Teaching Profession Opinion

How to Teach About Global Borders and Migration

By Ryan Sprott — April 20, 2017 9 min read
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Many teachers are struggling to include the topic of immigration in their classrooms. Ryan Sprott, AP World History teacher at International School of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas, created the Border-land project as a way to get his students exploring these issues on a deep level. Read on to learn how he created it.

Pictured above: During Border-land, a high school course at the International School of Americas,
many students visited the US/Mexico border for the first time.

“By seeing the border in real life, by standing only feet away from it, I was able to see the border for what it ultimately is: arbitrary. Thousands of years of weathering and erosion in a specific spot resulted in this specific river that a group of people decided over a hundred years ago would be the line between two countries. We are the ones that give it meaning; otherwise, it would be just another river. There is nothing inherently threatening about it, but the way we treat it creates fear in others. By seeing the border in person I was able to, at least to a certain extent, remove the actual border from the idea of a border that countries have constructed through their discourse.” - Samantha Lozano, Border-land Student, Class of 2017

In 2014, over 68,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the US/Mexico border fleeing unbearable violence and unrest throughout Mexico and Central America. The border is just a few hours’ drive south of the public high school where I teach. I thought this nearby humanitarian crisis could serve as an important opportunity to teach global competence. However, as I began planning the curriculum, I found that the divisive rhetoric that pervaded much of the coverage of this crisis conflicted with the 21st century skills I try to foster in students. This rekindled a lingering question: In an era when complex events are often portrayed in a limited and polarizing manner, how can teachers address contemporary dilemmas in ways that nurture students’ global competencies, including empathy, collaboration, and critical thinking?

To explore this question, I teamed with artist and professor Jason Reed, who was investigating similar issues. Together, we designed Border-land, a course where art, dialogue, and travel served as pathways for civil discourse and social action on the topic of global borders and human migration. We hoped that by going to the border to listen firsthand to multiple stories and perspectives—a Central American mother who crossed the border fleeing gang violence, and the US Border Patrol officer tasked with detaining her—students could better humanize each individual and understand each story. We wanted to shift from the prevailing “us” versus “them” ideology into spaces of collaboration and creativity. The following passage outlines strategies we used to assist a group of 40 high school students to develop skills in global competence as they grappled with the inherent complexities of borders.

A Single, Overarching Question

It can often be easy to forget how broad, guiding questions like ‘what is the purpose of a border?’ are relevant in the context of our debate over immigration. Nevertheless, our society’s answers to questions like these serve as the philosophical foundation for the policies that we pass....If the mainstream ideology were to change, then our border policies would be expected to change as well.” - Avery Coltharp, Border-land Student, Class of 2017.

What is the purpose of a border? This question helped guide learning during readings, conversations, and travel. By focusing on one essential question, students were able to uncover a variety of perspectives on the topic. Students asked this same question to each guest speaker, who included activists, lawyers, politicians, law officers, and asylum seekers. Their answers varied greatly which helped students weigh and compare the diverse views relating to borders.

Students also engaged with the essential question through dialogues, writings, and other art projects. Throughout the year, their work and conversations were archived so that they could reflect upon how and why their responses to the question, “What is the purpose of a border?” were becoming increasingly complex.

From left to right: 1) Students meet with a US Border Patrol officer speaks with students in McAllen, and 2) activist Eddie Canales discusses his work in Falfurrias.

Dialogue Over Debate

“We learned the significance of listening instead of waiting to be listened to.” - Elena Comas Wood, Border-land Student, Class of 2017

We focused on dialogue over debate in this course. While debate typically focuses on arguing a preconceived notion, dialogue can be structured to make space for multiple perspectives surrounding global borders. To encourage purposeful conversations and give everyone the opportunity to share their thoughts and reflections, we drew on activities by the School Reform Initiative. Activities like notecard dialogues, collective timelines, and structured dialogues helped students explore potentially polarizing topics in safe and structured environments.

Additionally, focusing on dialogue instead of debate developed a culture of listening that enriched our interactions with guest speakers. Students listened carefully, and, later, through conversations with classmates, deconstructed the diverse views they heard.

Traveling to Investigate Multiple Viewpoints

“My friend texted me: ‘How’s the border?,’ and for the life of me I could not give her a decent response or understand why the approach of her question irritated me so much. Perhaps I was angry with myself for generalizing ‘the border’ for so long. Perhaps I knew a text response would not do (the border) justice.” - Paige Johnson, Border-land Student, Class of 2017

Travel provided students with a more personal and complex understanding of the border. Through travel, students met a variety of people and experienced the border’s diverse physical realities. For example, we hiked through the natural environment of the Rio Grande at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, and, afterward, we traveled to a section of the border wall that blocks access to the river. We also visited Brooks County, where many immigrants die in the parched rangeland trying to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint. In Brooks County we traveled to a cemetery where some of these immigrants are buried, as well as to water barrels placed by the South Texas Human Rights Center in an effort to save future immigrant lives.

In addition to gaining firsthand experience of the physical border, we visited sites including the Benson Latin American Library and Archives at the University of Texas to examine archival material relating to the history of the Texas-Mexico border. We also interacted with exhibits at the UT Visual Art Center and with author Oscar Casares to consider ways to share our learning with a wider audience.

From left to right: 1) students analyze contemporary art at the Visual Art Center, and 2) Professor Oscar Casares discusses culture and writing with students.

Art as Inquiry and Action

One of the driving forces of the course was that the creation of art happened throughout the year and in a variety of forms—everything from drawing, painting, and poetry, to the collection of objects from sites we visited, collaborative journaling, and walks along the Rio Grande. Guest artists Adriana Corral, Mark Menjivar, and Vincent Valdez pushed students’ thinking about what art could be, opening the opportunity for artistic creation to more students, and allowing art to function not just as a final object but as a means of inquiry and action.

Art helped students process the diverse perspectives they encountered, and it sparked dialogue with the public. Student work from the year was compiled into a newsprint publication, of which 2,000 copies were distributed locally and to policy and educational leaders across the nation. Students also exhibited and discussed their work at a local gallery. This exhibition included individual and collaborative pieces, including a manifesto in which students and teachers together created a vision for what they want borders to be in the future. Visitors to the exhibition listened to recorded student conversations and included their own perspectives through hands-on activities such as a collaborative timeline where they added insights about what events have shaped the border into its current state.

Final Thoughts and Next Steps

“We aided families in getting new clothing as well as getting them some food and toys for the kids. In this picture I was feeding eight-month-old baby, (name removed for confidentiality). (Service) was one of my favorite aspects of the class and definitely the most inspiring.” - Daniela Hernandez, Border-land Senior Year Intern, Class of 2016.

Along with the art exhibition, the course led to other real-world impacts. For instance, many students took action by volunteering with local organizations that provide aid to asylum seekers. Students have also pursued internships and/or university fields of study in immigration law and policy reform.

After seeing how the Border-land course shaped teachers’ and students’ global competence, I plan to continue exploring other contentious topics by infusing art, dialogue, and travel into education. Currently, I am collaborating with scholars in the STEM field and artists to develop the Oil-land project which will use a similar pedagogical approach to help students examine the complexities surrounding local and global energy policy.

Finally, it is important to note that while my school’s proximity to the border was conducive to conducting field experiences, many tools exist for educators who want to teach about immigration but who do not live near a border. For example, refugee resettlement and other immigration aid programs are located throughout the country and can be excellent places for students to connect with the topic. Technology also helps students explore this issue. I recently used virtual reality goggles in a lesson about Syrian refugees. Other virtual reality films like Seeking Home and The Displaced as well as projects such as Portal provide compelling opportunities for students to gain new perspectives into the daily lives of immigrants. Furthermore, organizations like the Choices Program illuminate the historical context and diverse viewpoints related to immigration in their curriculum.

The activities I have discussed in this essay are just a few ways to teach about immigration and global borders. My hope is that they help more educators explore and share how immigration and borders can serve as pathways to develop global empathy, collaborative problem solving, civil discourse, and other skills needed to address the complex challenges of our increasingly connected and changing world.

Connect with Ryan and Heather on Twitter.

The author would like to thank the North East Educational Foundation, Texas Genocide and Holocaust Commission, AP Art Lab, SMART Art Project Space, Texas State University, Trinity University, and others who supported the Border-land project.
All photos courtesy of the author and Borderland Collective.
Captions for bottom two photos: Students passed collaborative journals like this one to each other throughout the year as a way to share thoughts and questions. Last photo caption: The public exhibition, including takeaway copies of the newsprint publication, served as a summative course experience.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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