Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: October 2011

Simile & Metaphor

This week the assignment in my poetry class is to write a portrait of a person by drafting a 15-line poem in which you compare (use like or as in every comparison, as element of repetition) the person to a musical instrument, an article of clothing, a food, an article of furniture, a machine, a kind of weather, a landscape, and three other comparisons of your choosing. We are sharpening our attention to how we describe the ineffable in terms of something else and thus notice how deeply figurative most of our language has become.  We look at a newspaper article about Obama “planting a flag in the South” in an emergent campaign and we meditate on all the figurations that work upon us as media consumers and then think how can we produce the most precise language, how can we name what hasn’t yet been said when it comes to teaching, learning, living, voting, and being human.  So as always, I play with the same assignment–exalt and fail, squeeze words in between work and childcare pick up; dinner and bedtime stories.  I don’t know what this poem’s title means other than that I feel released from some part of motherhood that feels draining and end up feeling hopeful and more alert to my beautiful daughter than before the portrait exercise started.  Yes, yes, one more cookie, only one more. [can’t seem to get my stanza breaks and line arrangement here….but it’s a draft anyhow!]


Like a toy tossed
too many times down
stairs, Daughter, you repeat

your demanding refrain
off key, stuttering first parts
again and again like a miniature

shopping cart rolling
back and forth on a cat’s tail.
Discordant jangle,

you rattle my favorite earrings
past air vent slats as if they were tiny cymbals
and you, the rich owner of a tuneless

symphony.  My toddler angel
and your song for more juice,
a bandaid, shorts in the middle of winter,

a glass slipper meant for a doll
to fit your big girl toes, may you rehearse
requests so they fall like mist

on an aging Donkey’s easily spooked
ears, may you vocalize scales
of politeness and climb

gracefully on the arm
of that precarious sofa upon which,
perched like an impatient bird,

you coo
     please please please
for a second cookie to drop

from your heaven.

When Students Make Me Smile

When you receive letters like this, you feel like you’re in the right place, teaching the right material, working with the most exceptional students.  Delight and gratitude to you, dear student. You can self identify if you wish!!!


What an exhilarating semester!  The energy of poetry workshop expands my life and my writing.  So out of bounds, I giggle.  So much power in revision and the questions you and my classmates present.  I stuffed a bag with your/their treasures.  And I hear my own voice like a stranger’s.  I have never written anything I could really let go, but you made me.
The Georgia Review fieldtrip was momentous.  I needed to experience the place to reply to Laura McCullough.  It felt like church, and I have forgotten the rituals.  A Christmas/Easter Christian I blasphemed.  It felt good.
Revision is possibility, detour, and destruction.  This poetry course reminds me to breathe and to remember the joy of language as direct combat.  More to learn and to unlearn.  Thank you.  Really, thank you.

How Can I Teach Using Poetry and Theatre When There is So Much TESTING Pressure?

Stop believing the rhetoric about testing and start teaching what you know motivates learners and produces joyful, challenging, and meaningful educational experiences for teachers and students alike! Yes–sometimes this actually includes tests! But often rigorous and motivated learning goes well beyond testing into spaces of voice, movement, & creativity.  Below I quote from a recently submitted proposal under consideration by the National Council of Teachers of English–thank you Bob Fecho for sending!  It’s eloquence and import are spot on!
Read on to name the problem as it should be named–our schools are not failing, our kids and teachers are not failing–POVERTY fails–and it fails for us all.  This is why the protesters march Wallstreet and denounce policies and practices that favor the richest getting richer and the poorer and middle class getting poorer.
Responding to my plea to maintain education funding to support Foreign Language Education, my representative Paul Broun (R-GA) wrote back on 10.6: “Unfortunately, as the federal government has taken a bigger and more unconstitutional role in education, billions of taxpayer dollars have been sent to the U.S. Department of Education.  During this period, reading scores have shown little improvement, writing scores have fallen, and mathematics scores have risen just slightly.”
Some misguided policy makers, many of whom are Republican, believe that federal spending for education is misguided and does not show any demonstrable results.  They are wrong.  They do not know how to (or refuse to) disaggregate data that shows that middle and upper middle and upper class children do fine–better than fine–showing outstanding educational outcomes.  There is an intent to rob our educational system of precious funding due to false indicators of so-called “progress” –tests!
I am not suggesting we stop administering the tests–I’m actually quite fond of an occasional test and am one of the few professors I know who has actually given multiple, multiple-choice tests in some of my courses.  However, I do suggest that we exercise our own educational and creative agency and create wiggle room necessary to give much more than the tests in our classrooms.  How can one teach poetry and theatre when there is so much testing pressure? How can one NOT turn to poetry, theatre and the arts in general for some solace, some place for hope amidst a depressing and divided economy and inflated scare tactics that intend to undermine our public educational system.  Add your comments please–you too Representative Broun!
Submitted for consideration by the Committee on Resolutions, via e-mail, on October 10, 2011:
Resolution on National Standards and Tests
The movement for national standards and tests is based on these claims: (1)  Our educational system is broken, as revealed by US students’ scores on international tests; (2) We must improve education to improve the economy; (3) The way to improve education is to have national standards and national tests to reveal whether standards are being met.
Each of these claims is false. (1) Our schools are not broken. The problem is poverty. Test scores of students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools are among the best in world. Our mediocre scores are due to the fact that the US has the highest level of child poverty among all industrialized countries.  (2) Existing evidence strongly suggests that improving the economy improves the status of families and children’s educational outcomes. (3) There is no evidence that national standards and national tests have improved student learning in the past.
No educator is opposed to assessments that help students to improve their learning. We are, however, opposed to excessive and inappropriate assessments. The amount of testing proposed by the US Department of Education in connection to national standards is excessive, inappropriate and fruitless.
The standards that have been proposed and the kinds of testing they entail rob students of appropriate teaching, a broad-based education, and the time to learn well. Moreover, the cost of implementing standards and electronically delivered national tests will be enormous, bleeding money from legitimate and valuable school activities. Even if the standards and tests were of high quality, they would not serve educational excellence or the American economy.
Resolved that the National Council of Teachers of English
* oppose the adoption of national standards as a concept and specifically the standards written by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers
* alert its members to the counter-productiveness of devoting time, energy and funds to implementing student standards and the intensive testing that would be required.

Carol Mikoda (contact)
Harpur Writing Instructor, Binghamton University
Teacher Consultant, Seven Valleys Writing Project

Susan Ohanian, 2003 recipient of NCTE’s George Orwell Award
for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language

Stephen Krashen
Joanne Yatvin, NCTE Past President

Bess Altwerger
Richard J Meyer
director of the High Desert Writing Project
incoming president of Whole Language Umbrella

Writer’s Block, Creativity Fitness, and Teaching

Dear Students and Teachers of Poetry (Language ARTS), Theatre, and Creativity,

I didn’t write a new poem with you last week and I have not written a new one yet this week.  I might chuckle and refer to “writer’s block” but then you know how I feel about cliché! My teacher Michael Waters said the cure for writer’s block is to writeWrite it! as Bishop says in “One Art.”  No, I am not blocked, I’ve just lost –momentarily– poetry’s priority in the hours of these last two weeks.  Grading your beautiful essays, children, the Jewish holidays–I can think of many deterrents to finding time to write a poem but honestly, I just didn’t write one.

Not-writing spells used to scare me (if I’m honest, these spells still mildly haunt).  Will I ever write again? Can I ever write a poem as successful as the last one seemed to be? Will I ever find the time or drive to write without an assignment, a deadline, a writer’s group, a teacher, a grade?After many years of dry runs alternating with writing intensity I have come to see this is my pattern, a regular sabbatical I take from poetry writing and one which reminds me of how essential poetry is for my happiness–though not always on a daily basis.  This is not a universally shared pattern.  Other writers I know have committed schedules, waking up daily at dawn or writing with bats and mice as a nightly routine–writing every day, 365 days– or close to it– a year.  I admire that rigor just as I admire people for whom tidiness is a natural regularity.  Alas, my patterns are different.  What are yours like? As my Yiddish literature professor in college used to say, “Are you an underwear dropper or an underwear picker upper?”

Whether I am picking poems up off the floor routinely or not, I exercise my creativity muscles regardless.  For me, being a creative thinker, writer, and pedagogue goes beyond writing poems.  When I’m not writing poems, I read them or I read good fiction or non-fiction, I attend a documentary film, chant a holy prayer, take the long path through the art museum or local gallery, fill my eyes and ears with others’ creations.  I write myself quick & dirty email notes–I remove the pressure of calling them “poems” and simply put them in what Maxine Kumin calls “my bone pile” notes to return to when I am ready to craft a poem.  In other words, I must remember that when I am not producing art, I can still be thinking, acting, and teaching like an artist.  I exercise my attention muscles; I listen to my son who describes our pine-needle strewn front lawn as a big bowl of spaghetti with meatball leaves.  I cast my own figurative net to describe a second grader’s braids–I come up empty.  I read a few more of Bishop’s poems.

Creativity –whether it’s writing poems or reading them, playing chords or attentively listening to them– is a muscle.  Muscles strengthen and refine when in training and slacken when idle.  When we’re in creative “shape” we can draw on that strength when constraints in our professional and/or personal lives weigh us down.  Creative logic is something every teacher needs access to, heightening our skills at improvisation, flexibility, and out of the box thinking.  How might I write my role as educator differently, in way that feels fresh, vital, and alive? How might I pay attention to the language I’m recycling vs. the language I’m creating anew in the classroom? Does this blog count as creative output or bone for my bone pile?

I am a better writer and more creative teacher in a group–thank you for your inspiring company.

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