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A Trip to the Park to Build and Tear Down a Wall

LREI
(with Fourth Grade head teacher, Deborah Hodge)

“I really liked that anyone could take down the wall. I really got a sense of community being there to take down walls in our community to bring us together.” -Sarah, fourth grade (Photographer: Robert Banat)
In early July, I came across an article in The New York Times announcing an event that would take place on September 7 in Washington Square Park. The headline of the article was, “Artist to Raise a Wall ‘Made by Mexicans,’ for Visitors to Tear Down.” I checked in with Elena and the fourth grade team and everyone agreed that we should look into this as a possible launch for our social studies curriculum. Fourth graders, after all, are actively in the process of moving into the realm of understanding metaphors and they have been interested in issues of justice for a very long time. So it was decided, we would go to the park on the second day of school to watch the creation and dismantling of a wall.
 
On the day of the trip, we let students know we were going on a mystery walk and we did not give them any background information beyond the fact that an artist, Bosco Sodi, would be there creating a piece of art in a public space. Their job was to make sense of it.
Would it matter that I didn’t really know my students yet? No, because they are LREI students who have been traveling the city with clipboards and pencils for years. I felt pretty confident that LREI students would know what to do: observe, take notes, talk to the people of our city, and start to come up with informed ideas. All we needed to do was sharpen our pencils.
 
When we arrived in the park, the artist and his team were in full swing building a wall with timbers made in Mexico by local artisans. Fourth graders perched close by with their clipboards and took notes. Included in this scene were busy commuters, dogs and their walkers, determined elderly yoga practitioners, a man feeding pigeons, musicians, as well as some journalists documenting the art installation. More than one passerby commented to me that they wished they had had experiences like this when they were in school. The journalists were curious about the young people with clipboards and checked in with the students about their observations and thoughts. Offering opinions is a well-honed practice in our school community, the microphones from France and Mexico did not intimidate this crew. In fact, students were very excited to share their ideas about what this art might represent. They had some big ideas!

Soon enough, the artist, Bosco Sodi, offered students the opportunity to join in and help. “Sure!” they chimed. In no time, fourth graders formed an assembly line from the crates of bricks to the growing wall and passed the timbers to their temporary destination. Even our most reserved and careful students were stepping into line. It was a beautiful moment! Students experiencing first-hand that they have the power and a voice.

When we returned to the classroom, students enthusiastically shared their predictions, assessments, and questions. Just as we had hoped, they came up with a spectrum of interpretations ranging from the installation being a community-building event to a protest against the president’s wall proposal. We read more about the project and the artist, including the artist’s statement, “It’s my first political performance and I just felt I had to do it now. I wanted to show that any wall is dismantlable. We, the public, can tear down walls when society gets together. It could be a mental, physical, or political wall - the point is, it’s ephemeral.” We also found out that the bricks were boxed up in Mexico and traveled to New York via a route often taken by undocumented migrants.
 
That afternoon, some teachers and students went back with their families and participated in the dismantling of the wall which started at 3:00pm. People of any nationality were invited to help take down the wall. We now have a brick in our classroom to serve as a prompt for our curricular investigations, which focuses on historical and contemporary immigration as well as social justice.
 
The next day, students wrote letters to the artist. Of course they were filled with thoughtfulness. I include just two examples here. Bayo wrote, “I think the wall you made is inspirational and positive protesting.” And Sarah explained, “I really liked that anyone could take down the wall. I really got a sense of community being there to take down walls in our community to bring us together.”
 
On the day of our letter writing project, we heard that there had been a category 8.1 earthquake in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, where the bricks were made. Students included inquiries about this in their letters. “Condolences,” wrote one. And they were presented with another opportunity to make connections between world events and the people they know and meet in our city. My hope is that one day soon, they will be inspired to embark upon ways to connect all of these dots and to help put into motion a change for the better.  

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