Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: November 2011

No Easy Bilingual Street

I leave Montreal and the American Anthropology Association conference today and look forward to dialogues to continue. 2700 World Languages and almost all of them are under threat in some part of the world or another. My paper discussed the “Dorification” of Spanish language programming–the eagerness for the little non-white Spanish girl from her ambiguous nation to share her language and culture with us, effortlessly, lyrically, joyfully. I love Dora! The English media program and books offer the image of a strong feminist transnational & Latina character who celebrates solidarity across difference and an eagerness to get to know other places and beings and conquer “Swiper” (no swiping!), the lone deterrent. She is a catalyst for an interest in other languages and cultures and quite a contrast to the culturally and lingusitically diverse cartoon characters of my youth–Boris and Natasha, Pepe le Piu, Burgermeister Meisterburger–all these characters were enemies and/or buffoons. Dora is neither–she along with her “peers” (Handy Manny, Ni Hao Kai Lan) are hopeful friends who represent easy palatable difference, just a few words here or there in another language, fully translated, repeated several times, no interference in understanding or world view.

The bilingual reality bristles with greater tensions regarding language rights–the right to be understood, the right to understand, the right to have access to more than one language and culture or not. Anthropologists remind me that languages and dialects (and the speakers who speak them) are under threat around the world–Jamaican Creole, Haitian Kreyol, Singapore English speakers (e.g. Singlish speakers), Wampanog and 1000s of indigenous languages that are endangered or extinct, Montreal French. Rarely are tensions about one word or a slight difference in pronunciation (see the Singlish youtube video about cock/coke), more often they are about power, cultural maintenance and survival, identity, fear and love. In 6 minutes my cab arrives to take me away from this bilingual city, rich in struggle and examples of bilingual survival. May the conversations begun continue until we find ourselves code-switching in hybrid genres, where the norm is to move through multiple codes and Codes, where we can remember Dora as a fond but distant memory of a time that was.

Visual Broadsides of Anne Waldman’s Poems

One of the greatest classroom rewards of merging “teacher” and “poet” identities is infusing instruction with surprise: infusing a poetic quality to assignments that lead the instructor and her students to end up in new, unanticipated spaces.  Kapow!  I learn endless pedagogy lessons from poets and then, lucky me, I adapt these lessons for my own use.  Recently, one of my poetry mentor-goddesses, Dorianne Laux, came to town and discussed her use of “visual broadsides” with students.  This assignment asks students to engage with a poet’s work under study in a visual manner–lifting the words from the poem and landing them in a new, perhaps three dimensional, visual/literary context.

Inspired by her facebook album of students’ work, I studied Anne Waldman’s poetry with my students this semester through both performance and visual broadsides.  I regret I did not video record their marvelous performances, but I do have photos of the broadsides. They are stunning works of art in response to art.

I am humbled by what I am learning alongside students in this class and that they rose above any expectations I might have set for the activity.  Thank you to these students for sharing their work.  Shortly I plan to match the slideshow picture order with the student-poet name. Meantime, see the show!

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Terrible Twos

Lucky me, I just had dinner with Anne Waldman and my family. The children were angels.  They did not stick their hands in the nice fire they lit for us on the Big City Bread patio, they  fought only briefly over my lap and my daughter only kicked Anne once to show off her light up shoes and claim her territory, my son only hit Anne once on the back and she said she liked it.  I am renewed, encouraged, reminded of the aliveness of poetry and its possible permanent presence in my life.  And then, lucky me, Liya woke up screaming (again) at two in the morning–lucky because I have not yet completed my writing assignment this week: an ekphrasis, narrative poem based on our visit to the Georgia Museum of Art.  I hope you will all join me many hours from now at Anne’s reading tonight at Ciné, 7pm. Until then, here’s the poem that was born at 2am this morning but seems to have started a long time before that.


              Inspired by Anne Waldman’s “Stereo” and Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir’s “Horizons

With two two small small children children I need two two of everything everything, candy candy, more more, two sets of arms arms, two sets of hands hands reaching reaching for a face, tugging chocolate hands hands on new new sweaters. Nothing is mine mine anymore, and tears bluster faces faces that roar miserable mouths mouths after one minute one minute, wait one just one one more more minute minute, please say please please and they do reaching, begging to be tickled tickled one more more time time and I am tired tired but they grasp awake awake for more more, their lives lives just beginning they are just beginning and I am just ending just deciding to color or not color streaks of age, creases of smiles smiles gone bye-bye and see their new new skin skin and wonder will I ever feel my self self again again or will it be too quiet to sit sit for any length of time time by my self self echoed echoed in fragile bones, their teeth teeth are mine mine, their toes toes are mine mine and they they have hair hair like my husband and we are sexless sexless and we are naked naked, rusting rusting in the elements except a slice of us, a sliver of glass from an empty empty milk jug milk jug endlessly filled, filled, filled, filled.

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