Resources from Crossing Borders Through Literature, Poetry and Personal Stories

Authors Alma Flor Ada, Naomi Shihab Nye, Linda Sue Park, and James Rumford laughing together at the 2011 Crossing Borders conference authors' panel.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the Kennedy Library and John F. Kennedy National Historic Site presented Crossing Borders - Through Literature, Poetry and Personal Stories, a conference for teachers of grades 3-8 and school librarians. More than 100 people gathered at the Library on April 7, 2011 for discussions with award-winning authors and Peace Corps educators on how to deepen students’ understanding of peoples and cultures around the world.

Marjorie Anctil and Lynette Bouchie of Coverdell World Wise Schools guided participants through the Peace Corps’ extensive resources for educators, available online at Sasha Lauterbach, librarian at Cambridge Friends School, and Marion Reynolds, instructor of children’s literature at Tufts University, presented high quality books set in different countries as well as criteria for selecting materials which accurately reflect a particular culture.

Junko Yokota, professor of education and director of the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books at National-Louis University, served as moderator for a riveting panel discussion with authors Alma Flor Ada, Naomi Shihab Nye, Linda Sue Park and James Rumford. The authors drew on personal experience, examples from their works, and responses from readers as they offered a range of perspectives on what it means to “cross borders.”

Books as Passports, an annotated bibliography created for the conference, can be used in the classroom.

Listen to excerpts from the authors' panel:

Alma Flor Ada

Books include: Dancing HomeUnder the Royal PalmsWhere the Flame Trees BloomThe Gold CoinGathering the Sun; and A Magical Encounter: Latino Children's Literature in the Classroom. 

As I think about borders, though, I think that many times there is a confusion between another word beginning with the same sound, and that is “barriers.”

And I think that it’s essential to distinguish them, borders should not be barriers. I think they are too many times. For me, borders need to be redefined as something that is in constant evolution. And that there are borders all throughout our lives and in many ways. I mean, there is the border of childhood and then adulthood. And we know about a period in between to move from one to the other and how undefined borders can be. And how important it is when borders are open, the possibilities of moving forward and the same happens when we bring that to countries and so forth. Having been a several-times immigrant—from Cuba to Spain, from Spain to Peru, from Peru to the United States—I know very well at a personal level the difficulties entailed in changing completely from what is familiar and known to the unfamiliar and unknown, and yet how enriching that possibility can also be.

Listen to Alma Flor Ada on the concept of "borders":

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Naomi Shihab Nye

Books include: This Same Sky; What Have you Lost?; Honeybee; 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East; Sitti's Secrets; and Habibi.

I’m always interested in discussing how kids of all ages have a much stronger instinct for connection than separation. And this is often coming up in response to books but just in classroom situations.  

So many kids have said to me in response to a book Sitti’s Secrets that has a Palestinian grandmother in it: “She’s exactly like my grandmother.” And they never say, you know, "She's not wearing the same clothes, exactly," or "that language coming out of her mouth doesn't look like what my grandmother speaks." They're always saying, no, "My grandmother loves plants, we pick plants, she likes to look at the sky," all of these connections that they make. They never say, "'I’m different from that person." They say, "I’m like that person."

And in the letter about peace that the girl writes in the book, kids often want to talk about letters they’ve written that they felt were somehow bigger than they were, or scared them to write, but they had to write them anyway. Not one kid has ever said to me, “She’s not like my grandma."  They've said, "She is my grandma," which suggests to me that impulse toward connection. We want to be closer to one another, not farther apart.

Listen to Naomi Shihab Nye on connection:

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Linda Sue Park

Books include: A Single Shard; The Kite Fighters; When My Name Was Keoko; The Firekeeper's Son; Seesaw Girl; and A Long Walk to Water.

I was instantly interested in what Alma Flor said about barriers versus borders, because I have the kind of mind for whom borders are extremely useful. If not, you get this amoeba-like thing, right? I want to be able to not have them be barriers.

But I think that definitions and limits can be very useful. They can be very helpful, on so many levels. In my writing, I think- when I’m writing a novel- in scenes. If I thought "novel" I would never write a single word. I’m like, I’m writing a scene today, that is what I’m doing. And that’s got a border around it. It’s got a start and a finish, right? And so for me it's not like I want to, I want to cross them, I want to use them. But I don’t want to eliminate them. And that also happens on  many other levels.

The whole “melting pot” idea, for example—to me it sounds really messy, you know. I’ve seen in my own life, for example, that my parents were determined to assimilate, being again first-generation immigrants, before anybody said ‘multicultural’, before anybody said ‘bilingual’.  And so, what they did was to never speak any Korean at home. So now I have no Korean, right? And so that was the good immigrant, the good assimilation. There was no border there in their attempt to become good Americans. And now I have this great loss of not being able to speak Korean, right? So I think of borders as not always something negative [but] as something useful, as something that help us define and contain, but in a good way.

Listen to Linda Sue Park on borders vs barriers:

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James Rumford

Books include: Rain School; Silent Music: A Story of BaghdadThe Cloudmakers;Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354; and Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

Well, I think that Alma Flor really said it very well. First she started off today by talking about honor and then she talked about respect. Those two ideas are so important, I think, in today’s world, as cultures come together, as the world becomes more and more fluid. And I think that when you start with the basic human emotion of respect that it is this human emotion that you must always go back to before you begin anything, before you even think about the differences in culture. I respect you, will you respect me? It’s that simple.

Listen to James Rumford on respect:

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