Borders in Society

Language Arts - Grade 9

This unit of inquiry is not a recipe book but rather a launchpad to inspire new BIG IDEAS. We encourage you to use and/or modify one, or several of the BIG IDEAS below. Adapt it to the grade/ ability level of your students.


Enduring Understandings

Divisions between self and others creates borders in society.


Guiding Questions

What daily decisions build or break down social borders? How can we reshape these borders?


Mind Opening

Choose or devise practices to encourage students to be open to new experiences and ways of thinking in your classroom. For example, the MindUP in-school program.


Discovery and Inspiration:

Launch the Project

Introduce the Theme: Present the Enduring Understanding and Guiding Questions using vocabulary that is appropriate for your grade level.

About Vancouver Biennale: Play a short video.

Create Project Space: Brainstorm ideas to make the project theme visual and visible using bulletin boards, and/or a project corner to share relevant materials and inquiry questions and processes.

Reference Resources:

•  Introduction to Sculpture and Public Art Unit Plan for information on how art has evolved over time and the unique experience sculptures and/or public art brings

Vancouver Biennale 2014-2016 Exhibition Theme: Open Borders / Crossroads Vancouver

Vancouver Biennale Legacy: Echoes (Michel Goulet, Canada)

•  About Artist and Artwork (PDF)


Learning to Learn:

Art Inquiry

Make a visit to Echoes and encourage students to freely explore and interact with the art pieces individually and in groups. This Art Inquiry process enables the students to practice observing, describing, interpreting, and sharing visual information and personal experiences. Use the Art Inquiry Worksheet to guide and capture their ideas and impressions. Customize or create your own Art Inquiry Worksheet as appropriate for your project and class needs.

Have the students explore the installation, sit in the chairs, read the messages, and share experiences with the seating arrangements. Let the students freely change their seating arrangement and/or position, ask them to note if any changes make them feel separated from/connected to the others. Allow time for the students to express their ideas in narrative or performance.


Shared Insights

Sharing Art Inquiry Experience: Ask students to share the Art Inquiry Worksheet responses in class.

Artist Themes – Research: In small groups students rotate between information stations detailing the artist’s life and work. Station topics include: (1) education and training; (2) lifetime of artwork; (2) materials and processes; (3) beliefs and values. At each station, students answer questions and complete a task. For example, at the station “life’s work” students might plot the artist’s various installations on a map of the world.

“The violence of a racialized society falls most enduringly on the details of life: where you sit, or not; how you can live, or not; what you can learn, or not; who you can love, or not.” By Homi Bhabha

Artist Themes – “Where one can sit, or not”:  Does the way the chairs are configured in Echoes build or break down social borders? Ask students to observe what students sit in which seats in the classroom or in the cafeteria at lunchtime. Is there an assigned seating plan? Do they choose where they sit? Why? Ask students to then imagine (or, in a strong group, act out) a scenario where seats are assigned based on a ‘value’: that the best seats are given to students who demonstrate athletic ability, maintain high grade point averages or have the best fashion sense. Ask, How would your time in this classroom be different if where you sat was based on borders created by a narrowly defined notion of students’ value? What borders define where you sit now?

“Where are you really from?” Ask students not to answer but to consider how they feel and what they think when they hear the questions, “Where are you from? Where are you really from? Where is your family from?” Ask students to discuss and unpack these questions: what are they really asking? Why do people ask them? How do they make us feel? Why do they make us feel that way?


Inquiry Challenges

From Parallel Lives to Crossroads and Connection: Finding Opportunities to Reshape

Ask students to read, view or tell stories of borders (racism, gender inequity, homophobia, peer pressure, social media, school processes like marks, selection for teams) in daily life and respond by reflecting on how to break down these borders. Challenge students to brainstorm ways to intervene and create crossroads. With these discoveries, students can write or dramatize alternate endings to a variety of texts or create workshops for peers and younger students to teach them how they can reshape these borders.

Literature Circles

Ask students to organize into literature circles: in groups, students will read and reflect on borders and crossroads represented in novels of their choice and relate the conflicts and resistance within them to their own lives. In cooperation with the school librarian, introduce students to appropriate novels (e.g. Persepolis, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games, Speak, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, American Born Chinese, War Between the Classes and Ender’s Game) through book talks, showing trailers or disseminating summaries. Students can compose their own summaries to present to other students.

Borders and Identity: What Borders Define My Identity?

Ask students to reflect on Canadian identity. How do they define ‘Canadian’? Show students a spoken word poem, Shayne Koyczan’s We Are More and invite them to compare Koyczan’s definition to their own and those positioned by advertising or popular culture, as in Molson beer commercials or Russell Peters’ stand-up comedy. Ask students to compose and perform their own biographical poems to experience poetic intervention in the borders imposed on identities.


Student Creations and Taking Action

Students and teachers decide on medium and methods to communicate their insights on oppressive borders and crossroads of opportunity. Consider use of posters, websites, montages, written essays/poems, film and audio, dance, visual arts or theatre to share these insights with the broader community.

Students can take their learning to the broader community in deep and meaningful ways by displaying visual works in public spaces to invite reflection, present or perform their work, or facilitate in-school or sister-school workshops for peers or younger students on the importance and possibilities of resisting oppressive borders.



• Teacher and students can reflect on their entire learning process by revisiting the Enduring Understanding and relevant Guiding Questions.

• How did the unit of study open inquiry, create cross–curricular learning opportunities and/or apply learning to real life situations? Has this unit of inquiry changed your opinions, values and world view? In what ways, if any, has it helped you grow as a learner?


Ideas for Cross-Curricular Access

•   Arts Education: What Borders Encircle You? Ask students to consider and artistically represent borders that encircle or attempt to define them, as well as their own resistance to these borders. Install students’ work at ‘crossroads’ in the school in order to evoke ‘crossroads’ of understanding between students.

•   Mathematics: Economic Borders and Parallel Lives: Ask students how life in Vancouver (or another city represented by the Biennale) differs between the economically privileged and the marginalized people? Students can collect, display, and analyse data (including statistics of housing, food, clothing, household items, leisure, and transportation) to show how economic borders create parallel lives and consider how they could create crossroads between these lives.

•   Science: Taking Borders into Space: Ask students to research and reflect upon the implications of space travel, commercialization, and the militarization of space, as well as the influence of earthly border concerns (e.g. The Cold War) on space exploration. What borders are we in the process of bringing into space? What effects could this have on our future?

•   Social Studies: Borders Created by Colonialism: Ask students to compare civilization in pre-Contact Canada to the borders European settler-colonizers drew over the same territory. How did colonialism create new borders? How can we, as the heirs of colonialism, create new crossroads?


Silenced (Pamela Ramirez, Prince of Wales Secondary School), 2011

Written by: Natasha Sharpe, 2013 UBC Secondary School Teacher Candidate

Edited by: Jennifer Massoud, Secondary School Teacher

©2013 Vancouver Biennale