What is the purpose of a border?

Some borders are on maps and other borders aren’t recorded formally, both kinds of borders are real. Dictionaries list multiple definitions for borders, noting that some borders are officially recognized, others are agreed upon, and others are the edges of geographic space.

Taking Perspective

Ask students to consider the different borders that they have crossed. You might need to name a few of them, such as city or town borders, state or county borders, neighborhood borders, or borders between countries. Encourage students to think creatively. What are the borders that they cross that you can’t find on a map?

Consider using a Project Zero think-pair-share activity 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?

Art and Borders

  • You might ask students document the borders they encounter in their own lives. When you have a collection of those images, ask students to observe the images closely. You might facilitate a discussion about the images using Project Zero‘s See-Feel-Think-Wonder Thinking Routine.
  • Borders are a common subject in contemporary art. The French artist J.R.  has created several photo installations and images about borders including the installation below. 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 they 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 image – 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.

Beyond the Image

As the border art suggests, discussions about the U.S. border are 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.

A Second Image to Consider

J.R. set up a picnic that spanned both sides of the U.S. Mexico border. Look closely to see how it was organized.

Use the same protocol as you used with the first image to interpret the image J.R. documented in this video.

Why do Borders Matter?

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?