Borders and Barriers

Students and teachers at ethnically diverse Aldebaron High School struggle with literal and figurative borders as they work together on an interdisciplinary project. Teachable moments, racial bias, and issues of accountability pose unexpected problems along the way.

A group of students from Aldebaron High School visits a concert and exhibition at Lakewood College.

Stuart Hastings squinted at the police car entering the central grounds quadrangle at Lakewood College. From their seats on the wall in front of the new arts center, two of his students, Karen and JD, returned the old cop’s wave. The car continued its slow patrol of the quad.

Stuart has been teaching 10th grade world geography for two years at Aldebaron High School. Unlike the school where Stuart student taught, Aldebaron’s population is diverse. Stuart felt both challenged and excited by the chance to make a real difference in his students’ lives.

See Demographic information for A.D. Micklem High School, where Stuart student taught below:

 See Demographic information for Aldebaron High School, where Stuart now teaches below:

This field trip to Lakewood College to see the traveling exhibit of Frida Kahlo paintings and a musical performance by Mundo Caliente dovetailed nicely with “Borders and Barriers,” the interdisciplinary business and Latin American studies unit his second-period class had been working on. The unit’s theme began with an exploration of the geographical border between Mexico and the United States, and moved on to more figurative types of borders such as class distinctions, racial prejudice, and self-constructed obstacles.

The Frida Kahlo Home Page

How fortunate Jamal found out about this, Stuart thought, as he relaxed in the early spring sun. “Isn’t this what we’re studying about?” he’d asked, handing Stuart an article about the combined concert and art exhibition at the college. Only 15 of his 27 students had been able to make it, but Stuart was still satisfied. Just getting these kids to come to a college campus and exposing them to a different culture was well worth the 45-minute trip.

Jamal was a talented art student. Today, he appeared almost overwhelmed with the vividness and colors of Kahlo’s paintings—exchanging his normally cool demeanor for increasingly unreserved enthusiasm. Jamal had waved the teachers over, “Look at this! You see how she did this?” Stuart had never seen Jamal quite this excited. He’d even asked about the art program at Lakewood.

Stuart was working with four other teachers on this interdisciplinary project: Alison James, the art teacher, Ed Rosenblum, team leader and head of the English department, Suzanne MacCormack, special education teacher, and Miriam Washington, business teacher. This was Stuart’s first experience with team teaching, and so far he was impressed. It amazed him how much both he and his students were getting out of it. Teachers learning along with their students—that was the essence of real education!

Artists’ pallet

Stuart looked at his watch and then scanned the area for his kids. Alison, his co-chaperone, had taken 11 of the students to the snack bar before the trip home. Karen and JD were laughing together on the low stone-wall. Jamal and William sat on the front steps of the library talking excitedly.

Jamal was Alison’s most talented art student. Today, he appeared almost overwhelmed with the vividness and colors of Kahlo’s paintings—exchanging his normally “cool” demeanor for increasingly unreserved enthusiasm. Jamal had waved the teachers over, “Look at this, Mrs. James! Come here, Mr. Hastings!” Stuart had never seen Jamal quite this excited. Later, Alison told Stuart that Jamal had asked, albeit tentatively, about the art program at Lakewood.

Stuart watched as the police cruiser made its way slowly past the gym and inched toward the library. He was startled when the car stopped with a jerk just in front of Jamal and William. He heard the officer’s voice, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. Just as quickly, the police car pulled away and disappeared around the corner of the library. William loped across the quad in Stuart’s direction. “Everything all right?” Stuart called.

“Sure! No problem.” William continued on to the student center.

Stuart Hastings and Jamal

Jamal was still sitting on the library steps. Slowly, Stuart walked across the quad to join him. Jamal didn’t move or look up.

“Jamal?” No answer. “Jamal, what was that all about?”

Suddenly, Jamal jumped up. “What’s the matter, Mr. H.? Don’t you trust me neither?”

“Of course I do. What happened?”

Jamal looked at his feet. “Nothing.” Then he looked directly at Stuart. “That fake cop just started hassling us for no reason—just asked us what were we doing and told us we didn’t belong and to get out before he came around again.”

Stuart was speechless.

From across the campus, Alison called them. The bus was ready. Jamal took off in the direction of the others and Stuart followed slowly behind.

The following day at Aldebaron High School, Stuart Hastings meets with his second-period class.

As usual when he got to school, Stuart sought out Ed Rosenblum. Ed, the English teacher, was largely responsible for keeping the interdisciplinary project on track.

When Stuart had suggested the last minute field trip, Ed had been somewhat dubious, because it was not in their original plans, but Suzanne was completely against it.. “I don’t think we have a day to spare. These kids are so far behind in academics, there’s no way we can take time off and still keep them on track for the end of year tests.” Suzanne had made a pest of herself checking their lesson plans almost daily to make sure they coordinated with the kids’ IEP goals. Stuart thought that Suzanne was too uptight. He had argued that one purpose of interdisciplinary teaching was to help students make connections—among subjects and between school and the real world. The concert and art exhibit would do that, just as Jamal had recognized when he brought in the notice of the events in the newspaper. Ed had finally approved the field trip, on condition that “the relationship of the field trip to the instructional unit must be made clear to the students.”

See their concept map below:

Alison, the art teacher, had also supported the field trip. She had even added a Mexican artist group in her curriculum to enhance the relevance of the trip. It was a conceptual stretch to include the Mexican group, but she felt she had to be flexible and seize opportunities as they arose.

See Ed’s letter to the principal below:

Stuart was eager to begin his lesson, because the interdisciplinary unit was reaching its high point. He wanted his students to discover that geography affects people’s lives in many ways: culturally, economically, politically, and socially. For the last two weeks, student teams had been engaged in a simulation. Each team was to “manufacture” some new product for a small Mexican town where the main source of income, pearl diving, had been wiped out by pollution. The setting had come from the novella The Pearl by John Steinbeck, which all of the students were reading in Ed’s English class. The project required the creation of a business plan and presentation.

See directions for students’ business plans below:


Stuart’s second-period world geography students drifted into class and filled up the desks, clustering around William’s desk. One student from the back of the room shouted, “Oh, shut up! You act like it’s a big deal.”


Stuart overheard another say, “What you want to go there for anyway? College is for preps.”

The bell rang, and the students began to sit down. Miriam Washington slipped in the door. The lead teacher in the business and technology department, she was widely respected by faculty and students alike. Miriam and Stuart had been team teaching during the interdisciplinary unit. Her contribution included insights and guidance in development of business plans using spreadsheets. She had also led a series of discussions regarding communication with business people in various cultures.

The two teachers had worked out a strategy that allowed each to participate in the other’s class whenever they could during their planning periods. It was costly in terms of teacher time, but both had agreed that the experience of teaming had enriched their practice.

Stuart was about to launch into the day’s agenda when Jamal came in. He slammed his books down and flopped into his seat, without meeting Stuart’s eyes.

Stuart decided to ignore the interruption. “Consuela,” he asked, “how about telling the class what you thought about yesterday’s field trip?”

Looking around the room, Consuela said, “Well, it was very interesting. But to tell the truth I’m not really sure what it has to do with our projects.”

Stuart prodded her. “Well, what did you like about it?”

“I liked the music of Mundo Caliente. I like the way they did their old stuff from their own country, and I liked the way they could make their sound mix with new music, too. I got lots of real good Tejano music. Maybe we could listen to that sometime?”

“Sure, bring it in.” Turning to Jamal, Stuart said, “Well, Jamal, what did you think about the art?”

Jamal leaned forward. “Yeah, it was fine. The lady can work color.”

From the back of the room, a student snickered, “And so can the cops. Right Jamal?”

Stuart had to make a quick decision. The conversation was about to turn ugly. Jamal and William clearly felt that they had been singled out by the security guard because of their race. Stuart was not sure that his students were wrong; however, he didn’t feel that rehashing these events would benefit anyone. It was best just to move on.

Without warning, Jamal interjected, “William and I were just sitting. This cop came along and hassled us. He wanted to know exactly what we were doing, like we didn’t belong.”

One of the other students said, “What do you care? You’re not going to college anyway.”

Jamal shot back, “I could if I wanted to. And that cop sure can’t tell me otherwise. The only reason he stopped us was because we were black.”

Mrs. Washington

Another student said, “The cops always hassle me, and I’m sure not black!”

William said, “Yeah, they hassle you cause you don’t wear nothing but black. Those black fingernails freak people out!”

Suddenly Miriam’s quiet firm voice could be heard from the back of the room. “You know, my son and I were at a department store last week. He got bored waiting for me to find a pair of shoes and started looking around the men’s department. I noticed that everywhere he went, a clerk was following him. They weren’t doing that to the other customers.”

“But Mrs. Washington, your son’s in college!” Jamal said.

“How do you think we felt when we realized why he was being followed?” Miriam asked the class.

Stuart was surprised to hear Miriam share this experience with the class. He wasn’t sure he wanted things to proceed in this direction, but he really didn’t know how to stop it.

No one spoke right away. Then slowly members of the class began to open up and share things that had happened to them in the past. Lingering feelings of humiliation transformed into palpable anger. By the end of the class, the tension in Stuart’s class had reached an all time high. Stuart had no idea what to do. In his mind, talking about this injustice almost compounded it. After all, there was nothing he could really do to change the day-to-day experiences of his students. Outside of his classroom lay a world full of anger and racism. The best Stuart could do was create an oasis from this type of reality.

Read about some of the students’ experiences below:

Later that day in the teachers’ lounge, Stuart, Suzanne, Ed, and Miriam have a team meeting. Alison is the only team member who does not have the same planning period as the others.

Stuart looked at Ed, whose usually cheerful expression was unreadable as he listened to what had occurred in Stuart’s class that morning. “That discussion may have been more of a trigger than anything else. Did you do anything to point out the positives?” Ed stood up. “I hope the three of you can sort this out without me. I’ve got a parent conference to get to!”


Suzanne was not happy. “Fine. Wonderful. We are all social workers. But what happened to our curriculum? These kids need to learn some basic skills and understand that when we set deadlines they have to be met. Let’s talk about real-world expectations for a change,” she began rifling through her purse for her eyeglass case. “And, who do you think gets to clean up the mess after you stir these kids up? I spent the better part of my day tackling crisis after crisis.”

“Suzanne, I really do see your point, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” Stuart said defensively.

Miriam joined in, “Listen, I think we know how important this project is for all of us. Why don’t we take a little time right now to see how we can resolve our scheduling problems?”

Two days later, student teams make presentations in the Aldebaron High School conference center.

Stuart surveyed the large carpeted room. A podium had been placed at the front of the room facing rows of stackable blue chairs. Student teams had assembled in each of the corners of the room for some last-minute presentation preparations.

Criteria, developed by Stuart and Suzanne and approved by team members, allowed students an active role in the grading process. While teachers would evaluate teams’ business plans and supporting materials, students would evaluate their own and teammates’ abilities to work collaboratively.

See project grading rubrics below:


Following student presentations on a desalination plant and grape harvesting, it was Jamal’s group’s turn. They were last. Besides Jamal, the group included Crystal and William. Stuart worried about Crystal. Last week he’d asked her to read an excerpt from Steinbeck’s The Pearl. She turned beat red and stumbled through a single sentence. She almost never did her homework and passed his class only because she was well behaved and attempted all assignments. She had been identified with learning disabilities in reading, written language, and math. Stuart wasn’t quite sure what to do with her.

For the last week, Jamal’s team members had been working on their presentation in secret. Stuart was amazed to find the group meeting in the library after school one day. They were really into this presentation. Stuart smiled in anticipation. This was really going to be good!

Their painting

The results were astounding. Brightly colored posters advertised their product, Stones and Bones. A video, accompanied by music, featured members of the group costumed as if in a Rivera mural. It ended with the students producing the new product, Stones and Bones, accompanied by an upbeat musical theme they had recorded. They wore the leather and beaded jewelry and other body ornaments they would make and sell. A standing ovation followed their presentation and the group sat down. Stuart looked at them in alarm. Where was the meat of their presentation? Where was the business plan?

See parts of Stones and Bones presentation below:

Click to hear the music prepared by the students 

Stuart pulled Jamal aside. Jamal was quick to ask, “Well, Mr. H., what do you think?”

“You guys did a great job on your product and your video. Outstanding, but where is your business plan? You’re not done yet.”

“Oh, man. We didn’t have time for that stupid stuff. It didn’t make any sense. Besides, everyone liked us. We could sell our stuff easy.”


Exasperated, Stuart said, “But I know Mrs. Washington helped you. Where is your spreadsheet?”

“Oh, Crystal did that,” responded Jamal. “She worked on it some while we did the video stuff.”

Jamal slowly extracted a wad of paper from his jeans pocket. “Here it is…”

Stuart groaned inwardly as he unfolded the frayed, grubby printout of a half-completed spreadsheet.

The presentations are evaluated.

Stuart sat in the faculty room, dreading the upcoming discussion. He didn’t know what to do. Jamal, William, and Crystal had stolen the show with their video. They were flying sky high, but they were going to crash when they got their grade.

Suzanne entered the faculty room followed by Ed, Miriam, and Alison. They took their seats and the room was silent. Not really knowing how to proceed, Stuart began. “Well, I think I know what we’re all thinking about, so let’s just start with Jamal’s group.”

Alison didn’t even hesitate. “They were absolutely fantatstic! Those kids used their strengths. They really exceeded all of my expectations.”

“But they didn’t complete the requirements of the assignment,” Ed interrupted. “There’s no way that they’ve earned a passing grade. I’m not sure including them in such a complex assignment was a good idea.”

“Come on,” Alison shot back, “we all know there are many ways to demonstrate mastery. They may have missed some requirements, but they’ve exceeded others. Besides, Jamal, William, and Crystal all have special needs, identified or not. Shouldn’t we be offering accommodations?”

Suzanne couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Of course we should be meeting the needs of these kids. But Jamal, William, and Crystal failed this assignment. And it’s our fault. We should’ve grouped them more carefully.”

Stuart didn’t know what to think. They all had valid points.