Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: using resources together to encourage critical thinking

Do good fences make good neighbors, as Robert Frost’s neighbor states? Walls are in the news today what with presidential candidates arguing over their immigration policies and suggestions for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The U.S. isn’t alone in its desire to create a simple border stop between nations; walls are going up all over the world. I’m fascinated not only by the political ramifications of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but by the thinking process that centers on a wall as a solution to a problem between nations. What does history tell us about walls? Are they successful?

This kind of topic invites students to look critically at an issue through a wide variety of lenses. Using an array of resources, we can give students a context to complicated issues that will help them become adults who will vote, write letters to editors, campaign for their candidate, and work with others to make important changes.

It was Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” that first got me thinking about walls. The line: “good fences make good neighbors” caused me to ask: do fences make good neighbors? Do they make life easier to live so that we each know our boundaries? Benjamin Franklin also posited that one should “love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” Am I happier knowing that I have an area that belongs to just me?

Offer both of these statements to your student; they begin a spirited discussion about walls, aphorisms, divisions amongst peoples, fear, neighborliness, and much much more.

Wikipedia offers up a list of the many walls around the world and around history that can be used to jumpstart some closer investigation into the walls of the world. A “dig and dive” using encyclopedias and other vetted resources can help students gain a big picture of the history of walls around the world and throughout history. Assign students to the wall of their choice and ask them to create a rubric to answer questions they generate about their walls. Questions such as:

  1. Who lived on each side of the walls?
  2. What did each side think that they needed?
  3. What did each side think that they wanted?
  4. What can be inferred about their world view from their religion, culture? Use PECS [political, economic, cultural, social] to help generate inferences.
  5. How successful was the wall?
  6. What evidence suggests that it was successful?
  7. How long did its success last and why did it fail?
  8. How might other solutions have been more [or less] successful than building a wall?
  9. Did the wall solve the problem or allay the fear that created the wall?

A rubric could look something like this:

Wall name Who lived on each side of the walls What did side one want? What did side two want? Was the wall successful? How long did it last?
Lugo, Spain Romans / Germanic peoples Romans wanted to keep out the Germanic “barbarians” The Germanic  and local peoples wanted to participate in Roman wealth and life For a while it was successful, then when Rome began to crumble, there were fewer soldiers watching over it. Lugo was sacked by the Suevi, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Normans from the 5th century on.


After students have compiled the answers, they present their findings, show their evidence, and then add their wall information to a group map or to a large class poster. Use this poster to look for patterns; do walls go up in one place more than in another? Compare wall building by decade—are there patterns to the timing of wall building?

Hand out the article from CNN titled “Trump’s New Idea? Walls Have Lined National Borders for Thousands of Years,” which uses images and brief historical updates about several well-known walls to show how the intent at their building changed through the years. This article can create interesting debate about what success looks like throughout time and the information within can be added to the class poster.

Walls mean many things to many people, and the folks at the Jimmy Carter Center for Social Studies have created a lesson for high school students [adaptable to other grades] titled “Wall to Peace: Deconstructing Divisions among Peoples and Cultures.” This lesson offers activities that look not only at walls themselves, but at the way people divide themselves using words as well as the physical buildings. These activities highlight how much we can do within our own community – whether it’s our home or our school or our nation – to bridge those walls that divide us.

Using a variety of research tools from Wikipedia, magazine articles, primary sources, and literature, we can set in motion some creative and motivating lessons that invite students to think critically and apply that thinking to creatively solving some of the real-world problems we are facing today.

Sources and links:
Benjamin, Franklin. “The Quotable Franklin.” The Electric Ben Franklin. US, 2014. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

Melvin, Don. “Trump’s New Idea? Walls Have Lined National Borders for Thousands of Years.” CNN. Aug. 2015. Web: 6 Jan. 2016.

“Wall to Peace: Deconstructing Divisions among Peoples and Cultures.” Carter Center for Social Studies. Carter Center, 2008. Web: 6 Jan. 2016.

Wikipedia Contributors. “List of Walls.” Wikipedia,the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Nov. 2015. Web. 26 Dec. 2015.

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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