From last week's election campaign...why does it seem so long ago already? I wrote this for the blog Found in Translation and my class in Education 140 at UC Berkeley, where we talk about Vygotsky and others...
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is talked about so much in language and literacy classes around here that it’s easy to forget what it means from the first-person perspective: an experience of learning with the help of more capable others, becoming able to use language and other signs in ways that you didn’t know you could. Even in the space of an hour or two.
The scene: the Oakland office for the Obama campaign, three days before what is no doubt one of the biggest presidential elections in the history of this country. A room packed with volunteers calling people up to share information, to urge them to vote, to ask them to talk about the election with others. “Hi, is so-and-so there?” The room is filled with the voices of men, women, older and younger, sitting around the table with their cell phones in one hand and a pen in the other. “My name’s so-and-so calling from Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change and I’m calling to see if you’ll be able to get out and vote early this weekend…”
I dislike getting phone calls like this, and I really dislike making them. It makes me nervous and self-conscious, and I know many friends who talk about being annoyed with the cause after getting the calls. No small congratulations to my good friend Ree for twisting my arm long enough to finally get me out there!
But beyond the question of my discomfort in principle with the task of “getting out the vote” among folks in Florida, Ohio, and other battleground states, there was the question in practice of knowing how to talk to accomplish this goal: How can you so quickly assume the identity required for making these calls? The energetic, knowledgeable, confident (yet not overly assertive) campaign worker whose skin isn’t too thin to get really annoyed after being hung up on repeatedly? How can you have this tricky conversation on the phone, without gesture or expression to help in making the connection? And how can you do it in front of so many other people, sitting at that table, hearing the sound of your own voice—novice, accented, loud—echoing among the more experienced voices of others?
The turning point for me happened when I learned how to listen. The other volunteers were only sometimes, and only partially, reading from their scripts; they were all improvising too, speaking in fragments of Spanish when they needed (why were there no Spanish language scripts??), asking how people’s day was going, giving their own twist on why it’s so important to participate in this election. I tried imitating first the contours, the accents, the rhythm and pacing that the guy next to me was using, to communicate immediately that, at the very least, this was a real human being, and not some automated robo-caller interrupting people’s day.
Gradually, though, it got easier. I needed a reason to tell people why they should go out and vote early, and immediately what someone else had told me 10 minutes before popped into my head: “The lines are probably gonna be long on Tuesday, so if you have a chance, try to get out and vote this weekend…” And though nobody had written it down, the fact that the 877 phone number for the Obama campaign headquarters is toll-free seemed important: “and if you’d like to find out where your early polling place is, you can call this toll-free number: 877-….”
I heard myself saying these things and was surprised. I had thought I’d just stay through the first list of 25 names. But after the first 15 or 20 I thought, this wasn’t so hard at all. I got another list and kept at it, and soon an amazing thing happened: after I had just hung up on another call, I heard someone else in the room say, “and to find out where your early polling place is, you can call this number toll-free: …”.
Within those 90 minutes, I wasn’t the only one learning how to talk. Everyone was making someone else’s script their own, and bringing their own accents to it in the process. While they could have practiced at home, I thought, this must only be possible in the zone, with the help of others. It’s subtle, how the ZPD works. Learning seems so natural when it’s about doing something meaningful with others. But it’s still amazing when you sit back and think about it.