What is a border? Where, and why, do borders occur? How do they affect the people whom they divide? In her “Cultural Productions of the Borderlands” course, Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio P’11,’18 prompts her students to consider the nature of borders through the examination of literature, philosophy and the arts.
The course primarily focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border as a tangible, physical divider, but students also learn that “barriers are not only territorial,” said Madeline Maldonado ’18. “Borders can be more arbitrary, more abstract — think adversity. Obstacles that people have to face every day.”
A chief goal of the course was “to link an academic disciplinary theme (borderland theories) to a real-life context and to explore how the notion of borders goes well beyond lines on a map and into many aspects of everyday life — which can be found surprisingly close to home,” said Román-Odio. She noted that Columbia Elementary School in nearby Mount Vernon offers an in-house support group for students whose parents are incarcerated. Sixty percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. “There’s pain, marginalization and ostracizing in this context,” she said.
As part of the course, Kenyon students took part in a six-week community-engaged learning project with 45 fifth-grade students at Columbia Elementary. Together, they explored key concepts in borderlands theory through the study of memorable children's stories and poems. Román-Odio’s students prepared lesson plans and, each Tuesday, traveled to the elementary school to analyze children’s literature with the fifth-graders and explore themes of “otherness,” difference and diversity.
“For our Kenyon students, the project allowed them to frame issues such as socioeconomic differences, marginalization and borders from multiple perspectives and contexts, thus enriching their understanding of key concepts in borderlands theory. It also offered them a window into how the academic endeavor can be applied to have a meaningful impact to improve local civic life," Román-Odio said.
“We read to [the fifth-graders] and then probed them about how they felt about the story, how they felt [borders] were unfair, asking, if you were in this situation, how would you react differently?” said Nathan Novak ’18. “And the kids were great at it.”
The students quickly established friendships that fostered mutual intellectual growth. “Going to Columbia Elementary and trying to explain very complex topics to fifth graders at first seems daunting, but you learn that everyone has the ability to understand difference and diversity and adversity. I was really blown away by these kids. The more we pushed them to talk about serious things, the more they came up with very profound ways of viewing borders,” said Hannah Klubeck ’19.
The partnership culminated in “Borders in Play,” a pair of public presentations at Columbia Elementary and at Kenyon in which the fifth-graders and their Kenyon student mentors showcased their collaborative work. Students shared drawings and collages and told stories representing the principal themes of the literature they explored. One group even performed a skit portraying various literary characters as heroes of inclusion.
Román-Odio was impressed by the creative efforts and academic prowess exhibited in “Borders in Play,” both by her students and the fifth-graders at Columbia Elementary. “One of my interests is to link academic knowledge to real life,” said Román-Odio, who serves as Kenyon’s faculty associate director of community-engaged learning and research. “If we cannot make good use of what we’ve learned, then the effort can become an empty exercise.”
“In this instance, our course availed itself of children’s stories and poetry to enable our Kenyon and Columbia Elementary School students to identify and learn ways to negotiate separations and rifts that manifest themselves in real-world social contexts,” she added. “‘Borders in Play’ connected two very different communities that normally would be unlikely to converge and enabled them to converse, learn from each other and, in the end, experience firsthand what it means to cross borders.”
— Ben Hunkler ’20