Teachers Act Up!

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

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.

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