Teachers Act Up!

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

TPRS–Total Proficiency Through Reading & Storytelling


I am sitting in the class watching the most marvelous beginner Spanish instruction–not in a University, not abroad in an immersion setting, but on a mountaintop in Brattleboro, Vermont.  After one day of instruction, the students read and comprehend a minimum of 130 written words, and comprehend twice that orally.  They are laughing and telling stories about Hilary Clinton who can’t cook, about Eduardo the elephant, “Zanahoria (carrot),” an invisible tiger and their male classmate who claims to be a princess.  The mantra in this class is “Todo es posible en la clase de español.”  And it’s true! Everything seems possible here–the teacher illustrates absolute gifts in presence and improvisation.  At the same time she controls a range of vocabulary that is limited but expansive enough to express a great range of actions and states of being.  I am in AWE.  If you don’t speak Spanish and want to get started in a deep and meaningful way–get thee to Vermont!  Here is a link to her class website.  I can’t wait to write more about how this class works, why, and why more language teachers and teacher educators should be trained in this method.

Bravo and gratitude to TPRS practitioners.  May us “old folks” trained in traditional language teaching methods focus our attention on this method and continue to spice it up with culture and long-lasting communicative abilities.



(photo: la maestra, Elissa McLean)


(photo: “Hilary Clinton” who needs cooking lessons and her teacher)

I am actively seeking anything that has been written about TPRS in terms of research and theory in addition to what Stephen Krashen has written–my project is to comb through journals listed in the link below–students this is a great compilation of literature in our field.


Visual Broadsides of Ida Stewart’s poetry from “Gloss”

As mentioned previously, my luck poetry course had the good fortune to have two visiting poets this semester and the option to create “visual broadsides” in response to one of their poems.  Here are some sample broadsides in response to Ida Stewart’s gorgeous poems from her book “Gloss”–my favorite new book of poetry.  The experiments are wild, smart, and shed light on the oppressive environmental destruction occurring in the name of coal mining in West Virginia.  The poems model the potential to amplify language, stretch it to its core components, to explode syntax and phonology, yet remain grounded in telling a vital story that is at once personal and universal, devastating and hopeful.  Big rave for Stewart’s book “Gloss” and for these students whose stunning visual responses raise the poetry bar!

Visual Broadsides of Sholeh Wolpé’s poems in “Scar Saloon”

My poetry students and I have had two guest poets visit our class this semester.  The first was the great UGA alum-poet, Ida Stewart (who visited our class via Skype!) and the second was the wonderful Sholeh Wolpé, visiting us in person via the Georgia Circuit poetry invitation and in collaboration with the Georgia Review (thank you Georgia Review!).  Students were given the option to choose any poem by either poet and write either a straight “craft essay” or to create a visual broadside–interpreting the poets through a visual medium and fewer written words.

This assignment never ceases to amaze me and I am reminded of arts power to speak to art, the importance of multimedia response, and the endless creativity of which we are all capable.  Take a look at these stunning visual renderings of Wolpé’s  poetry–she writes from the perspective of brave witness, testifying to human’s potential for great violence and great healing.

A warm and wide thank you to both these fantastic poets, Ida & Sholeh, for sharing so much of themselves, their understandings of craft, of politics and emotion in poetry, of art-making, and art education.  Thank you!!

Thank you Chloe and Maya for your review of Duolingo and Cat Spanish

Well, I’m officially addicted to second language gaming with Duolingo.  I’m on a roll reviving my Portuguese, beginning German, and taking “English” through Spanish–by my 4 year old daughter’s request –she wants “to learn English” and loves the pictures and spoken portions.  So my anthropologist buddy Trish said her daughters were also into these programs and I asked if they could write a review of their two favorites–here it is!!! Makes me want to go cat crazy next! I am so excited about these programs and hoping they stick around, stay free, and get better and better!  Try one out and see these two crazy cats and their wonderful review!


Learning to speak Spanish on your mobile device: A review of two apps


By Chloe Niesz Kutsch (age 10) and Maya Niesz Kutsch (age 12)


            Nowadays there are many apps that can help you learn Spanish. But which one should you use? Here is a comparison of two of our favorite Spanish language apps: Duolingo and Cat Spanish. Starting with Duolingo, there is a map that can show you what you will learn. Each lesson has different related words (for example, animals, people, verbs, etc.). You have a coach who is an owl, but the coach doesn’t do much. After you set a goal for how many minutes a day you want to work on this app, the coach tells you how much time you have left and how many points you have gotten. You have four ‘hearts’ when you start Duolingo and you have to try to keep them by doing well. You lose a heart when you answer a question incorrectly.

Duolingo is vocabulary-focused; it does not teach you survival Spanish (common phrases for example) as much as Cat Spanish. Sometimes you learn words and sometimes you learn phrases. The app tests your translation, allowing you to type words or choose them from a word bank. Sometimes when you tap on a word, it shows you the translations. This can be helpful, but it can also allow you to ‘cheat.’ In addition, one advantage of Duolingo is it has audio tests where you listen and select what was said in both Spanish or in an English translation. Also, there are speaking tests that show you what to say and then judge how you said it. If you are more experienced, Duolingo allows you to skip ahead to more advanced activities. A great thing about Duolingo is that it’s 100% free. Some disadvantages are that you can only redo lessons individually and not review all of the words you’ve learned altogether. You do not get a chance to preview the words that you are going to be learning before the lesson actually starts. Duolingo sometimes uses pictures, which can help you learn vocabulary, but the pictures are not as frequent or as interesting as Cat Spanish. The lessons end when you lose all of your ‘hearts,’ so you don’t always get to finish a level. Compared to Cat Spanish, Duolingo is not as interesting or funny.

            Cat Spanish, which features a bilingual cat as your professor, works by associating cat pictures with both English and Spanish words. Cat Spanish teaches you “survival Spanish,” phrases which you would need to know in a Spanish-speaking environment. There are more kinds of learning challenges in Cat Spanish than in Duolingo. You translate from English to Spanish and Spanish to English by choosing words from a word bank or typing in the translation. There are audio tests where you choose which phrase you heard. One of the best features in our opinion is the conversation feature. You see a person with speech bubble with a phrase in English. You reply with the Spanish phrase that makes the most sense (to a cat).

When you are on the main screen there is a button that you can click that shows you all the phrases or words that you have learned with pictures beside them. Also, if you want to, you can learn or review these phrases all over again. For each Spanish phrase it shows you a picture of a cat that relates to the phrase. The cute cat pictures help you remember. The picture, English phase, and Spanish phrase are all associated together, which helps you learn the words. This app is also humorous. We have heard that studies have shown that when you laugh or when you think something is humorous, it releases something in your brain that makes you a better learner. We think the humor helped us learn. The cute pictures and the humor also made us want to come back to this app. The app is very cat-oriented; sometimes it portrays dogs poorly. So this app is better for people who like cats. A disadvantage of Cat Spanish is that there are no speaking tests. Also, it’s free for a few levels, and then you have pay for it.

We enjoy Cat Spanish more, but they are both good apps. Maya likes the cats and finds that she remembers what she learns better with this app. Chloe thinks that Cat Spanish is more interesting and funny than Duolingo. Hasta luego! 




Cat Spanish

Speaking tests



Select the correct translation






Audio tests



Review feature










Grieving for Maxine Kumin in Rhyme

Maxine Kumin was so great at maxims–her adages often repeated by students, like “Memorize poetry, so you have a library of the mind when you become political prisoner.”  A pioneer woman who broke so many barriers in the manly world of letters she was brought into as a young, talented writer in the late 50s.    Her kind belief in my work–encouraging me to submit and ultimately publish a poem with Robin Becker at Women’s Quarterly that another teacher had destroyed.  Her brownies, ponies and garden.  Her love of rhyme.  Her spare and fiery curse words.  Her tiny frame and big horses. Her long marriage.  Her metered outrage.  A toast to you, inspiring, caring, mentor.  Here’s a draft I’m working on today as I read your words and think about raising more young sweet poets in your memory.

First Grade

—-for Maxine

Two thousand three hundred nine words

rhyme with “estar” but my son can’t think

of any for his tarea en español, prefers

action figure distractions, spilling his drink,


breaking pencils, falling from his chair—

anything that’s not homework until

I suggest “vomitar,” to vomit  and “estornudar

to sneeze. Pleased, he asks if “to kill”


in Spanish would rhyme, and “to hit,” and “fart,”

–smart boy, figuring out a second tongue

multiplies words that disconcert, courts

deep laughter in theatre dark. So strong


his will to be liked, to understand peers, offer

jokes, to translate “butt” and savor what comes after.

Feeding Someone Who Speaks Spanish as a Second Language in México

Yesterday, I had “green juice” after a workout—made with celery, parsley, cactus, pineapple juice, and water.

Five days ago I ate cow’s tail in a delicious taco made at El Mezquite, a new wonderful “botanero” restaurant that gives snacks (botanas) such as beef tripe soup (“pancita”) with each alcoholic drink.

At the Llano market today, I ate the cow’s neck and bought a cup of bee pollen granules to add to my morning granola.

For the next day’s supper, we bought a kilo red snapper fillets brought on ice from the isthmus to our Oaxaca market.  As the vendor fileted the fish, another customer came and bought the egg sack, knifing through the fish belly to pull out these tubular goodies.

“What are those and how do you eat them?” I asked the customer in Spanish.

“La hueva.”

I looked shocked. “The egg sack? You eat the mother fish’s egg sack?”

“Caviar?” She replied.

“Oh! You have very fine taste,” I said, placing my pesos into the vendor’s scaly hands.

Language, food, and culture in Oaxaca

Language, food, and culture in Oaxaca

BurgerKing candies challah chamoyapples chicharron Street_food totopos

I decline a bag of chapulines or grasshoppers, a salty, protein-rich snack on sale for many Oaxacans and curious tourists.  I can hardly look at the “best pozole soup”  served with pig’s ear or snout floating among the hominy.

I get my “normal” questioned every day in Oaxaca but alongside disorientation are also variations of gratitude, horror, uncertainty, incredulousness, joy, fear, and surprise.  My taste buds, like my language skills and patience, are changing, but slowly and with no small degree of resistance. But I do see my mental and gustatory regard for what is and is not edible, “normal”—even delicious—may have the potential to evolve, becoming what they have never been before.

For instance, my first piece of fried pig skin and hot sauce was detestable.

“Oh, no gracias.  I don’t eat that.” (Not said: “How can you EAT that?”)

Then those flaky chicharrón squares appeared on every street corner, served at birthday parties and holiday celebrations.  Suddenly, I wanted to crunch that sweet, flakey crisp in its spicy drippings just like everyone else at the party.  I don’t want a habit of eating fatty pig crisps, but I never thought I would or could acquire a taste for it. When I recently dropped crushed chicharrón pieces into my Aztec soup, I felt that I had indeed changed for the better.

Red apples dripping in tangy tamarind sauce mixed with chile spice (chamoy) on a stick—this gives candied apples a whole new meaning and one I am still not yet eager to try.  But listening to a podcast on Splendid Table about the history of Mexican sweets and their mixed Spanish, African, and indigenous origins in convent kitchens, has given me a new way to see the plaza corner sweet tables.  My friend Marcela brings a basket filled with these intensely flavored and colored goodies to the after-dinner table: caramel between white catholic wafers or wafers in bright neon colors that melt on the tongue; coconut bars in the colors of the Mexican flag; round disks filled with honeyed nuts; guava fruit in a thick roll.

Some of my American and Mexican friends in Oaxaca are proud Sam’s Club members; others also have a Costco card and drive to the closest one in Puebla, 3-4 hours away.  I feel lucky when I enter with them and buy those same cherry tomatoes in their familiar plastic cups; the same juice box crates my kids adore.  The pretzels and Ghirardelli brownie mix they only sell at Walmart, a good 40-60 minute trip by public bus—I do that on indulgent occasion.

I think it’s normal to hunger for what is familiar and be suspicious, afraid, or even judgmental of what is not—especially at first, perhaps especially so if you feel (as ridiculous as it may be) that your origins are at risk of being lost.  When judgment and fear begin to caramelize into intrigue, even desire—one senses, if only for a savory moment, the art of fusion, to be here and there in mind and body.

“Comfort food,” is comfortable because it cuts to the core of how we learned to taste as children, in the culture of our homes and communities.  If comfort is normal then discomfort, tasting what is unfamiliar—and at times, unappealing—is strange.  It felt strange to google a recipe to make challah bread in our Oaxaca home, to remember Spanish words for “yeast” (levadura), “knead” (amasar);  to learn the word, esponja, to describe the sponginess of rising.

I bought a bag of thick sea salt made at the coast and dotted our first loaves and wondered about our family’s possible twists—pieces of jalapeño and panela cheese or spreading challah slices with cream cheese dotted with my friend Ceclia’s incredible home-made salsas.

Everything seems up for negotiation and change and the possibility of new normals for what tastes good.

Mid-December Reflections on Chaos and Spanish Language Learning in Oaxaca

Mid-December.  Time is spinning here.  I can feel it coming.  This month has that same end of October-Day of the Dead fervor in a different red, green, silver and rainbow flavor: the long December 12 lines waiting to enter Church for La Virgencita’s blessing, the excess of fireworks and puestos (small outdoor vendors) selling elote (corn cobs on sticks slathered in mayonnaise, lemon juice and chile), tlayudas (tortilla pizzas), aguas (fruit drinks), ponche (fruit tea), charm bracelets, embroidered hats, games of canicas (marbles) or balloon pops with cheap plastic prizes, wooden hot chocolate spindles, hair bands, super heroes, books, bibles, table runners, watches, puzzles. And the little boys dressed up in baggy canvas pants and cloaks, displaying images of La Virgencita, reminders Juan Diego, the campesino to whom la Virgen, the patron saint of Mexico, was first revealed on this December 12th day of 1531.Image

And the carnival rides. Their electric wires strung through the crowded city park where throngs of children and adults push between bumper cars, ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls, and flying pirate ships that all seem too dangerously clustered together.  These aging rides decorated with paintings of braless, busty women and clown faces seem to go on forever: for less than two dollars a child goes round and round a small roller coaster track or up and down in tiny cages for more than five interminable minutes.  As an American parent I become frantic when I notice the coaster operator stops the ride to regularly adjust the track’s screws.  Where are the safety belts? Where are the big metal bars that prevent any child from slipping out, where’s the message to keep hands and feet inside the car at all times, where’s the height ruler to be sure my 4 year old is properly fitted in the seat.  Nothing.  Nada.

These rides look like they might be discards from long gone carnivals in Kentucky or St. Louis, finding themselves a new paint job and a second life here in El Llano park just like us aging gringos.  We are plugged in, we run long and hard, we are safer than we think.


“You never know what you’ll find when you walk out your door,” said Margie, a retiree from Sacramento who comes to Oaxaca for three months every winter.  “That’s why we keep coming back!” She declined my invitation to the Oaxaca Lending Library event that night in favor of a parade of men on stilts that would end up at a hot chocolate festival in one of Oaxaca’s stunning Centro Académico y Cultural San Pablo.

After weaving through carnival rides to attend the Library poetry reading, chocolate and stilts at San Pablo became my ultimate destination.  The stilt walkers’ wooden, padded sticks leaned against the cultural center walls much like the cactus vines growing up around them. Stilt walkers long down from their perch, the courtyard was now an obstacle course of puestos giving away bowls and mugs of chocolate atole, a thick corn based indigenous drink or “con agua,” the kind I prefer, made with water or as we know it, “hot chocolate.”  It didn’t take long before my gourd cup of chocolate runneth over onto my woven palm leaf bag, nearly missing my huipil blouse.


So much of what we experience this year in Oaxaca, Mexico this year spills over, unpredictable, messy, uncertain, surprising, chaotic, and alive.  It’s interesting to compare these festive impressions with what I have observed so far in Spanish language learning classrooms, including my husband’s class this morning.

Jason’s teacher this week is passionately committed to languages and speaks English with great fluency. But this program promotes the immersion method and never translates anything for Jason, preferring to give linguistic definitions in Spanish to explain lessons on language use—e.g. possessive adjectives (tu bicicleta/your bicycle) compared to possessive pronouns (la tuya/yours).  The teacher writes grammar terms in Spanish on a hand-sized white board, using “my markers” (mis marcadores) and “his bookbag” (su mochila) as examples.


They sit for 45-50 minutes on the steep cement steps of the Santo Domingo Church –and there are fewer confusions in this all-Spanish lesson than I might have thought would occur.  Ése es mía.  “That (one) is mine,” the teacher says, grabbing his backpack.  “Ése” was a review of demonstrative pronouns vs. demonstrative adjectives.  http://www.studyspanish.com/lessons/demonstratives.htm

“Why does “es” come in there?” Jason asks.

Jason has begun to distinguish “ese” that and “es,” (“that” and “is”), even though the sounds tend to elide together.  Spanish for the learner is full of words spilling into one another, confusing tangles of phonemes and morphemes.  ¿Tú viste el partido? (Did you see the game?) The teacher asks, knowing sports are a welcome subject with my husband.  The learner is challenged to distinguish “¿tú viste…?” (did you see?) from its homophone “tuviste?” (did you have?). With context and practice, this becomes obvious and clear but in the beginning the rules and separations are beyond confusing.

It’s like ordering my kids some fries at one carnival puesto, and sitting at the nearby plastic table to learn that rights to sitting at that table belong exclusively to the taco seller.


How is one to know where the lines are drawn? What seat belongs to whom? What sound belongs to what meaning? Easy enough to order three tacos with our fries but less easy to learn complicated linguistic terms and structures and piece it all together.

Margie, the retired Oaxacan regular, says one season in Oaxaca she took private lessons 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

“Even though I knew it didn’t matter, there wasn’t any grade or anything, I would always get so nervous before every single class.  I know its silly but I was always afraid I wouldn’t know something that I’d be expected to know, that I had learned the day before.”

My brave husband isn’t easily fazed but he, too, has moments of anxiety and uncertainty as an adult Spanish language learner.  He says he just has to accept that he won’t understand everything right away and is proud when our Mexican friend notices his language growth when we get together every few days or weeks.

December 16, my son stood in line for one of the first of nine numerous opportunities to beat a piñata for its candy at a posada, nine reenactment evenings of Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem.  He is only six year’s old but towers above his peers and because of his size, earns the right to be blindfolded for his turn at the bat.  After a few successful whacks, he breaks the ceramic bowl and candy spills.  He tears at the blindfold and like all the other Mexican children, pounces down to grab candy amidst the pottery shards.  I lose sight of him.  A pile of children seems to have descended on top of him.  I frantically call his name.  “Oren! Oren!”


A girl points to the middle of the pack.  He emerges, hands full of candies, tusselled, unfazed.  My neighbor’s four year old son also rises from the fray with pockets full.  His father, who’d worked three years in Austin, Texas, just laughs.  “Todo bien, todo bien,” he assures me.  It’s all good.

I am constantly reminded that I over worry and over think, as a parent and perhaps also as a language educator and language learner.  Perhaps it is the acceptance of chaos, only partially be explained, that is the best lesson of all.


I Owe a “Multa” or Fine for Missing a Parents Meeting; Well, Actually, Two: Reflections on Home-School Communications with Immigrant Parents from “El Otro Lado”

Today, I felt like an immigrant.  An unwanted, misunderstood, unfairly treated immigrant.  This is no pity party.  After all, it was one day among many other gentler days when our family has been  treated as welcomed guests, even as special invitations, curiosities, and/or potential friends.  Today, I experienced what so many immigrant parents in the U.S. must feel, the regular pummeling of good intentions met with sanctioned misunderstanding.

We have made a few small attempts to get to know other parents of children in my daughter and son’s preschool and first grade classes.  Only one of about four or five invitations we’ve extended for a play date has been met with an acceptance in our first three months here.  We’ve had at least four or five sweet encounters with parents outside the school, chance meetings on walks home or in the parks.  Moments when we’ve started to feel as if we are making small inroads into the lives of our children’s classmates.  So when another preschool parent made a point to greet me this morning, I was expectant, curious.  Maybe she will help me understand something about the December activities? Maybe she’ll want to join me for a walk around El Llano park where I’d seen her smiling just the other day.

“That meeting you missed the other week,” she started, politely.

Oh yes, that meeting, the one when I was back in the states at the Anthropology conference, when Jason was alone with the children, the meeting that surely was all in Spanish, the meeting the week I had informed the school I was not in town.  Maybe she would share information from that meeting.  What might we have missed? Surely, Liya’s teacher has made a point to meet us at the dismissal gate, informed us of many duties–fees owed for her Christmas costume, an assortment of supplies required for Christmas decor activities (including 6 bottle caps, very specific quantities and colors of crepe paper, an empty baby Gerber jar). We have abided with all these requirements but what more might we have missed?

“Hay una multa,” she says, “There’s a fine. 100 pesos for missing that meeting.” She is the classroom representative and says she has my name on the list.”

Suddenly, the weeks of feeling foreign come rushing forth and all I can stammer is, “I will not be paying a fine.”

Tonight, I receive a polite but imprecise email from my daughter’s teacher not unlike the one I received while in Chicago.

“We need to talk,” it says.

“I will not pay a fine,” I write back.  It’s

100 pesos is less than eight U.S. dollars. I’ve paid more than that regularly for other kinds of fines in the U.S. but those I felt I deserved–fines for parking violations, library book losses, credit card late fees, traffic tickets.  But when I’ve paid these penalties, somehow I felt I deserved them.  I should have known to pay on time, I should have returned the book, or driven at the speed limit.  And justified my errors by considering these fines as donations to the public system.

But how can I, a working parent who was out of the country, be fined for missing an after school meeting that was scheduled when it was impossible for me to attend and impossible for Jason to understand?

After several face book messages late this evening, I speak with my daughter’s teacher by phone.  Ms. Ami has become our beloved confident and lighthouse to all things related to the school culture, why didn’t she let us know?

In her defense, she explained that she did let us know in the manner that is typical at the school, sticking a small piece of paper into the homework notebook with a day’s advance notice.

“But I was out of the country.  You knew that.  Usually, you help me understand things in a follow up Face book message.  What happened.”

“You missed another meeting today.”


“There was another meeting today at 4pm.  You were not there. I sent a note home yesterday.”

Yes, she did send a note home.  A note pasted with four other notes related to the many things parents are expected to buy or pay for or bring to school this season in addition to homework instructions.  As fluent as I occasionally feel in Spanish, these second language texts and cultural expectations are often beyond my capabilities and each is an exercise akin to signing up for health insurance–deciphering and following instructions that I think I understand, should understand, but that are taxing just in their first appearance.  Why didn’t I go to that meeting today?  I have lots of defenses but quickly I realize I simply forgot about the meeting today–it’s as if I’m contesting a traffic violation when I was really only going 9 miles, rather than 10, over 55.  I tried to wriggle my way out of feeling guilty.

“Why didn’t that mom who told me this morning that I had a fine for missing the last meeting, remind me of today’s meeting?” I asked.

“Why was there only one reminder from the teacher buried in a page full of pasted notes (not to mention written in tiny green font with no indication that it was mandatory)?”

“Why didn’t anyone say anything to my husband who picked up the kids at 3pm, an hour before the meeting?”

“Doesn’t anyone work, as I did today at the faraway university campus, and require a meeting to be made up or information to be shared in another format?”

“Why did you schedule the meeting on the last night of Hanukkah? Do you even know there is such a holiday that does not fit in the Christian calendar for which I have so dutifully bought materials?” (my multicultural insensitivity card rolls out as I write this).

“Why, when my husband is the primary caretaker and is present at almost every drop off and pick up –often by himself, am I the one you insist on scolding? My husband who is learning Spanish, my husband with whom your English and bilingual teacher (one teacher aside from the English teacher seems to speak comfortably in English) regularly communicates?”

“Why a fine?”

“What was the meeting we missed (well, two of them) about, anyhow?”

I suppose this last question should have been the first.

The first meeting, while I was in Chicago, was about child abuse.

The second meeting, today, was about the 65 pesos we owe for the Wednesday zoo trip and a story telling performance required by preschool parents next week.  In our absence, we were assigned responsible for helping build “the set” for those who will read children a story on friday.  When Liya goes to the zoo, she should wear a hat.

And the fine?

The 100 pesos will go directly to Ms. Ami’s classroom and will help pay for supplies.  “It’s a school policy,” she says.  We signed some piece of paper in agreement of these policies when we enrolled the kids in school.  I must have missed this detail.  I hope I got dental coverage during open enrollment.  Who knows what else I might have missed?

So we owe $16 (or less) to Ms. Ami so she can buy things for the classroom that she needs on a salary where she can’t afford to just make purchases out of her own pocket money, something too many American teachers do regularly.  That doesn’t seem so bad, I just wish it weren’t called a “fine.”  She apologizes for not having been more helpful in reminders, she is so busy with work –which I can see based on the huge bag of craft supplies we just delivered and the Santa pillow my daughter came home with today which sat beside our Hanukkah candles.  We didn’t light our last candles tonight anyhow.  By the time sun went down, there was homework that needed doing and bedtimes and we frankly just forgot.  So much for the multicultural high horse I had been riding.

But when I consider what happened today with more patience and compassion, I understand that what I experienced was a layer of cultural miscommunication that so many immigrant parents experience on a daily basis in the U.S..  I don’t know the rules here and our family broke them–twice: our failure to attend meetings that most parents seemed to understand were non-negotiable or my failure to understand that a modest contribution to the classroom is the optional alternative.  I like the sound of “contribution” much better.

Perhaps there are good reasons when immigrant parents in the U.S. aren’t able to make a set parent-teacher conference time or when they don’t know to show up at a school event, pay a fee, or arrive on time without screaming children in tow.  Maybe, like us in our third month as parents of children in a Mexican school, they are still disoriented, unsure of their calendars and commitments.  Maybe they don’t have friends or family to help.  Maybe they don’t understand what is essential and important or maybe they learn that what is “essential” really is not or is delivered in an entirely incomprehensible second language jargon.  Maybe they are celebrating a holiday we know little or nothing about in the U.S. culture.  Maybe they are stuck at work or need extra reminders in modified language for foreign comprehension.  And maybe they just forgot.

This experience is not unlike the one I had last year at my son’s U.S. kindergarten when he had arrived tardy too many sleepy mornings and I was sent an accusatory district form letter signed by the school’s counselor.  Then, too, I was outraged.  I wanted to be congratulated for the so many mornings I managed to wake up my son before dawn in winter to get him to school by 7:40am (give or take a few minutes) and I was horrified that one of my first home-school communications was a reprimand for failed parenting, a warning of future legal action if I did not improve our record.  I knew how to handle such correspondence but how must this make other parents feel, those much less of the consequences of such home-school correspondence?

Many wonderful education colleagues in the U.S. have written eloquently on the improvements to be made in U.S. home-school communications and I, too, have a newfound dismay as a parent in the school system.  But now abroad in a strange country with no American friends at the school with whom to laugh this off, with no support system of parents to help remind one another of important gatherings, with no knowledge that what was missed would accrue penalty, it felt more personally insulting.  And there is a part of me that wants to pay this and all my $8 fines in advance and just abandon hopes of community at the school.  I know this is akin to the girls leaving the school yard.  Oh yeah, you don’t want to teach me to play or play nicely? Then I’m leaving!

And I will leave. The date is already set for May of next year.  But I remind myself this is a small, healthy dose of our own inhospitable cultural orientation toward newcomers, and encourages me to consider how much kinder I can and should be to reduce gatekeeping in all my familiar institutions–immigrant parents at the elementary school, international students in my courses, the Albanian woman at the airport with her tattered dictionary and wounded knee.  There are people all around us who are newcomers to cultural and linguistic norms we tolerate or navigate.  What small actions can I take to mitigate this alienation I’m feeling as a foreign parent in Mexico, for someone else here or abroad?

Tomorrow morning, when I see the parents and teachers of my daughter and her classmates, what can I communicate about difference that will help us to help each other to communicate in more complete, compassionate, and more humane ways?

Our contribution to Ms. Ami’s class and zoo payment are ready to go for tomorrow morning.  With more hope and patience, I will ask what part of the scenery I can help make for the storytelling event next week? How will they be celebrating the winter holidays?  Could they please take pity on the foreigner and help remind my family of the next calendar meetings?

Ah, writing through cultural conflict is very helpful.  Thanks for listening!

Misha’s Windy City Events: 11/21 Thursday morning and evening

Misha’s Windy City Events: 11/21 Thursday morning and evening

Two posts in one morning–wow, this is getting good! Just alerting my very small Chicago group of comadres and compadres, that I am participating in two events on Thursday 11/21 –10:15am to noon and then at 8pm.  Details and links are here:


10:15 AM-12:00 PM

Buckingham Room at the Chicago Downtown Hilton

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Organizer: Melisa (Misha) S Cahnmann-Taylor

Chair: Sally Campbell Galman

Other Participants: Margaret Diane LeCompte, Sally Campbell

Galman, Greg McClure, Susan Bleyle, Yohan Hwang, Melisa

(Misha) S Cahnmann-Taylor, Frederick D Erickson

And Thursday EVENING 11/21  Ferguson Auditorium 33 East Congress, 730pm–
Going Public with Literary Ethnography in the Windy City

Expecting the Unexpected in a Culture of Protest and (Almost always) Civil Disobedience in Oaxaca, Mexico

Expecting the Unexpected in a Culture of Protest and (Almost always) Civil Disobedience in Oaxaca, Mexico

JOLLE did such a lovely job publishing this recent think piece/blog post–so rather than duplicate, I add the link here.  Check it out and submit your own thoughts, art, poetry, to the next issue!


Expecting the Unexpected in a Culture of Protest and (Almost always) Civil Disobedience in Oaxaca, Mexico

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor




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