aware until its proportions are significant. Children, as young as 3 years old, have been sent illegally across the border from Mexico into the US. Just recently it was reported that more than 6,000 Mexican children and teens who had crossed our border unaccompanied and illegally were sent back to Mexico. More than 47,000 children, most from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, crossed the border illegally without an adult between October 2013 and May 2014. And, many are ending up in American detention camps while we figure out what to do with them. Even if the American dream is tarnished for many of our young people today, it seems to be alive and well in countries to our south. Many of our children are really in summer camps these months. These children don’t know what those are.

When our ancestors came the journey was not one that could be walked. They crossed oceans. Now, we are confronted with those who can walk across this artificial line on the earth surface we call a national boundary, our border. For those who live in the Southwest and Texas, this has been an issue with which they were struggling with long before it grabbed the attention of the rest of us.

We are not suggesting that boundaries be ignored and cultures, not valued. Rather, we are suggesting that, in a historical sense, boundaries change over time, usually after a war or an “agreement”. It is happening around the world today and has happened here as well. Boundaries are an idea.

Personal identities are defined by our boundaries. “I’m from New York” creates an image for others. “I’m from Palestine” or “I’m from the UK” creates identity capsules for us. The image relates to food, language, customs, clothing, and religion. We are defined by our differences and geographical borders do play a role. Boundaries are very much a part of our world in education.

So how can we develop a school culture that allows ease in crossing without the loss of values, where empathy is welcoming and respect not abused? The answer might be found in the way we organize teaching and learning. As we look at the way schools are organized what eyes are we using? Silos of instruction, named by content area or grade level, have divided our world and lock us in a stranglehold that reduces creative crossings and do not serve the natural state of childhood. State exams require a measure of the amount of information students have accumulated in specific subjects. This has become both expedient and a habit, a way of thinking without reexamination. It has hardened into tradition. In schools as in families, traditions are good and they are limiting both. Might schools be easier to navigate for children and more efficient to manage and lead if we reconsidered the idea of boundaries, inside and outside? Languages can be taught in the service of history. Or history can be taught in the service of languages. Cartography and geography can be taught as part of mathematics, technology, and art.

Animals create territories for safety and for food. These are also basic human needs. Over time, communities, countries, languages, dialects and cultures have developed as a result of boundaries; school districts also. Boundaries protect distinct differences between people and create a sense of belonging.

We know that teaching about the Mexican War in Texas is not the same as teaching it in Oregon. The same is true for the teaching of the American Revolution in New England as opposed to California or The Trail of Tears. What are the unintended consequences of borders and of those who want more of a resource, be it land or freedom? The facts may be the same but the thinking about those facts will be different and the key lies in the questions asked.

Our sense of time and space is a personal thing. We see issues through contemporary eyes. We meet the challenges of our time through those eyes. There are courageous and creative teachers and leaders in classrooms and schools that have begun to move into unfamiliar territory. The teaching of perspective opens minds and hearts. It allows us to have empathy. It allows for empathetic response and self-interest to co-exist. What if differing perspectives on the facts were taught in all of our classrooms?

Before teaching the multiplication tables, students can learn about the world in which they didn’t exist and experience the value for the multiplication table. When learning about the Revolutionary War, one can study of the feelings and experiences of the British and our own. Literature offers all kinds of opportunities to step into the shoes of others and experience the unfamiliar. When reading To Kill A Mockingbird, spending time on understanding the conditions that contributed to Scout’s development as a person, or her motives to act in a certain way. In physical education, spend time explore the feelings surrounding losing and the behaviors from the winners that would keep others in the game. Surely, these things happen in classrooms, albeit randomly. And teachers who do this type of work, do it with a concern for the time it may seem to be taking away from the fast track of the demands of the year’s curriculum.

Our contribution to the next generation of leaders in our country begins with our interactions with our students. If we included the concept of understanding other perspectives in our curriculum and our practice with students and each other, over time, perhaps we could contribute to a more compassionate graduate. And maybe, as they enter the world as adults, they will be able to do a better job of listening to others, respecting others views, and knowing how to create consensus. Wouldn’t that be a great thing to have happen? Then, those, wiser than we, with perspectives on all sides of the issue, can make policies that empathetically, socially, economically and politically address the thousands of children crossing our borders. Otherwise, horrible images and meanings of detention camps seep from the 1940’s into today. We cannot allow that again.

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