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The Contact Zone of a High School Classroom

bothsidesnow's picture

         When talking about Mary Louise Pratt’s Arts of the Contact Zone, we, members of ESEM 026, were uncomfortable with sharing our thoughts on our classroom as a contact zone. Thirteen of us sat there, some avoiding eye contact while others shuffling in their seats. We were not quite ready to become a social space “where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power…”(Pratt 34). New to Bryn Mawr and new to each other, we had not yet established the patterns I observed year after year inside and outside of my middle and high school classes. From my experience as a student at a competitive high school, I witnessed that confidence and lack thereof of the material creates an intellectual contact zone between the students where they struggle to compromise their abilities to teach and learn from each other.

          An encounter I had when I was new to my old school was when it was the morning of the first day of school and I met a fellow Chinese adoptee with whom I expected to make an acquaintance. It was silly to think that we would connect because she did not feel the same and made that clear from her body language and speech. This experience with my then-new classmate expands Pratt’s definition. That girl and I were from different contact zones in terms of our comfort with ourselves. Her sense of fashion and stories of exotic vacations showed her strong desire to fit in with the other students of similar upper-middle class backgrounds, displaying her insecurity with her Asian physical appearance. We were both in the same freshmen English class a few years later. Our teacher had set up a private class blog, where we shared personal stories through the pattern of vignettes. While I was an avid listener and contributor in class, she was not, which made me curious to read her blog posts. One vignette confirmed my earlier assessment of her struggle with identity. She wrote about how she had never really considered her physical differences before, growing up in a Caucasian world.  Uncomfortable with the fact that she did not fit into the Asian stereotype, she also felt that she wasn’t respected for her unique self. However, her larger concern was about feeling out of place academically at our school. This student frankly wrote about her academic struggles as a person with learning disorders. That confession helped me realize that peers such as me could be intimidating to her, with our constant chatter about honors courses the next year and analysis of texts outside the classroom. Not only was I more comfortable than she in my identity as an adoptee and stereotypical Asian, I also appeared to be at ease with my abilities academically.

         After graduating from the middle school to the Upper School, it became evident that knowledge was a type of power, especially in that competitive, isolated world. When group projects were assigned, the awkwardness of one or two members taking charge of the situation and giving out directions showed the imbalance of confidences in the material learned. My past classrooms were “imagined communities” because some students took charge, paddling the discussion into deeper waters while others were either happy to sit back, unnoticed, or were lost in the whirlpools of their own understanding. The students who were much more comfortable in their learning took more risks with their ideas and the material, challenging the equally participative students to outdo them. That isn’t to say the same students were always in the same position in every course, everyone had their strengths and weaknesses but it was clear who were the leaders and the followers in every individual class from early on.  Teachers started out the year trying to engage everyone in discussion, yet as time marched on, the eager participants’ voices became more prominent while everyone else sank into silence.

         If only we, the seemingly all-knowing discussion leaders, could have set aside our own ambitions against each other in order to help the other members of the class achieve better understanding therefore engage in and enjoy the conversations. If only we could have listened to them at the occasional times they did speak and prompt them to go further with their ideas. As seen from the vignette I read written by the girl with whom I had not connected, these quieter students had strong thoughts about the world and their places in it, maybe just not realized as early as the louder students. The worries of impending college admissions drove us to isolate ourselves, to only take the necessary time to improve our grasp of the material, instead of making sure everyone was included.

         Outside the bubble that was my high school, there are even greater contact zones of academic confidence and knowledge, especially in more diverse areas of the United States and the world. As Pratt discussed with the example of the Spanish and the Incas, the imbalance of knowledge stems from the time of “colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived on in many parts of the world today” (34). Many children who live in areas that experienced racial conflicts and present ones, that are riddled with poverty and lack of basic resources and that are immigrants who struggle with the language barrier endure this intellectual contact zone. Some of them are able to close the gap between themselves and their peers while others become lost and far behind, which creates the situation of more intense contact zones for their children in the future.