Classroom Resource: Talking and Teaching about Walls and Borders

U.S. Mexico Border


Essential Questions:

  • What is the purpose of borders?
  • How do the visible and invisible borders people encounter that shape their lives?
  • How can borders work in an ethical way?
Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will understand the significance of the debate about border policy.
  • Students will develop civic skills by participating in a discussion about a significant and controversial current event.
  • Students will gather and weigh evidence about the border debate.
  • Students will develop a memorandum outlining proposals for an ethical resolution to the border debates. 


President Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico continues to generate controversy. Debates about funding, the purpose, and need for the wall often boil over, ending in talking heads raising their voices on 24-hour news channels. As we prepare to post this resource, the United States government is partially shut down over a dispute about funding for the wall.

Debates about the wall center on fundamental differences about the meaning and purpose of a border wall. Indeed, the wall itself means many things to different people. For some, it is an essential component of border security, others see the wall an insult to the Latinx community inside and outside of the United States, some see it as a way to prevent illegal border crossings, while others argue that it is a waste of money. Below you will find a curated collection of recent news stories about the wall, we have tried to represent a range of points of view and a variety of media to allow access for as many students as possible.

While discussions of contemporary migration are often polarized, they are essential. One reason that emotion about issues of migration run so strong is that debates over the movement of people are among the most important civic issues faced by societies around the world. They raise fundamental questions about inclusion and exclusion, identity, and national sovereignty. Below we introduce some context for discussing the wall, and an art based exercise intended to promote respectful reflection and discussion across difference.


Migration has been an essential part of the human experience well before the creation of national borders. Indeed, humans were migratory before they ever built cities. That said, it wasn’t too long after humans first built cities that they first began to build walls. They were created for defensive purposes, and to keep people considered undesirable, out.

Enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border became an increasing priority for politicians after the 1965 immigration and naturalization act. Additional agents were sent to monitor border crossings. According to, “The United States began the installation of border fences to restrict the movement of unlawful immigrants and drugs in 1993 when President Bill Clinton mandated the construction of a 14-mile barrier between San Diego and Tijuana. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 authorized the construction of 700 miles of border fencing and vehicle barriers, which was completed in 2011.”  Despite construction sections of border walls, undocumented migration rose throughout the 90s; however, it has decreased every year since 2007. Despite the decreasing numbers of undocumented border crossings, promises of a wall along the U.S./Mexico border became a central element of President Trump’s campaign for office.

On February 15, 2019 Trump declared a national emergency to gain funds for the U.S.-Mexico wall. He wishes to get a total of $8 billion from the Treasury Department, Department of Defense, and Homeland Security. In response, protests occurred in many cities and lawsuits were passed. 

In announcing his declaration of a national emergency, the President stated, ‘I don’t need to do this,’ but explained that he preferred to build the border wall faster than Congress’s appropriation would allow (ACLU)

If Trump gets away with this, there’s no telling what the next concocted ‘emergency’ will be, who will be targeted and what emergency powers will be claimed. (Public Citizen)

Public Citizen, suing for 3 Texas landowners and an environmentalist group, sued worried about what may follow if this national emergency is taken seriously. On Monday February 18, 2019, sixteen states filed a lawsuit questioning the national emergency on constitutional grounds. The states claim that Trump’s requested funding is needed in other areas like military bases and counter-drug efforts. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also sued, questioning the basis of the national emergency.

While ongoing legal challenges to the wall continue, on July 26, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that construction of the border wall could continue. The New York Times reports:

The Supreme Court on Friday gave President Trump a victory in his fight for a wall along the Mexican border by allowing the administration to begin using $2.5 billion in Pentagon money for the construction.

In a 5-to-4 ruling, the court overturned an appellate decision and said that the administration could tap the money while litigation over the matter proceeds. But that will most likely take many months or longer, allowing Mr. Trump to move ahead before the case returns to the Supreme Court after further proceedings in the appeals court.

Teaching Suggestions:

Instead of starting a lesson by delving into the middle of a controversy, we find it useful to provide a safe distance to begin reflection. In this case, we suggest using an image created by the French artist J.R.  The piece, a gigantic scaffolding installation featuring the photograph of Kikito, a one-year-old boy from Tecate, Mexico, was placed on the Mexican side of the border facing the United States. We suggest following these three simple directions for interpreting JR’s work and considering the message he is hoping to send.


Embed from Getty Images

The large photograph was constructed on the Mexican side of the border facing the United States. Click on the image for more information.


This slideshow includes images that focus on the placement of J.R.’s “Kikito.”:

Embed from Getty Images

Three Directions:

  1. Begin by working with students to describe what they see in each image. Encourage students to describe the image in as objective terms as possible. In the case of these two images, include information about not only the art piece itself as well as where it is placed and its relationship to that space.
  2. Analyze what you see – what details do students notice, and what do they think they mean in the context of the work. We often begin this activity in a whole group, but eventually, encourage students to do this work in small groups or pairs.
  3. For the final step, interpret the work – working from the details and the image analysis, ask students to come up with their own interpretation of the overall message of the work. We often ask students to write this in a journal or on a piece of paper before asking them to share their ideas with a partner.

As a whole group, discuss the range of interpretations of the work. What themes emerge? What differences did you notice between interpretations? And, how do you account for those differences?

You might also consider following a similar protocol for interpreting a second J.R. image that was placed along the U.S./Mexico border. This commentary published Latino USA explores the way that artists can reshape our understanding of the border. The authors write:

The arts have played a central role in forming narratives of identity and place. Whether through music or through visuals, the arts have a particular sensory and discursive power to shape consciousness and understanding of people and spaces.

As the border art suggests, debates about the wall are about more than funding and plans for construction. Deeply connected to discussions about the wall is a range of issues related to immigration. We frequently use the iceberg diagram strategy to help make the various issues that come together in a civic debate visible. Instead of telling students what you believe is fueling the border debates, ask them what they believe is below the surface.

To conclude, we like to employ Project Zero thinking routines to help students to recognize the significance of a particular public debate. In this case consider using the Three Whys. Ask students:

  1. Why does this matter to me?
  2. Why does this matter to my community? (you might replace this question with: why does this matter to the country?).
  3. Why does this matter to the world?


Encourage students to think critically about their knowledge of the discussions of a border wall in the U.S. In this variation of a K-W-L chart, ask students first to list the information that they are confident they know is true related to debates about the wall. As students list information, explain that you are looking for verifiable facts. In a separate category ask students to record what they have heard that they have not verified or are unable to confirm.

Ask students to do their best to identify the sources of information in this category, which could influence both rumors. Ask students how they might be able to assess the validity of the information in the second column.

Below we have included a variety of news sources students could use to extend their understanding of the issues involved. As students read the various sources, encourage them to be aware of the various perspectives offered in the text. Consider asking them to use another Project Zero thinking routine as they gather information. This routine is called Step In – Step Out – Step Back. Here is how it works:

Step-in, step-out, step-back 

  1. Choose: Identify a person or agent in the situation you are examining
  2. Step In: Given what you see and know at this time, what do you think this person might feel, believe, know, or experience?
  3. Step out: What else would you like or need to learn to understand this person’s perspective better?
  4. Step back: Given your exploration of this perspective so far, what do you notice about your own perspective and what it takes to take somebody else’s?

Depending on the direction you hope to take the discussion, we suggest two different ways for students to demonstrate an understanding of the issues at stake.

  • Begin a think-pair-share activity by inviting students to reflect on the importance and meaning of borders.
    • What are borders?
    • What purposes do they serve?
    • How are national borders similar to other borders?
    • In what ways, are they different?
  • Working individually or in groups ask students to prepare a one-page policy recommendation in the form of a memorandum regarding the border wall that includes a justification for their position. You might offer students a chance to present their proposals to their peers, or to craft letters to political representatives describing their understanding of the issues involved.
    • A Memorandum usually includes four parts:
      • 1. An Introduction
      • 2. A Statement of the facts about the issue.
      • 3. The Argument you are making.
      • 4. A conclusion, which typically includes a call to action.

Teaching and News Resources: