Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: August 2011

Some, most, many all: Grice and Conversational Implicature

I am reading our class poetry text: “The rule of strong writing tells us not to use a lot of words when a few will do; this rule makes for rhythmic writing too.” (Boisseau, Bar-Nadav & Wallace, 2011: 43) and I remember Grice’s maxim of Quantity: be as informative as required.  This is also the mantra of poetry, the maxim of compression–to do the most with as few words as possible; avoid redundancies; seek music; avoid jargon; understand convention when breaking the rules.  Learning about the “rules” and dynamics of contemporary poetry also helps one to learn the rules of the English language and how to skillfully and artfully bend those rules to say something new, to express what needs new language to be said.  I think international L2 English writers have a subtle advantage in creative writing and good writing in general if they bring their own systems and rules to bear in English writing.  We are all the better for it when L2 English writers teach us about our own language–where the differences emerge, we wake up and say first “hey, that doesn’t sound right!” or worse, “That’s not polite!” and then, if there is a then, a pause and wonder–how is this different expression related to different cultural expectations between norms in each language/culture?

Those of us that are doing our creative writing in our mother tongue are rewarded when we can train ourselves to think about our English tools (diction, syntax, stress, etc.) as an L2–a foreign set of choices we make deliberately to bring out meaning, music, and new ways of naming and seeing the world.

I’m grateful to stanford for this link which fully explicates Grice–helps tease apart why some, most, many, and all have come to have different conventional meanings (among other insights).  These kinds of theoretical discussions of how language (in this case English) works, helps us to understand too how we “work” language–all the power we have to shape meaning and communicate with one another.

To read a work of art that breaks entirely with the maxim of quanitity, see Waldman’s new Iovis Triology–marvelous 1013 page femin-esto of poetry and poetic prose.

Graduate Study in a Non- “Native” Language

I am just now corresponding with Xilin/Vivian, a graduate of our MED program. She is a shining star, now at Penn State in a doctoral program in Adult Education. And I am thinking now of Sharon/Hsiu Hsiu from Taiwan who is now in Massachusetts working in a Chinese-English bilingual school. And I am thinking of Erika, back in her home of Brazil with her doctorate–always humble about her extraordinary English. And I’m thinking of so many of you past and current and future students who will arrive for a graduate degree in a second (or third or fourth etc.) language and how scary that may be and how many challenges everyone goes through when they return to study at the graduate level and how many other layers are added when one pursues study in a non-“native” language (though so many of you arrive at UGA with such native-like proficiency and excellence that you often have many advantages in stretching the limits of our dear lingua franca English).

I myself remember being in an undergraduate political science class at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City.  I remember how much my head hurt trying to keep up, trying to distinguish what I didn’t understand in my emergent Spanish fluency and what I didn’t understand because I was a cultural newcomer and because my background in political science generally wasn’t strong.  I was trying to understand more about the history of striking workers and then one day showed up to class to find no one there.  The university workers, including faculty, were all on strike! The strikes continued throughout the semester and I think we only had class for half the number of weeks we were supposed to have been there.  I learned so much from the course readings and discussions and so much more from experiencing a strike first hand (if only I took these lessons to heart for the long run)! I also took a creative writing course in Mexico City.  I poured over my stories and poems in a second language–how interesting! My classmates remarked my translations of common U.S. English idioms and how strange and marvelous they seemed in Spanish! Suddenly what was trite in my home language, was novel and golden in my L2!  My year was full of headaches and head explosions–misunderstandings and maxi-understandings.  But it was so long ago now and it wasn’t graduate study, it was only a “third year” abroad where the goal was to become fluent in Spanish, not an expert in any particular content area.  What is it like for graduate students now?

If any of you readers out there have insight from whatever your perspective on graduate study and the language of graduate study, please share! The more we can open up dialogue about this experience, the better!

Public schools and academics in education

Fire and ice;

oil and water;

match and flame?

When academics in education (re) enter public schools, do we set ourselves up for explosion? Can explosions ever be good? I remember when I was in graduate school and learned that one of the faculty had had a major conflict with a public school, never to return again.  Ha, ha! my  younger mind went. I was closer to public school teaching life–I would always connect to the real, nitty gritty, I thought.  I thought wrong.

When you don’t have to wake up everyday in the dark and drive in the dark to a public school and prepare for an enormous variety of challenges every minute of your day that include adults and students,  concrete and abstract policy, individuals and institutions, then you can’t possible keep it real as an academic.  Our lives and expectations are fundamentally different. We academics get up everyday  at varying times, make coffee, and often have as our task of the day to write, to think, to learn, to think again.  It seems privileged and it is–that is not to diminish the hard work we do  as well as acknowledge some of the less glamorous aspects including meetings, policies, advising, meetings, did I say meetings?

But we academics are not accountable to the public in the same daily, rigorous manner that teachers and principals and district folks are.  Academics, for instance, can think about an assessment for days, months, analyze its biases, make recommendations.  But the district and principal must insist on the tests and the teacher must give them (substitute test for lesson plans, discipline, etc). While I adhere to what Boal says about the “cops in our heads” vs actual threats, I also believe there are actual sanctions when one doesn’t adhere to what one is supposed to do.  Academics are often rewarded for novelty and risk-taking; public school professionals are often reprimanded at best.

Does this mean academics and public school faculty and staff must remain separate, leave one another in peace and amuse one another only when necessary? No.  While it may be the convenient road it is not the most rewarding.  It’s clear that academics in education need collaborations and engagement in public school.  We need to ground ourselves in what is real.  We need to feel the thrill of a child’s lightbulb and the dim grief of giving a standardized test to a child who is below “grade level” and watch their/our spirits crushed.

This works the other way too.  Those in the ‘real’ world need academics to question what is reality, to borrow from the time they have to dream in theory and put it to good use in practice.  We need to be inspired by what is possible while grounding ourselves in the day to day realities of public school life.

I am lucky.  I have been invited to the public school table again this year. Based on mistakes from last year, I wasn’t sure I would be.  Many times there isn’t time to have the conversations I want to have happen; many times my dreams and questions meet with deaf [and BUSY] ears.  But I learned at a meeting recently that some magic happened over the summer break from one another, that we’re attentive in new ways now to the demands, the possibilities, the hopes and realities.  May I be lucky enough and patient enough, humble enough and observant enough to remain in the conversation, to keep dreaming with feet on the ground.


Language Guilt

Being a bilingual parent in the U.S. may be just as bad as being Jewish when it comes to guilt.  If you insist on speaking a non-English language as a bilingual parent in the U.S. and the child complains, you feel guilty.  If the child insists you “speak English!”, you may feel ire, but also a degree of guilt.  If you don’t speak your second or third etc. language at all and raise your child completely in English, as if the ghost of your other language didn’t exist–you feel guilty.  If your own (grand)parents speak another language and you didn’t learn it and thus aren’t able to pass it down to your own children, you mostly likely feel some guilt.

Some questions (guilt-ridden) bilingual parents in the U.S. might ask of ourselves: Why didn’t I take my child abroad more often? Why didn’t I enroll him or her in classes or insist on the L2 (second language) at home? Why didn’t I make more L2 playdates, buy more L2 cds, books or movies; restrict certain times, days of the week, places etc. to the L2? Why didn’t I “go home” more often (where home = L2 language)? Why is part of me disappearing into the gulf of English?  A working-parent colleague asked me the other day about childcare and time with my children: “What do you do with the guilt?” she asked–as if there weren’t heaps and mounds of bilingual guilt and Jewish guilt already!  What do I do? I feel guilty!!!! Of course–it’s in my blood! But I also say hello to my guilt, nice to see you again old friend! Aha, so you are worried you are not doing enough? Doing too much? Not doing what someone else is doing to raise their perfectly happy, socially adept multilingual brainiac children?

“Do your best and that’s all you can do,” says the nurturing multilingual-multicultural-multitasking mama on my shoulder.  Doing my best this year means counting the steps in Spanish when we hold hands; visiting with my Spanish speaking friends as often as possible in Spanish, spending two weeks in Mexico in December, and sending Oren for one week to a local Spanish camp this past summer.  It’s not enough but it’s the best I can do at this time.  We read Buenas Noches, Luna (Goodnight Moon) in Spanish last night and my son didn’t complain, didn’t ask me to read it in English.  When we read about the “Globo rojo,” I pointed to the picture and he smiled, said “Oh! Balloon.”  He is doing the best he can do, too!



Pomp and Circumstances

I used to be a cynic about graduation ceremonies and consequently missed my own doctoral “hooding.” I missed my own doctoral graduation (and my masters too, I believe) not only due to cynicism but also finances and geography–I was already teaching in Mexico during the doctoral ceremony. Today I had the honor of hooding my fourth doctoral student, Erika Vasconcelos. Now that I’ve seen Greg McClure, Dell Perry Giles, Jennifer Wooten, and Erika down the aisle and up on stage to be hooded, I have a new appreciation of ceremony. UGA does an incredible job creating a mood to mark the momentous occasion. We perform the gravity through our costume (cap and gown), sonic depth (Pomp and Circumstance and other march music which seems to come up from the ground), and procedures–walk, sit, stand, walk, hood, shake, smile (HUG), return to seat, clap, quiet, stand, sit, clap, sing the alma mater, va-voom! It may not sound like much but I am now a firm believer in the occasion of ceremony. We mark our humanness with our abilities to mark time, to celebrate, to stop and reflect. What kinds of rituals do we have and need to mark our daily life, our classroom life, our seasons and years. I remember celebrating a first birthday alone after I had gone to college in Boston for my undergraduate degree and learned then that if I needed to rely on myself to create the occasion–to invite friends, to let others know I was turning another year, to celebrate in company with a hug and piece of cake. Today, I didn’t have to plan anything; nor did my student. The University of Georgia throws a wonderful party to celebrate students’ accomplishments. I feel honored to have been invited to attend to celebrate Erika, to see Jennifer, to remember Dell and Greg’s big day and then in some small way, remember my own accomplishments as well as our shared ones. Knowing how to honor the passing of time and the actions within that time is a skill I will continue to develop as a teacher, parent, human-being. What are you celebrating, honoring, remembering? What traditions do you hold dear? What traditions have you invented? What classroom traditions might we create to honor our students’ accomplishments, celebrate what has been and welcome what is to come?


Dance in the kitchen

This summer my 4 year old son taught me a song he’d learned in school: “5 little fishies swimming in the sea.”  I was so impressed b the fact that he could remember the pitch, rhythm, tone and could teach me a complete, enjoyable song I’d never heard before.  This morning we sang the song in the kitchen, “shaking our booties,” twisting and turning one another in circles.  Aside from more spilled milk, it was a great morning.  I love losing all inhibitions and going wild with my kids.  I remember my grandfather acting silly in the shopping mall, raising his unshaven eyebrows up and down, shuffling “off to buffalo” as if he were tap dancing on a stage instead of the sleek Chicago suburban mall floor.  “Grandpa!” I’d admonish, an embarrassed teen.  “Missy, when you get to be my age, you stop caring about what other people think!”  Well, I have spent most of my adult life trying to stop caring what other people think, to arrive at that freedom of expression and joy well before I’m an old lady.  May the dancing continue in the grocery store, the playground, the waiting room before shots.  May we respect others as we respect ourselves–dance, sing, communicate, fly.


Blogging: Trial #3

Greetings Dear Visitors,

I am ecstatic to share this website/blog and so grateful to Sarah Lowman for helping me to make it happen. As I have run workshops and courses using theatre activities for multicultural and multidimensional learning, I have always found that words to describe it are not enough.  These videos from our summer 2011 course, LLED Theatre for Reflective Practice in the Language Classroom, dynamize the creative, joyful learning environment we shared.  I hope these short videos help convey how the games are played but also some of the “why” and to “what end.”  This is further elaborated in our book, Teachers Act Up! Creating Learning Communities Through Theatre.

As an academic with two small children, I barely seem to have time to get the necessities accomplished let alone to maintain a blog! I think the greatest motivation will be to respond to any and all of your thoughts and ideas, as well as reactions to material on this site.  So please, let’s open the dialogue here and let the show begin.  For now, I have to shift workday gears and review my syllabus for LLED Poetry for Creative Educators.  May the energy of the summer course also infuse the written creativity students and I will engage in this fall.  I am also hoping to complete a few new manuscripts in collaboration with Stephanie Baker and Sharon Chapelle.  Poetry, always poetry–may my prayers be answered and I will make disciplined time to reflect in blog and poetry form on what it’s like to hardboil and peel, contain frustration over endless spilled milk (juice, soup, cereal), wipe, brush, dress, celebrate, discipline, log in, log off, teach, mother, write and all the verbs in between.  I am looking forward to returning to the American Anthropology Association meeting this November in Canada—I am hopelessly in love with Anthropology and the ways it brings the social sciences, humanities, and creative writing together.


I have a meeting now! May we learn about blogging together!



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