Everyday Borders

We are excited to share what we believe to be an important addition to the Out of Eden Learn curricula: our new Stories of Human Migration learning journey, which we are offering to students aged 13 years and up starting this September and October. This curriculum will continue to be refined and developed in light of student and educator feedback this fall, as well as our observation of student work and their interactions with one another. We specifically designed this learning journey for high school-age and late middle school-age students. We are not offering this learning journey to younger Out of Eden Learn participants – at least not in this form – because of the potentially challenging nature of some of the resources we have selected, both in terms of content and reading level. Further, a key goal of this learning journey is to initiate thoughtful, critical dialogue around a potentially contentious and sensitive subject. While we have been consistently impressed by our younger students’ participation on our platform, we do not yet feel confident that we can provide the appropriate scaffolds to help them engage around this topic. We do, however, encourage educators of younger students to adapt some of the learning journey activities for their classrooms, such as the Everyday Borders activity I focus on here. We would love to hear about your experiences and to view examples of your students’ work.

Below is a condensed version of the instructions for the activity – a version that Sarah Sheya and I shared with educators in a couple of workshops we ran this summer for Harvard’s Global Studies Outreach program and Project Zero’s Future of Learning institute. Note that the asterisk after the word “walk” is intended to convey that walks need not be literal, particularly for those with limited mobility.

Everyday Borders

As we always do in Out of Eden Learn workshops, we tried to give participants an experiential feel for our curriculum design, as well as a sense of the learning opportunities afforded by our platform. We invited them to leave the classroom to try out the activity for themselves, to return to the classroom to compare their responses and perspectives, and then finally to look closely at some actual student work from our pilot study, using post-its to experiment with different commenting strategies from our dialogue toolkit.

During their brief forays into the Harvard Square area of Cambridge, our workshop participants identified a multitude of borders, many of which they said they had never noticed before. For example, they took photos showing demarcations between nature and human-made structures, between university property and public property, and between one kind of transport lane and another. Back in our classroom, some interesting and animated discussions ensued. Were the gates leading into a Harvard University building a sign of exclusion or a symbol of opportunity and were educators presupposing how their students would perceive these kinds of borders? Do certain kinds of borders in one context mean something else in another? A participant from Texas commented, for instance, that bus stop markings in her hometown are generally associated with low socio-economic status, whereas in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they may connote an urban lifestyle choice and/or environmental awareness. Another participant noted that what seemed like a barrier or border to him – active water sprinklers – would seem like an exciting invitation to his young daughter. Some participants commented that to their eyes borders were everywhere because they didn’t feel a sense of familiarity or belonging to the space.

Below you will find a gallery showing some of the kinds of borders depicted by students who participated in the pilot version of our new migration curriculum. We were impressed by the variety of ways in which students approached the activity. A number of students photographed literal physical borders such as fences and gates and “keep out” signs. But they often commented on the political and metaphoric significance of such borders, as well as the fact that they blocked physical access to specific places. Some students chose to comment on social borders, such as dividing lines between affluent and less affluent parts of town or the unspoken pecking order among students in the school cafeteria. Many students gave nuanced reflections, pondering the relative advantages and disadvantages of borders in our lives, including ones that we impose both on others and ourselves.

We also noticed the potential for this activity to spark up thoughtful conversation among students living in very different contexts. In the following extract from a lengthier discussion, Mojo612, a student in Singapore converses with several students in Beaverton, Oregon, USA. Mojo612 had posted a simple map to indicate the effective segregation that occurs between different sections of the Singaporean population.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 12.14.27 PMMojo612
Singapore, Singapore
… A boundary which I have noticed is the “invisible” boundary between the locals and foreign workers in Singapore. This boundary is particularly evident in my neighbourhood which is located the foreign workers’ dormitory. At the shopping mall near my house, the foreign workers often do not enter the malls. They usually sit at the benches outside the mall or the field near the mall. The locals, on the other hand, enter the malls and rarely interact with the foreign workers. The “invisible” boundary which exists between us is most likely a personal boundary.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 11.56.11 AMXyz123
Beaverton, OR United States 06.jun.2016
I never thought about the invisible fence! That is so interested to think about. Everyday we are faced with borders, some visible some not. Do you think boundaries are a good thing or a bad thing or both?

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 12.14.27 PMMojo612
Singapore, Singapore 07.jun.2016

I think boundaries can be both good and bad things. For example, good boundaries can be certain laws meant to protect our safety. However, certain boundaries may be bad. For example, in the past, India had a caste system which segregated the people in India. This caused a lot of economic inequality. So, I think boundaries can be both good and bad things.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 11.58.34 AMEss02
Beaverton, OR United States 06.jun.2016
why don’t the foreign workers go in to the shopping malls?

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 12.14.27 PMMojo612
Singapore, Singapore 07.jun.2016
That’s a really good question! I’m not exactly sure because I don’t really communicate with the foreign workers much. However, the foreign workers usually gather at the field where they can sit as a group and chat. Sometimes, they play cricket at the field.

So, I think it may be partially due to the fact that they gather in groups. Going into the malls and occupying the benches for long periods of time may cause the mall operators to be unhappy since the other shoppers may not be able to occupy the seats in this case.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 11.59.35 AMSynchron47
Beaverton, OR United States 06.jun.2016

Do you think that boundaries are a necessity of everyday life? Would we be better off without any boundaries at all? Or do you think that these invisible borders are just a defense mechanism because we have some sort of idea of who people are before we even meet them? Just a few thoughts I would love to hear your answers too!

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 12.14.27 PMMojo612
Singapore, Singapore 07.jun.2016

… I think that these invisible borders may be defense mechanisms! In Singapore, children are always told, “Don’t run away, later apu neh neh come and catch you.” “Apu neh neh” refers to Indian foreign workers. Sometimes, the phrase is replaced by “policeman”. So I do think that it’s possible that invisible borders are defense mechanisms since we think that we know how people are like even before we meet them. Children are thus scared of Indian foreign workers and policeman due to what their parents tell them. What we think may be correct or wrong but it doesn’t matter because the mindset in our mind isn’t going to change if we develop defense mechanisms and set up invisible borders.

In this exchange, Mojo612 is encouraged by the questions of her peers in the United States to further consider what might lie behind her observation that the Indian guest workers do not have the inclination and/or permission to enter the local shopping malls. Further, as the discussion proceeds, we learn that Mojo612 believes prejudice against these workers to be rather engrained within Singaporean society. Indeed, Mojo612 reveals that like other Singaporean-born children, she was taught from a young age to be scared of foreign workers such as those she observed while doing this activity.

We don’t know how Mojo612’s thinking will continue to develop or what the long term impact of discussions like these among young people will be. However, it is surely a good thing that young people are engaging one another in thoughtful, critical discourse and re-examining their own assumptions about the people and places where they live. Their very dialogue is a manifestation of what it can look like to open oneself up to new ideas and to question simple binaries.

I close with a comment by TurntechGodhead, in Oregon, USA.

“I think that borders exist to protect certain things and people, but it also separates them, our society is more about separation than connectedness … And they further perpetuate the ideas of separation and division, and the idea of the existence of opposites; male and female, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, smart or stupid, etc. These are the borders of our mind and influence how we treat others, and ourselves. It creates an idea of a person based on their appearance before we even know them because of how strongly we use these “borders” in our own mind telling us who to be friends with or who to be afraid of, and when the media portrays people in a negative light, using negative words, we learn this, and we learn to treat people this way, because we don’t see them as humans but as whatever the media shows them as. Borders are beyond just physical but also mental, and these are the most difficult ones because they are usually the hardest to see.”

It is our hope that Out of Eden Learn can help to dissolve some of these mental boundaries.



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One comment

  1. […] learning journey, which invites critical reflection around a timely and politically charged topic: human migration. Certainly, any single educational experience, however powerful, cannot be expected to shape a […]

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