Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Part IV: To create “contact zones” of human connection and differences in perspective

To create “contact zones” of human connection and differences in perspective [Part IV of Why Teachers Need the Arts (and the Arts Need Them!)


Mary LouisePratt’s (1991) introduced the concept of the “contact zone,” a term she used to refer to “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (34). Pratt illustrates “the contact zone” through an analysis of a bilingual Quechua-Spanish manuscript, titled a “new chronicle,” dated in the city of Cuzco in 1613. The Andean author, Guaman Poma used a familiar colonial genre to agentively write his own story in his own words, “using the conqueror’s language” (Spanish) as well as his own (Quechua) as a form of self representation as well resistance and critique (35)—a chronicle that went unread for 350 years.


This process which Pratt (1991) defined as a transcultural contact zone, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) had also theorized invoking the Aztecan term nepantla, a permanent in-between space where one dwells in collision—between languages, nation-states, sexual orientations, genders, and cultural assumptions.  While concepts such as nepantla and the “contact zone” have made an impact on university curricula, including major shifts to include ethnic and womens’ studies at campuses across the United States, a widespread assimilationist paradigm is still alive and well in terms of K-16+ English language norms and international/immigrant student education.  Educational institutions might be said to be part of Anderson’s (1991) “imagined communities” where solidarity is achieved on an “essentially imagined basis” (74) where standard English ability is both “code” and “Code,” a medium of communication as well as a symbol of genuine belonging.


Pratt’s (1991) chapter describes a search in education for “the pedagogical arts of the contact zone,” ways to create K-16+ and graduate school curricula which elicits and honors discourses of belonging and critique, attentive to agentive student demands: “I don’t just want you to let me be here, I want to belong here; this institution should belong to me as much as it does to anyone else” (39). Like Pratt (1991), Davis (2008) and many others, I join critical and aesthetic-minded educators in a turn toward the arts as powerful tools for establishing all students’ rights to participate fully in U.S. academic discourses—regardless of language, race, class, (dis)ability, or country of origin.  While classes in the literary, visual, and performing arts may have a positive effect on students’ L2 development and growth in academic subject matter learning, I am more invested in aesthetic ways of knowing which enable emerging artists to develop critical, transcultural voices.


Drafting poems, molding clay, rehearsing lines of music or a play—these actions require the student-artist to develop the fine art of “perspective.”  Student-artists share their art-making and discover the many different interpretations that might be brought to the same piece, those that may have been unexpected and that teach the artist something about her own work.  Serious art-making requires trial and error, considerations of others’ reactions, investments in aesthetic communication that respects and transcends difference.


In light of our rapidly changing demographics which will include increasing numbers of minority leaders in business, social services, government and other leadership, educators need to explore opportunities for classroom participants to share abilities to communicate across linguistic, racial, and cultural competences and social experiences to succeed in an ever more diverse world. Training in the arts can provide teachers (and their students) opportunities for rich and expansive understanding of diversity (Paris, 2012). As Davis (2008) articulates:

The arts provide ways for children to create and communicate their own individual cultures, to experience the differences and similarities among the cultures of family or nationality that are imprinted on different forms of art, and to discover the common features of expression that attest to a human connection contained in and beyond difference (pp. 22-3).


Teachers training in art-making processes experience the clash between what one thinks is being communicated and what is actually communicated—a reflexive muscle that can benefit classrooms where 32 students may hear 32 different sets of the same instruction.  Being able to hold up a piece of artwork to outside critique and perspective is like holding a crystal up to a piece of light.  Perhaps, such experiences may help us to see the confusion that comes with classroom diversity as a rainbow palette of possibility.

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