On Tuesday morning, 45 Mount Vernon fifth graders stood in a semicircle in front of an audience in the Gund Commons ballroom, holding up works of art depicting bowls of rice, winged men and stories from their own lives. Their work was the product of a mentoring relationship between their class and a group of Kenyon students.
Borders in Play came from a years-long relationship between Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio and Columbia Elementary’s principal, Matt Dill and was facilitated by a meeting held through Kenyon’s Office for Community Partnerships. Román-Odio brought her desire to teach academic concepts through real-world application; Dill was concerned about a lack of local role models for his students.
Each Kenyon student gave a brief introduction to their group’s project, followed by a skit put on by the elementary school students. The skit featured five characters from the many different works of literature they had read over the course of the program, ranging from Latinx literature to science fiction.
This presentation was the culmination of Borders in Play, which Román-Odio oversaw as part of her 300-level Spanish class, Cultural Productions of the Borderlands. The program sends Kenyon students to Columbia Elementary School in Mount Vernon to teach fifth graders about the nature of borders, either geographical, personal or political.
“Sometimes these kids don’t think they have too much of a future,” Dill said. He noted how motivating it had been for his students to know that attendees of a prestigious college lived and worked in their hometown. Along with the Borders in Play program, Dill has facilitated a lunch-buddy program with the College and a kindergarten dance class taught by Kenyon students.
“I wanted students to learn not only of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands,” Román-Odio said, “but also how borders are created in different contexts by different social forces. They emerge through institutions, through groups, through maps, through war.”
Román-Odio stressed how important it was to understand that these borders are amorphous and constantly at play, even in the lives of 11 year olds. For example, one student shared his empathy toward a protagonist from a lower socio-economic background in one of the class’s readings; it reminded him of the exclusion he felt when his family told him they couldn’t afford to pay for him to play on the football team.
After one class, in which students learned Spanish words for the purpose of better understanding a short story, Kenyon student Maddie Maldonado ’18 remembers one bilingual Mexican-American student being approached by her classmates with awe and curiosity. “They were so excited to know more,” Maldonado said.
“Kids at this age are much more accepting of difference than they might be in middle or high school,” Nicole Justice, a fifth-grade teacher at Columbia Elementary, said.
In our current climate, conversations around the topic of borders can be personal and intense. Maldonado said both she and her co-teachers worried initially about letting their own political beliefs influence the Columbia Elementary students. In the end, however, they agreed the topics they covered went beyond political partisanship. After conducting field research for several years in the majority-conservative Knox County, Román-Odio said she found that the better she knew her subjects, the less divided these political categories appeared.
“At the end of the day, we were not only teaching these kids how to cross borders, we ourselves were crossing a border,” Maldonado said. “By facilitating an understanding between our students, we were coming to a greater understanding of the community itself.”