A pedagogical approach to seen and unseen borders in the lives of international students

Photo above is from El Comedor, Iniciativa Kino para la Frontera, Nogales, Sonora, México, January 2017. Click here to see the slides for this presentation, delivered on 14 April 2018 at the Midwestern Conference on Literature, Language, and Media (MCLLM), Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL.


I’d first like to acknowledge Michael Day, the director of the NIU first-year-composition program, and the very worthy co-teaching team of Eric Hoffman and Ellen Franklin who helped lead us as new university composition teachers through the first year, which for us was 2016-17. Without the help and the support of the teaching cohort, I could not have conceived of this border-writing class, structured it, written assignments for it, commented on student work, designed assessments, or graded assignments—all skills essential to building an international-student section of ENGL 103 in the fall of last year. I’d also like to thank the FYCOMP support specialist Maribel Montelongo for many things, including for giving me tamales yesterday. All worked together to help make this time at NIU among the best professional-development experiences I have had.

My teaching fellows Amy Gerbode and Katie Healey helped think about a module-oriented class design that would allow students to work on targeted skills week by week, and especially for the idea of moving through drafts of all of our assignments (personal narrative, visual analysis, and persuasion) before taking up the revision processes later in the semester.


This is a contemplative paper, a reflective paper, on pedagogy among international students in one English as a Second Language (ESL) section of a first-year-composition class. It is not part of a broader research project. The theme for the course was “border crossings.” After a short introduction, I’ll briefly go through the structure of the class and assignments, then analyze examples of student writing according to a preselected list of themes and based on how they met some of the more important content-related course questions. I decided for this presentation to allow most of the time for considering what the students themselves wrote about their developing border consciousness, and will not present a third section that considers the multicultural, global, and border-crossing competencies that might be developed when teaching writing to non-native speakers of English.

The background work for teaching an international-student or ESL section of ENGL 103 (see syllabus),  the first half of the core freshman rhetoric and composition sequence at Northern Illinois University, started in December 2016. I served as a volunteer for four weeks with the Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans south of Tucson, Arizona, riding through scrubland and replacing water jugs and blankets that are placed along known migrant trails to support those making the difficult and sometimes deadly Sonora Desert crossing. The most valuable part of the volunteer experience, however, was the time spent with Iniciativa Kino para la Frontera, the Kino Border Initiative, the Jesuit mission that operates El Comedor, the informally named “dining room” that twice daily can serve food to, depending on demand, up to 140 in-transit migrants and those recently deported from the United States, 365 days a year. The facility sits just a short walk from the Mariposa border crossing in Nogales, Sonora, México. The novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux has written about the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, and about the forty-foot-high border fence, made from pieces of welded steel recycled from Operation Desert Storm. Theroux writes, “In a lifetime of crossing borders I find this border fence the oddest frontier I have ever seen” (2014, xv). He refers to the fence itself as “the big rusty bulwark of a fenced-off republic” (xvi).

Among the most useful parts of helping to serve food and, afterward, to give donated clothes to people in different stages of their transition from or to the United States was hearing stories of riding La Bestia, or “The Beast,” the freight cars atop which migrants cling, south to north, through México. The train is also called El Tren de la Muerte (“The Death Train”) and El Tren de los Desconocidos (“The Train of the Unknowns”). I started to question myself about how, if the opportunity should arise, I might engage students with these stories and to help them see border crossing—that is the idea of crossing political, geographical, territorial borders, but also the unseen borders that we negotiate daily—as part of a common human narrative and as a source for writing.

The class

This teaching opportunity came in fall 2017 with an ESL section of twelve students with first-language backgrounds in Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and Arabic. Throughout the paper, I’ll refer to students only by their first-language background. They have given me written permission to use their writing anonymously. The writing samples I will show you soon have not been edited by me, and, again, they will be identified only by the writer’s native language.

As class texts we used a readymade collection on border crossings (Cucinella 2016), supplemented by an earlier anthology, Border Texts (Bass 1999). The extension reading, which proved to be the key, from my perspective, to making the class engage with a borders theme was Enrique’s Journey, the original Los Angeles Times series, published in 2002. The story is about a Honduran boy who makes eight attempts to navigate from Tegucigalpa, through México, riding on top of “The Beast,” to North Carolina to rejoin his mother, who had gone to the United States when he was a small child (Nazario [2002] 2014).

Students had four writing assignments, alluded to before, a narrative about a personal border-crossing, a visual-analysis essay based on artifacts that they chose from the campus Pick Museum of Anthropology’s “Quilts and Human Rights” exhibit, and a persuasive and research task that asked them to choose one territorial border, such as the United States and México, and to argue for or against an open border in that situation. The fourth was a final electronic-portfolio assignment and a self-reflection that prompted them to think about their own border crossings during the semester, with illustrations from their own writing.

Weekly readings included a choice of writing prompts in which students could share their ideas—ungraded and unmoderated by me—in an online reading journal. These journals ended up providing the bulk of the data set from which I grouped student writing to analyze later.

Student experiences with borderland writing

I oriented myself theoretically with help from Gloria Anzaldúa and her essay and poetry collection Borderlands ([1987] 2012), in which she considers the relationship of borders to identity and helps extend the concept of borders, using the U.S.-México frontier as a primary source, to the borders we create internally and socially. These are the borders, I realized after the course was over, that I wanted students to begin to appropriate as a metaphor for their own experience and as a means of insight into the life-worlds of others. The compiler of the anthology that we used for our course writes, “You may negotiate [a] crossing relatively easily; however, someone else may find traveling from home to school a perilous border crossing. The ease or difficulty depends on the types of borders crossed—formal or informal, marked or invisible, cultural or political” (Cucinella 2016, 3).

Since much of the reading and class attention would be devoted to the U.S.-México border, we started the first class by examining authentic artifacts collected from the basura, or leave-behinds, of migrants who had crossed, or tried to cross, the Arizona desert. There were toothbrushes and matches and shaving supplies, all with Spanish-language markings, as well as a bordado, an embroidered cloth used for wrapping tortillas.

These were physical remains and important for our awareness of the difficult, even life-threatening, nature of some border crossings. Yet the natural, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible border to which my students were attracted in their writing was that of language. It is worth interjecting here that I enjoy second-language writing and consider L2 learners to be legitimate communicators, applying an ethics of respect, accommodation, and advocacy for international-student writers that has been the subject of conversation in ESL circles (see Tardy and Whittig 2017, 926–28). We know that learner language, according to second-language acquisition research, will not look like standard academic English. There will be errors. The writing will evidence different stages of language development. And there will be variability, meaning that a rule applied correctly in one clause will be ignored in the next (Silva, Leki, and Carson 1997, 410). Contrastive rhetoric—that is, the awareness of alternative rhetorical structures and of differing attitudes toward knowledge in other linguistic environments—complements a pedagogical approach that seeks “to add English rhetoric to the second language student’s repertoire of possible rhetorical solutions” (Silva, Leki, and Carson, 417).

So what does this have to do with borders? As a teacher, one of my objectives is to lessen the impact of what Anzaldúa brands “linguistic terrorism,” that is, the common experience of border crossers and, thus, of international students in a U.S. university that they use a broken or downgraded variety of English. In my work with second-language learners, the terror wrought is usually against the self, as students internalize negative judgments about the way they speak or write. As Anzaldúa states:

To be close to another Chicana is like looking into the mirror. We are afraid of what we’ll see there. Pena. Shame. Low estimation of self. In childhood we are told that our language is wrong. Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. The attacks continue throughout our lives. ([1987] 2012, 80)

As writers, therefore, especially as second-language writers, my students, many of whom were getting their first exposure to a primarily English-speaking culture, were living out this internal identity conflict. A Korean student comments on one of Anzaldúa’s essays:

I partially agree with her opinion which is ‘I am my language.’ I express myself in my language. I write, speak and hear in my language. Without it, I can’t do anything I want. If someone blames my language, I would hurt a bit. However, I sometimes feel frustration due to my language. I am not good at expressing. I stutter when someone asks something or explaining something especially about myself (especially speaking in English). I feel people looking me down. However, That’s me. I am trying to love myself even though I sometimes become stuttering. I am proud of my language.

As I went through students’ journal entries, these were pile-sorted into five broad categories that, in addition to language, included personal disorientation and culture shock, ideas about geographical borders and invisible borders, and intercultural observations. I applied this data stream to try to answer—just for this particular group of students—the questions with which I started my analysis.

1. Does the particularity of the U.S.-México border situation alienate or confuse those unfamiliar with U.S. immigration policy and the unique socio-economic and linguistic context?

For the most part, based on student journals and other writing, the tentative answer would be no. Identification with Enrique’s story in particular—and the connection with physical artifacts, such as quilts in the Pick Museum—helped facilitate application of the unique situation along the Mexican border to students’ own experience and vice versa. Students were able to make intercultural connections, such as a Mandarin-speaker who responded to an online exhibition of border photography. In reference to the photo titled “View of Mexico from the Road to Columbus, Arizona, 2016,” this student writes:

Like the proverb “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people”, this image leaves more imaginary space to people and every one will have a different thinking to it. … Combing the background of this imagine, the emotion is a kind of desire, A deep desire of chasing hope, better life. In Mexico, everything seems dark and hopeless. In the far distance, the direction of Arizona, a light is there which symbolize the hope guiding the Mexico people comes to there to living a better life.

The writer is able to universalize the idea, drawing from Shakespeare as he has been translated and digested in China, of each person taking a different view of the same object. Yet the writer posits a broad perception of differing realities—one side good, the other side bad—based on arbitrary orientation to a political boundary.

2. Does focused attention to narratives of physical border-crossing (Bass 1999; Cucinella 2016), translate into awareness of unseen borders, such as those dividing genders and gender identities, social groups (wealthy and poor, marginalized and powerful), sick and well, various professional clusters (e.g., military and civilian), and young and old?

There does seem to be metaphorical as well as cross-cultural awareness among students that boundaries have an external and internal manifestation, even to the extent that, as the editor of Border Crossings writes, “Long after physical barriers disappear, individuals may still carry an internal sense of those barriers” (Cucinella 2016, 3). One Arabic-speaker considers the child-like awareness of borders when he writes about his youthful desire to work at a big-city airport:

All my friends played with different toys, but I did not always change me toys. My dream was work in airport. This place cannot get inside without permission. Everyone in this time said to me you cannot get inside because this place like a border. I think the airport is different world or like different country inside country. When you get inside it you can see different world. That was my dream when I was child.

Reflecting on Enrique’s Journey, a Mandarin-speaker challenges an earlier perception that some border crossings are transgressive, even “illegal”:

This novel illustrate a illegal immigrants problem. I think it is not only happens in the United states, it is a global problem. And I think the author must consider all kind of people in the world will have a chance to read his story, including me, a international students. This novel take me some new knowledge, before read this I knew there are some people want to come to the United States illegally and I just think they are do something wrong. But now, I know most of them have a reason for their behavior, which makes me more understand them.

Interesting to note is how the student calls attention the implied boundary between writer and audience and how the writer, in this case Sonia Nazario, might seek to cross into the world of the reader and “must consider all kind of people in the world will have a chance to read his story.”

3. How does students’ negotiation of writing in a second language affect their attention to and consciousness of both internal and intersubjective boundaries?

Again, the language barrier provided the most powerful way of relating to the so-called transgressive border crossers such as Enrique. One favorite reflection among Mandarin-speakers involved dialectical variations in China, from province to province, and how this might create confusion, shame, or embarrassment:

Nowadays, People’s accents can be seen as a culture of their hometown. It is very interesting to meet someone who have the difference accent to us. But everything have the exception. The word “操” in mandarin means “sexual intercourse”. But in Yunnan’s dialect, the word “操” means “curse”. So the first time I heard my friends told me that he was severely “操” (criticized) by the teacher, it really scared me.

In a semester-concluding portfolio reflection, a Korean-speaker acknowledges one of the benefits of moving through the language barrier, which is a renewed sense of self (see Dormer and Woelk 2018, 25), even an alternative identity that would not have been possible within the confines of monolingualism:

As time goes by, even though my English is still not good, I changed method to express my thought. I started to use pencil and paper. I didn’t stop explaining when professors or teaching assistants couldn’t understand what I said. These days, I initiate short conversation with my classmates when I have questions. If I were in my home country, I would never initiate conversation. I would stop visiting professors and teaching assistants. Hardness made me harder than before. The unseen border was myself. Before I come here, I worried about racial discrimination. However, I have not felt any discrimination here. Everybody tried to hear my voice and understand my language. However, I did harassment to myself. … Enrique, another boy who was born in Honduras comforted me. After I read Enrique’s journey every week, I started to compare myself with Enrique. Enrique was born in harsh environment, lived without love, food and happiness. He had more unfortunate life than me. … After I read, I felt sympathy. sympathy somewhat resolved my dissatisfaction about my life.

This was a rare recognition among students of the potentially positive side of a writer’s identity as border transgressor, as one with the potential to tolerate ambiguity, to live between extreme positions, in a borderland.

Again, Gloria Anzaldúa writes uniquely about the act of writing itself as a transgression:

Writing produces anxiety. Looking inside myself and my experience, looking at my conflicts, engenders anxiety in me. Being a writer feels very much like being a Chicana, or being queer—a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. … Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create. ([1987] 2012, 94–95).


Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1987) 2012. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 25th anniversary 4th ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Bass, Randall, ed. 1999. Border Texts: Cultural Readings for Contemporary Writers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cucinella, Catherine, ed. 2016. Border Crossings: A Bedford Spotlight Reader. Bedford Spotlight Series. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Dormer, Jan Edwards, and Cheryl Woelk. 2018. Teaching English for Reconciliation: Pursuing Peace through Transformed Relationships in Language Learning and Teaching. Pasadena, Calif: William Carey Library.

Edlund, John R., and Olga Griswold. 2012. “Non-native Speakers of English.” Chap. 9 in Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing, ed. Irene L. Clark. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

Mori, J. 2007. “Border Crossings? Exploring the Intersection of Second Language Acquisition, Conversation Analysis, and Foreign Language Pedagogy.” The Modern Language Journal 91: 849–62. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.2007.00673.x.

Nazario, Sonia. (2002) 2014. Enrique’s Journey: A Six-Part Times Series. Los Angeles Times, 16 July 2014, www.latimes.com/nation/immigration/la-fg-enriques-journey-sg-storygallery.html.

Silva, Tony, Ilona Leki, and Joan Carson. 1997. “Broadening the Perspective of Mainstream Composition Studies: Some Thoughts from the Disciplinary Margins.” Written Communication 14, no. 3: 398–428.

Tardy, Christine M., and Erin Whittig. 2017. “On the Ethical Treatment of EAL Writers: An Update.” TESOL Quarterly 51, no. 4 (December): 920–30.

Theroux, Paul. 2014. Foreword to A Land of Hard Edges: Serving the Front Lines of the Border, by Peg Bowden. Tucson, Ariz.: Peer Publishing.

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