Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: December 2011

Felices Dias Festivos, Happy Holidays from Mexico

“Why does everybody have black hair here?” My son asks when we pass a group of Mexican workers at the upscale resort where we spend the Christmas holiday with my family. “Because of the sun,” I explain. “It’s sunnier in Mexico and black hair and brown skin help protect people from the sun’s rays.” “Why are all the cartoons in Spanish?” he asks next. “Because this is Mexico and they speak Spanish here.” Then Oren gets excited about a commercial in Spanish about a car that goes “off road” into bathtub terrain; he recognizes a toy on the Spanish commercial that he just received from my sister for a holiday gift. He asks to watch T.V. and doesn’t complain that the shows are in Spanish. I teach my daughter to repeat after me at the lunch table: tenedor (holding a fork); cuchillo (holding a knife), flor (pointing to the centerpiece flower), plato (plate), mesa (table) and so on and so on until I am naming body parts and clothing. Last night the resort had a “posada” a traditional Mexican procession with candlelight toward baby Jesus followed by “ponche,” a Mexican tea brewed with dried fruits and spices, and a piñata. My two blond children sat expectantly, amidst a patio of black haired, brown skinned children, well-behaved, singing the piñata song: “Dale, dale, dale, no pierdas el tino porque si lo pierdes, pierdes el camino. Ya le diste uno; ya le diste dos; ya le diste tres y su tiempo se acabó!” Aplauso! And my children clap and wait to be called on. Giddy, my son and daughter take their turns to bang the beautiful starry piñata, a tradition that comes from beating the devil out of virtue and has become a childhood game to get the “goodness”–the candy, to fall from the heavens into their tiny virtuous hands. It takes several whacks from two adults to finally break the piñata and I am surprised that 50 children do not hurt each other to pick the candy up from the ground. My children see large families at late dinners with children asleep across chairs, grandparents, teenagers. We go to Walmart and see a woman shaving “nopales limpios”–shaving the spines off the cactus leaves, chopping them into strips, readying them for the frying pan. We order meals for both children that evening but only one arrives. We are frustrated because the (delicious) meals have taken 60 minutes to prepare so to wait for a second meal will take at least 30 minutes more. I take my daughter to the bathroom and see the small open kitchen with 5 women making everything to order, by hand. One woman squeezes handfuls of brewed Jamaica flower to make a concentrate of red tea water; another takes each large shrimp and dips into flower, egg, a mixture of breadcrumbs and coconut; another fries each shrimp; another cuts each potato for each fry. In that moment my impatience and frustration give way to culture shock and admiration: everything here is made by hand; food is more connected to its source and it’s preparation; there are more laborers, less pay, more flavor, less rush, more black hair, more sun, more bilingualism, less middle class. Three people have told me to go left and pointed to their right; one taxi driver charges 60 pesos and another charges 70 for the same ride, same distance. The tourist industry is given high priority and I am happy to be in a resort that seems evenly mixed with (wealthy) Mexican and American tourists. I feel middle class, educator guilt to see very young men pulling exceedingly heavy carts around the resort; young pregnant women on their feet to seat tourist diners all day and night. I feel lucky to be here–not working, introducing my children to differences in language and culture, sharing time with our extended family in a place where the hustle and bustle of shopping doesn’t dominate the holiday. I want my son and daughter to learn, much earlier than I did, that languages other than English and cultures other than “American” are important, vibrant, and have much to teach us about how to live in a deeply multi-facetted and beautiful, albeit, wounded world. I want to teach us how to talk about difference in a way that recognizes diversity, honors it, and inquires about it with humility and care. I don’t know that naming things on the table in Spanish or explaining pigmentation is sufficient, but it feels like an important start, something I don’t expect to ever finish. Feliz Dias Festivos, everyone. Happy holidays–whatever you celebrate, wherever, in whatever language, skin, ability, with love in your heart and as much class consciousness as possible to remind us that there is a great deal more work to do in 2012 and beyond.

Spanish for Non-Spanish Speakers Workshop–A Success!

When I decided to teach a one day “Spanish for Non-Spanish Speakers Workshop: What Every Georgia Educator Should Know” I worried  that it might be a bait and switch: would those in attendance think they could learn Spanish in one day? Would the workshop title be misleading and encourage what I now refer to as “The Dorification of Spanish Language Learning in the U.S.”?  Spanish language learning isn’t what the Nick Jr. program, “Dora the Explorer” makes it out to be –to (re)learn a second language one needs much more than a few token words that are repeated and translated regularly.  We English speakers in the US have many advantages  for becoming proficient in Spanish (including cognates, Roman alphabet, similar word order structure, many opportunities for authentic exposure to Spanish) vs. other languages that share much less in terms of scripts and structures such as Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, Polish, Arabic.   But I never want to deceive eager Spanish learners that the process will be easy, fast, or straightforward.  What on earth could I teach about the Spanish language in a day that would feel satisfying and meaningful?

My students and co-planners spent many weeks considering the possibilities for the workshop with an emphasis on including lessons on language learning processes–how does an adult English speaking American begin to tackle meaningful, communicative Spanish language acquisition without becoming quickly overwhelmed? What about learning a second language also includes learning a second culture and a second/third/fourth perspective on what constitutes “normal” in every context–from dining to primary school learning to driving a vehicle, child rearing, or deciding upon a time to meet for lunch.  Normal is in the eye of the cultural beholder.

The day we spent together was exhiliarating–filled with many more than the “7 words a day” that one typically can acquire! We immersed, we greeted, we dined, we danced, we cut and strung [papel picado], we played [lóteria, trivia] and won–it was a full, busy day that enriched workshop attendees and facilitators alike.  Thank you to all who came–especially those in attendance from the far corners of our state!  We will announce the spring workshop date shortly and look forward to what happens next.  There is a common toast in Mexico: Pa[ra] arriba, Pa’bajo, Pa’centro, Pa’ dentro–raising a glass of “agua de Jamaica” to the group–up, down, to the middle, to the inside!  The day, like the delicious hibiscus drink, has gone inside to stay and percolate many ideas for more Spanish to come!


Spanish in a day–no way.  Spanish for every Georgia educator–absolutely!

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