Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: September 2011

Dear Friend in her first semester as a pre-service Spanish teacher who thinks she might like to “run screaming away from this ridiculous hampster-wheel of a life.”

I hear you girl! Just know that you serve an important purpose, beginning such an important career–so vital to cultivating the next generation of American youth who have a healthy honor, respect, and knowledge of languages other than English.  You can use all your wiggle room and creativity  to find tiny crevices for humanity to enter its sunshine and light into the hectic classroom (and home life) day-to-day activity.  You are NEEDED and you are doing good service. And yes, you may also be transitioning to a teaching career because of economic impetus and not solely a passion for teaching.  However, from my experience, economic impetus can never be the sole reason one choose to go into teaching! There are too many other ways to make money! Add your interest in the Spanish language, in working with youth, in inspiring deeply meaningful communication across languages and cultures to the economic stimulus and this may just  lead to great, unexpected accomplishments, contributions to society and self and unexpected surprises in the paths that lie ahead.  Hold on tight, draw on all the good food and energy that your body has absorbed/stored until now to help you conquer the hardest moments.  Continue to cook good food on the weekends, make healthy lunches, fortify your mind by reading books you care about, find creative spaces to make learning a joy for you and your lucky new students. You say you miss being in your body–how can you bring embodied knowledge into classroom spaces? How can language learning incorporate the physical? What reasons might there be to go outdoors and talk about the weather, observations of the soil, or engage in the Spanish language of farming and agriculture which you so love?

Try to resist “running away” just now–things are only getting started and yes it will get easier (though people tell me that about parenting and I can’t really see that forest through the trees). At the same time, honor those feelings of struggle and allow yourself to flirt with the real wish to quit  just long enough to honor what is real and human.  Take pride in the great accomplishment of showing up and doing your best, observing your progress and that of your students, of being a part of one of the greatest social projects of all time: public schooling.

You write with dismay: “But this is what we have created as an educational system.” Upon this institution rests our fundamental foundations for democracy.  This democratic institution does indeed need to change with good change-agents like  yourself at the helm–but it is also endangered right now and needs, I believe, continued improvement rather than ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ (I refer here to the loud critics who propose to undermine public funding for K-12 education and move to private models for all schooling.  I fear for the results of such short-sightedness which may abolish all that is good and possible because of free and public liberal arts education).

Do your best to have patience with the public system you/we are in.  Whatever “best” is today, that “best” can and will change tomorrow. As long as doing one’s best is the goal, we can all take great pride in our work in public schools, and great care and reflection when things don’t go as planned. If there were one thing I would change for public schooling would be to incorporate more paid time for teachers to plan and reflect on their practice.  May you find ways to cultivate critical reflection for yourself–a blog like this one! An actual or virtual journal; a quick “phone a friend” moment at the end of each week or two.  Teachers need places to refuel and a network of support to grapple with all the many complex social challenges our students (and colleagues) carry with them in their daily backpack.   Teaching can be the most challenging profession; I think you chose it because you also know it can be the most rewarding.  Strength and love my dear friend!

Unleashing the Teacher-Poet, Mama-Poet, Free-Poet

Next week, students in my class have a pass on new poetry.  Instead, they will write a “pedagogy essay” thinking through poetry both as object and metaphor for the art of teaching.  What does it mean to think about form and formlessness as a classroom teacher? What does it mean to engage in poetry writing as a creative educator? What does creative writing have to do with creative teaching? In this stark accountability climate in K-12 contexts, where is there wiggle room? What constraints can we accomodate with slant rhyme? When we play with the numbers of lines in a stanza, when we put on our “verb hats” and mull over what other language is possible–what does this do to our systems when we are not writing poems but planning lessons, juggling the bell schedule, implementing a new assessment or curriculum?

The week after the pedagogy essay, students will write another new poem, Draft #6–this time it’s a free for all.  They can return to any of the forms they have written in before (e.g. sonnet, villanelle, syllabics), they may take on a new form (e.g. pantoum, sestina) or they may write in whatever variety of form or formlessness they like.  As I have pledged to write alongside them, I am now back in poetry obsession. I can’t get enough of this feeling of being alive to the moment, of creating a small piece of art to document what living is like–my living, but then hopefully through my specifics, unearthing something that may be more universal.

I spent the afternoon with teachers at JJ Harris Elementary School today, planning to administer Lingua Folio to assess  students’ Spanish language abilities (speaking, listening, reading, writing, conversation).  I felt poetry as metaphor as the 4 teachers and I sat with the generic instrument and tried to creatively tweak it for our purpose and context.  Can students’ talk about whether they should or should not be able to choose who to sit with in the cafeteria in Spanish? Do they understand the discipline expectations written in Spanish on the classroom wall? Can they label body parts or living room furniture? If they see the word “uniforme” with or without a picture of a boy in khaki pants and an orange collared shirt–would they recognize that word as “uniform” and can they talk about how they feel about the uniforms rule at school in one language or two?

But I don’t feel any actual poems in my system yet from this experience.  So I turn to some rough notes I made while on my first real and extended “me-vacation” this past August.  Some of the notes here constitute my first “draft” at my own poetic-pedagogy essay.  The poem below is my jump on a draft for the week after next.  Not sure it’s a keeper, but it definitely felt important for my mama-poet self to write it.  Maybe it will speak to others in the 0-10 phase of all-consuming motherhood.


For waking up with no screaming.

For waking up and no diaper, wet spot, or blond face in my face.

For no one demanding “up, up!”

For no one shrieking “noooooooo!”

For no one asking for juice or milk or someone to play tickle monster.

For no snack bowls and nothing spilled except by my own hands.

For no playdates.

For dressing myself, slowly.

For showers, brushes, creams, and combs.

For books left open to the last page I read.

For picking up the book again.

For slow baked tofu and vegetables in a hot open oven.

For putting on my own shoes.

For gathering my own clothes from the floor.

For straightening the one bed I slept in.

For picking ripened blueberries.

For no one refusing sunscreen or shoes.

For naps.

For olive oil.

For long conversations and silence.

For my husband who stayed home.

For my children.

My Pro-Gay Marriage Poem and plug for a new children’s book “All Kinds of Families” (on sale)

I can’t help it–this getting up while the rest of the house sleeps to unearth these poems.  This week’s assignment is to write a villanelle–how difficult could it be to write two good lines and then repeat them in all of 6 stanzas? When I’m stretching and stuck, I turn to email and see that because I am now a working mother and on-line shopper, I receive countless emails that jerk me into emergency credit card mode–supposed discounts everywhere, today only, midnight sale, buy two get one free!!! When poetry is in your system, who knows where your subconscious will take you through the thrilling exercise of the heart/mind/form.  There is so much fear-inspired hatred that cycles back and back and it seems the villanelle offers so much potential to revisit and revise.  Here’s my villanelle for the week.  I know it risks what my good teacher Ira Sadoff warns against: “moral certainty” in poems.  One doesn’t want heavy-handed rhetoric or even the word rhetoric in a good poem–but this is why I love the Steve Kowit article recently published in writers chronicle.  Most rules of thumb in poetry have been broken when “T” inner-“t”ruth calls, so here’s my go at certain uncertainty or moral crisis.  Tell me what you think good readers & fellow writers.  What might poetry do to redress these pledges to hate taken by conservative presidential hopefuls??  Oh, and this children’s book really does look good!


Ends today! Take 30% off the item of your choice!

And yet the sale never ends, there’s always more

to be discounted. “All Kinds of Families” reduced,


a lift-the-flap book for ages 4-8, loose

definitions of “parents.” Retail stores

carry the item. 30% ends today! Your choice


to buy or not to buy the rhetoric, voice

of love in its many forms or deplore

it and discount all kinds. “Families” reduced


to “one mother” – “one father.” Gay marriage a vice

some pledge against, while others ask for (MA, CT, IA, VT, NH, and NY) more:

End discrimination today! Though 30 states have banned the choice


for same-sex couples, others stonewall hate, refuse

to rebate, cut-rate their goods, repress, self-scorn.

Their kind of family is not to be discounted, reduced


to Christianity in drag, fundamentally overpriced

book burners, backordered “values,” keeping score

to be discounted. “All Kinds of Families” does not reduce,

but takes 30% off hate.  The item today? Choice!


As I prepare for Anne Waldman’s visit (see poetry readings page), I am inspired by her outrider hybridity, where poetry meets poem-festo, where outrage meets love, where academics meets art and activism, where aggravation meets meditation.  I have had the August 23 rally with me for many weeks now and here is my “off the UGA record” public citizen poem-festo response.  No line breaks–No borders–No bans.


Debate over illegal immigration and higher education resurfaced last spring after Jessica Colotl, an illegal immigrant attending Kennesaw State University, was arrested on campus for a traffic violation. College officials disclosed they had charged her in-state tuition. 10/13/10 AJC

Your tiny foot escaped our black ink, our precious political papers.  You did not bathe in the light of our hospital registrations or nurse in our fluoride waters.  You, whose refrigerated parents slit our chickens’ wings, fell our highest pines, trim our dirtiest windows, mow our runaway lawns, wipe our snottiest children, chop our expensive salads, factory seal and deliver our cheap muffins and exclusive auto parts, you, we pronounce, do not deserve to be here, you who have learned to speak “our language” and silenced your own, you who believed our gospel of Standardized Test, you who have won! Good Citizen Award in third grade; Attendance Award, fifth grade; Leadership Award, tenth grade, you who qualify as a human being in the superior category, you who did not drop out or dope up or unleash the tiger of anger, the jaguar of rebellion, you who did not let the anvil of prejudice crush your brown heart, you who did not let the anchor of “anchor baby” sink your precious forward motion cargo, you who skipped high school today to attend to the arches of this institution which proposes to banish you, not for who you are but for who you are not: legal, documented, dignified, acknowledged, understood.  You who are bored by the regents, you who stand in the shadow of bans of the lowest order, you for whom failure and hate are not an option, you whose lyrics remind us of our anthems, that todos somos immigrantes, you who march in cap and gown to request in-state tuition, you who give us hope when Hope has been compromised and merit has to be questioned when we valorize the rich and call it subsidize for the poor and now cancel your twenty-nine brave five state campus requests to affordably join three hundred and ten thousand others.  You already know this is not about you but about us, how we’ve over drafted, how our costly weapons need both bullets and targets and I’m afraid you, driving without a license, accidentally forgot to stop. You’re full speed ahead and we’ll never catch up.

Your Help is Urgently Needed to Prevent Cuts to Language Education Funding

Dear Senator/Congressman,

The Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP), the only source of federal funding for K-12 foreign language programs, is currently slated to be cut or eliminated in congressional budget proposals.  If the $26 million in funding for this program was not continued, it would directly impact current grantees in states and districts across the country.  Right now we have a vital FLAP grant in Athens Clarke County where all students are exposed to both Spanish and English literacy education–it’s the first such program in our county and one of only 4 unique programs in Georgia that helps put our state on the map for global education–schooling that will help our youth compete in a multilingual world market.

As a June 14 article in the National Review states, the diplomatic and defense communities are desperately in need of citizens able to communicate in a second language.  Former CIA director and current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta once said, “Language is the window through which we come to know other peoples and cultures. Mastery of a second language allows you to capture the nuances that are essential to true understanding…This is not about learning something that is helpful or simply nice to have…It is vital to our economic interests. It is vital to our diplomacy. It is vital to our national security to use the language of the people that we engage throughout the world.”

As Congress continues the conversation on federal spending, I encourage you to protect funding for this vital federal program.  Thank you very much for your attention to this important issue.


Dr. Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor


If you would like to help inform your congressman and senator about the importance of funding for foreign language education–see the ACTFL link here:


Dear Language Education Supporter:

FLAP is in trouble. In early August, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which raised the nation’s debt limit while simultaneously mandating cuts in federal spending. This budget agreement between Congress and the Administration cut $7 billion and could result in significant reductions to education programs. Despite the many benefits of language learning to our nation’s economic growth and security as well as to a student’s ability to excel in school, funding for foreign language programs has come under attack. Already, higher education spending for foreign languages (Title VI) has been cut by $50 million, a 40 percent reduction from the previous year. The Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP), the only source of federal funding for K-12 foreign language programs, is slated to be cut or eliminated in congressional budget proposals.

Act now and tell Congress how important language learning is in your community!

Art and (In)Sanity

Dear Artist/Student on the Brink,

You are an artist and you are working through pain and grief by making art and making it beautifully. You are supposed to be a poet [dancer, photographer, painter, actor, etc.]–never doubt that. Never doubt the healing power of art if one commits to transcend oneself for it and to heal because every artist must be in the art of healing as well as creating; oneself and others.

There is much to admire in your rule-breaking work, though if you didn’t miss class you would know why 1.5 spacing in your poetry helps me to edit your insightful work!.  Your poetry helps me, your reader, understand what (in)sanity really is–aren’t we all on the brink, following the rules but about to ‘lose it’ at any moment.  You are not alone.  The details of the frazzled #### #### in the ear while in meditation in contrast to the awakening, the possibility of healing, the high of the “bi”–the mountaintop, drums, prayer.

As you continue to commit to art–and by golly you must–consider revising line 2 “####”–while I like the alliteration of “f###/f####”, “#### ######” is a cliché to be avoided and replaced as you work the language here.  Insanity requires specificity–of that you have shown you are extremely capable! I admire Line 7-8 …### #### ###### …. but for a metaphor to really work, one must feeeeel it before one has to think about it. Here I have to think about it because #### can’t literally #### like headstones (not round) so while it’s clever and hits the right tone, you probably need to work on something that is round to spin or just rework this section. Lines 9-12 border on overly abstract or cliché sentiment–it’s the absolute right “volta” or “turn” –but I wonder if there’s another way to say or show “#### ## ######” in more grounded details to make it new. In revision you do not need to stick to any of the “rules” so you can break out of the first draft rules to enrich the poem. You can use less than 10 or more than 10 syllables, you can do anything that honors what the poem needs. Isn’t it incredible how formal containers (sonnets, villanelles, syllabic restrictions, etc.) also offer a container for the pain, a way to sculpt it into something beautiful?

I must also add that you must buy the Summer 2011 GA review issue IMMEDIATELY and read the essay in it by a woman named Laura McCullough who writes about taking a Stephen Dunn poetry workshop with the father of her child and her best friend, both of whom committed suicide during that semester. She writes about art and its role in surviving. She writes about pain and what is and is not the poetry teacher’s responsibility, especially in the privileged position to be let “in” to students’ raw experiences. I have loved many people with mental illness and I recognize both the art and pain in your poem.  Your art deepens my own understanding of love and illness, and I thank you. I am delighted to see a poem that helps me understand a bit more of where you may be coming from (unless you are truly meant to write fiction). I am also, of course, concerned. I can see that you will shine as a poet and artist but to do so, you must show up and you must commit to your own art making and thus to your own (and others) healing.   I miss your art and (in)sanity.  Please come back.

Blessings, Misha

Feminine Endings….

Today in Poetry for Creative Educators class we scanned metrical verse and discussed poetic terms and of course landed, THUD, as I do on “feminine ending.”  Falling ending, extra-syllable ending, but whenever a line ends with that little extra something rather than a hard stressed beat punch, I still label it “feminine” because that’s the term we’ve been using to describe it in poetic circles and it’s hard to change.  Stewardess, flight attendant, that sort of thing.  But I want to take back feminine ending.  So as my students write Shakespearean sonnets this week, I add a Petrarchan draft to the mix.  Have at it poet commentators.  It’s a draft that had me up at 3 this morning.


     In prosody, a line of verse having an unstressed and usually extrametrical syllable at its end.


I think of Debra Winger carried off

the factory floor, muscle and brawn of desire,

workmates in catty backrooms, their hair

netted, one tsk-tsk’s another, scoffs

at overbaked cookies, the treachery

of a mother painting her son’s toenails pink.

Then think of the Spanish for hand, la mano, link

between macha article and fist, the very

grasp of it, bedrail moan, dramatic heart

monitors, anguish of what promises to end:

beast that burdens bladder, exhale knife

thrust and burn or barter your blood, start

the push! Again and again until the end

that never ends, lingering beginning of life.

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