Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: February 2012

“I’m handsome, I’m very very handsome”–making language learning fun!

Below is a partial transcript from an interview I had with a parent whose fourth grade child attends the only elementary school in our community where Spanish is part of the daily curriculum. “D2” is her second daughter.  “D1” is a middle school student who also has Spanish as a subject and said with certainty that her little sister “speaks Spanish better than I do!”

MOM – I don’t know what they’re doing, but they got this certain website that she goes to and listens to the- she can tell you all about it. She runs around the house singing Spanish songs all the time.

MISHA – [to the fourth grade youth] And how did you learn all the Spanish that you know?

D2 – from Spanish class

MISHA – But how do you, what helps  you to learn?

D2 – We go to a website called Señor Wooly

MISHA – Wooly? Ok, I don’t know that. What do you learn there?

D2 – There’s Spanish videos and you can do karaoke and you can listen to the video and sing along.

MISHA – And you like to do it?

D2 – (nods yes)

MISHA – That is so cool. I’m so happy for you. Now next year they’re trying to decide if we’re going to have any more Spanish here at the school or not. Would you recommend that we keep Spanish at the school?

D2 – (nods yes)

MISHA – You would? Why?

D2 – because it’s fun!

Ah, that’s the ticket! If language educators (like the one at this elementary school) can make learning non-English languages fun and inviting, then maybe we can have more success encouraging future American youth (and adults) to enjoy Spanish, French, Chinese, or Arabic class.  I did look up “Señor Wooly” and there are a few free videos on youtube to give you a taste of the way to make learning languages fun, funny, and do-able through music,repetition, and comedy.  Check out “Puedo Ir al Baño,” a ballad sung by an adolescent pleading with his strict teacher for permission “to go to the bathroom,” backed up by a chorus of understanding peers.  Or for even heartier laughter check out “Soy Guapo,” a pop tune sung by a dandy of a dude who claims repeatedly, “I’m handsome” cheered by two women (“¡Ay, Victor!”).  This “Guapo” gets out of household chores, bills, even reading. By being handsome he gets all his desires met.  It’s over the top fun and while singing along to this guy not needing to be funny or have any personality, the song helps teach dozens of vocabulary words, expressions, and challenging grammar points (¿personalidad?–¡él no la tiene!/ personality? He doesn’t have it!–no more struggles with teaching the direct object with the verb tener!).

It’s not that all target language learning is fun and games.  However, when I review the overwhelming variation of “Spanish Level One” books that exist, the market is flooded with dry vocabulary lists.  Señor Wooly is indeed a sight for sore eyes & ears, utilizing technology to embrace context and interaction as essential components of effective language acquisition.

When my husband turned 40, we placed candles in a circle around the golf ball design on the cake.  My two year old daughter cried, “like ashes ashes, we all fall down!” connecting the candle circle to one of her favorite song activities in her daycare class.  Young and old, language learners make connections between what is known and what is unknown.  Our natural creativity makes leaps and bounds between experiences.  My children have been working with a Spanish speaking nanny for 4 weeks now (about two days a week).  I encourage her to do the following:

1. interact with the children in a natural setting doing regular, daily routines–in my case, going through morning rituals of getting dressed, eating, and readying for the drive to school.

2. try to introduce contextualized language–when asking the kids to put on their zapatos and calcetines, to show them their shoes and socks when saying the words

3. to encourage repeated production just as I do in English when trying to teach good manners.  “I want more yogurt!” my son screamed this morning.  “Más yogurt, por favor,” I rephrased for him.  “Más yogurt, por favor,” my son repeated, mumbling obediency.

4. to accept all English productions

When we were in North Carolina, my daughter waved her hands in the air and shouted “These are manos Mommy!”  Then she counted out the pasta she would eat on her plate “uno, dos, tres, cuatro!”  These are small steps for small language learners.  But I can’t wait to show them “puedo ir al baño!”  to see if this can appeal even to very young children.

This is not to say that language learning is all fun and games.  It’s not.  Real frustrations occur all the time. My son standing at the sink told his Spanish teacher today that “I don’t understand Spanish!” and then proceeded to follow her request in Spanish to go outside and play.  Language learning is not always to be taken lightly, especially when real needs have to be met.  I remember having spent the entire summer in Mexico feeling quite fluent.  I was leading a group of college students on a long term stay in the Mexican state of Veracruz and had finished my work to head home.  My flight was delayed for several hours and finally cancelled.  I had to navigate getting on a different flight, making connections to my home destination.  I was tired and frustrated and embarrassed at the airline ticket counter when I simply gave up speaking Spanish.  I knew the Delta employees were also bilingual and they would be in their language comfort zone to explain my flight options to me in English.  Such code-switching is not always possible when operating in an L2 but it made me aware what a luxury it was to be able to draw on more than one code choice in order to be heard, to get needs met, and occasionally have fun.

I was delighted to hear this young girl feeling so excited about her Spanish class.  I was even more startled yesterday when I visited a dual immersion elementary school in Clayton County, “Unidos.”  The fifth grade chorus treated my UGA students and I to a short bilingual concert where it was difficult to tell which students had Spanish at home and which did not.  The children’s accents and fluency were so outstanding!

“What has your experience been in this program? Is it ever hard to learn another language?”

“Yeah! At first I was so confused!”

“Yeah, like I didn’t know what was going on!”

“But now it’s easy and its fun to speak two languages.  Like we have this new girl in our class and she speaks Spanish but we’re helping her in English.”

“When we go to restaurants, the people there are all like “You speak Spanish! Well, alright!”

There’s a whole story written by Dell Perry Giles about the challenges of opening up an elementary school where two languages are used for instruction.  But she made it happen.  To watch these children sing effortlessly in two languages was a gift.  They are showing us by their songs as well as on their state mandated test scores (which equal or surpass the scores of their district peers) that learning more than one language in the context of a public U.S. school is indeed possible and enjoyable.

Promotion to Full Professor (wow!)

In my campus mailbox I received this letter dated 2/13/2012


Dear Prof. Cahnmann-Taylor:


Acting upon the recommendation of the University Review Committee, I am truly pleased to notify you that you will be promoted to Professor effective with your 2012-2013 contract.  Promotion is a significant achievement in academic life and a recognition of the valuable contribution that you make to the life of the University.


Please accept my hearty congratulations and my personal thanks for all that you do for the University.



Micheal F. Adams



My response:


Dear President Adams, Colleagues and Students at the University of Georgia:


I am filled with joy and gratitude on this day when I receive news of my promotion to full professor at this institution.  From the first day of my interview to today when I receive this letter, I have felt welcomed and respected.  On only one small occasion when I began at the University did one person in an administrative role of authority respond negatively to my research, referring to my request for funding as “boondoggling” to study American in-service teachers on a summer abroad program in Mexico.  My department chair immediately came to my defense and support and I found other sources of funding for work in local schools.  When some of the courses I teach such as “poetry for creative educators” and “theatre for reflective practice” were referred to as “boutique”courses, at first I took offense, believing that some colleagues in administrative positions felt these courses were unnecessary baubles, pretty and interesting but overpriced and excessive.  Nonetheless, I was allowed to offer these courses, to see their enrollments grow, and share the joy and muscle of creative thinking and learning.  I don’t think most institutions would allow me such flexibility in course development or generously support the guest speakers I have helped to bring to our campus: Ruth Behar, Joni/Omi/ Jones, Anne Waldman and Steven Krashen this spring.  And when Joni/Omi/Jones performed “Sistah Docta” and removed her shirt to perform the vulnerability of the black, female body on campuses of higher education, some administrative faculty squirmed in the front row, snickered uncomfortably afterward, and may have missed the point.  But no one stopped the show or pulled funding or refused my future applications (although my first application to bring another powerhouse African American artist was refused–I am sure it was because of budgetary constraints and I will try to bring poet Patricia Smith again!).  You have written on paper that you will promote me to full professor despite the fact that I protest at our campus arches against HB 59 which would essentially ban highly qualified but undocumented youth from attending our beautiful institution.  You give me license to be at the top of the University heap fully knowing that I was part of a gang of academic parents who protested the lack of daycare services at this institution until you finally opened a large daycare center this year to serve our community and both my children have spots in a campus daycare facility.  No future pregnancies for me but I smile every time I see the two new parking spaces reserved for expectant mothers in the College of Education parking lot and the new stroller and wheelchair friendly ramp that leads from the busstop to our building.  I have breastfed in many corners of our campus, posted a breastfeeding welcome sticker and rainbow queer-friendly flag in my office and have heard talk about building lactation rooms across campus.  When, in other public corners of Athens, Georgia, nursing mothers and I have been asked not to breastfeed, this campus has been nothing but friendly to me as a nursing academic mother.  Sure, it would have been swell if you’d had any kind of maternity leave policy that might have allowed me to navigate work and new motherhood with a bit less stress and strategy, but luckily I had a grant and flexible students and understanding colleagues and it all worked out.  Would I like this to change? You bet–I want our campus to continue to grow as a place that is welcoming to all kinds of diversities and life changes.  I would like never to hear another colleague snickering about a Jewish student who “tried to get out of a test” by complaining that it was Yom Kippur (the most holy and sacred day in the Jewish calendar).  I wish there were more open and explicit talk about what to do when experiencing harrassment on this campus and that we’d have fewer incidents covered up for years and fewer to no incidents at all.  I realize how tricky such policies must be and that it is my role now to participate in faculty governance to help create and sustain policies that favor people and ideas and shun intolerance, abuse, immorality, and narrow-mindedness.  I feel truly lucky to be here and honored by this promotion because it says you value faculty who publish and teach wildly across traditional academic boundaries, who question authority, and voice the taboo.  I have a published disclaimer that the thoughts and ideas on my blog are mine and mine alone and protect you–to the extent that I can–from our association. But now you have not only invited me to the table, but given me a long-term contract to remain in my white, cinder-block office which I have now painted athenian blue.  Thank you President Adams, for protecting me from many of the bureaucratic decisions that come with running a public university and for allowing me the freedom and time to write, think, teach, and learn and feel the urgency of continued critical, intellectual work. I’m sure we’ll get to know each other better in the coming years as I participate more actively in how to create and sustain the best possible environment for higher learning.  Upon receipt of this letter I feel honored and renewed, knowing my work at the University of Georgia has only just begun.



“Glee” gets bilingual–sort of!

I can’t believe it–finally Glee addressed “Mr. Shuster’s” status as a so-called Spanish teacher at the high school–one who can’t and/or doesn’t speak Spanish!  Ricky Martin comes and saves the day as “David Martinez, a night school adult Spanish teacher (see Hulu.com for the show if you missed it).  Mr. Shu enrolls in Mr. Martinez’ class to improve his Spanish (and get a “tenure track” job at the high school)  and learns that “by 2030, the majority of Americans will use Spanish as their first language.”  After class, Mr. Shu (MS) and David Martinez (DM) have this conversation:

DM: No entiendo, tu eres maestro del español pero estás tomando clase de español

MS: Could you maybe say that a little slower, I think your accent is throwing me off.  Where are you from?

DM: Ohio. But my parents are from Chile and we only spoke Spanish in the house growing up.

Mr. Shu’s gaff that an “Ohio accent” is difficult to understand is an early comic moment that foreshadows the many blunders the Glee Club director/Spanish teacher will make regarding the language, culture, and identity of Latino USA.  In class Mr. Shu declares the Glee Club will sing songs written or performed by someone of “Latin descent or performed bilingually.” He explains:

Mr. S: Where do you think you’ll you be by 2030? Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you’re gonna need to speak Spanish.  The reality is by 2030 more people on this planet will be speaking Spanish than any other language.

Mr. Shu (mis)ventriloquizes his own Spanish teacher’s wisdom and suddenly he moves the significance of Spanish in the U.S. to world dominance  (Look out English! Look out Chinese!) Despite the exaggerated statistics, I agree with Mr. Shu’s central message: “The world is changing, our culture is changing, and that needs to be reflected in here [in U.S. high school].”

Who would think Fox TV’s Glee club would be talking about Spanish as a vital language of our (inter)national future?! –that by the show’s end Mr. Shuster would hand over his Spanish position  to Ricky Martin and decide to go for a history position instead (my colleagues in Social Studies education should also have a field day with this episode!).

Well, as readers likely know by now, I prefer to remain on the positive, rather than cynical, side.  “Latin music” for Glee club ends up meaning a mostly English version of the Gypsy Kings “Bamboleo,”  Madonna’s “Isla Bonita,” and Elvis’s “Satisfy me” with one English-Spanish tranlated line. Although the hour long show is depressingly filled with the hyperbolic “hot Latin” (Okay, Ricky Martin is indeed eye and ear candy) and filled with stereotypes, Santana plays the critical cultural reader and educates her defensive educator.

Santana [to Mr. Shu]: You went from La cucaracha to a bull fighting mariachi!  Why don’t you just dress up as the Taco Bell Chihuahua and bark the theme song to Dora the explorer?  You don’t even know enough to be embarrassed about these stereotypes that you’re perpetuating!

David Martinez  invoked Lorca’s concept of “duende” had me over the top with GLEE! Okay, so duende was given short shrift, quickly and mistakenly translated as dwarf and pawned off as  Ricky Martin’s sexual energy.  He explains duende through a bilingual performance of “I’m sexy and you know it”:

David Martinez:
Cuando hago mi entrada, this is what I see
Todo el mundo para pa’ mirarme a mí
I got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it, show it, show it,
show it.

I’m sexy and I know it
Soy sexy y lo sabes

Hey, checalo.
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle yeah (x4)

To the wiggle man, así menealo man yeah
Soy sexy y lo sabes.

Do I wish the show’s writers would have included some discussion of the term “duende” coined by Spanish civil war poet, Federico Garcia Lorca–you bet.  Lorca called the duende, “an emotive and poetic logic rather than a disembodied rational logic” (Hirsch, 1999, p. 13).  Duende’s etymological root comes from duen de casa [not dwarf!], “master of the house,” a house that is filled with emotion and death. I wrote in Teachers Act Up (p. 80): “Like the flamenco singer or bullfighter whose dark improvisational arts place them closer to death, duende allows one to succumb to mystery, and absorb its carnival of hunger, desire, sin, and sunlight.”  It’s NOT reduced to “passion in my pants.”

But we critical academics can’t remain all tied up in what isn’t all the time.  We must recognize the slow celebratory moments of cultural shift and laugh outloud when the show makes fun of a U.S. Adult Spanish student whose goal is to learn enough Spanish to say “Stop using my toilet to my maid” (hello, “The Help”).  The show illuminates U.S. Americans’ backwardness through great doses of humor and irony.  By the end, this same adult student is awarded “best conjugator” and gives thanks to her teacher:

Adult Spanish learner: Thank you Sr. Martinez. Thanks to you, Claudia knows now “to go” before she comes to work.

Oye (Yiddish groan not Mexican command “listen!”).

Mr. Shu is awarded “most improved” as he celebrates his fiancé getting the covetted “tenure track” position at the school and hands over his Spanish classroom to Ricky Martin.  Should I worry about the effect of this show, reinforcing Fox viewers’ understanding that diversity means the White English-only speaking guy (or woman–see the show’s take on Sue Sylvester) loses his credibility and his job to more qualified women and minorities? Or will viewers’ feel invited to sing along to bilingual lyrics by their favorite all American heros, gyrate their stiff hips to global Spanish rhythms, and rethink their attitudes towards cultural and linguistic knowledge.  Maybe it is important for English speaking Americans to take World Language & Spanish language education seriously?  English speaking Americans do great damage  to U.S. students’ future potential if they are “protected” from integrated schools, linguistic diversity, and the struggles inherent in learning different ways of being in a multicultural world.  And while we may be cultivating critical geniuses like Santana–at what price? We can’t hope that minority youth will trade in their anger and cynicism in light of ignorance and symbolic violence against cultural and linguistic “others.”  Until we pay more attention to world language education and -yes- history, we will never create learning environments that nurture respect, humility, inquisitiveness, and care.

In the meantime, who else saw the show?! Responses?!! LA Times blog on it, in case you’d like a  review of the various narratives.  Any other links to other “Gleeks” writing with loving criticism of the show?

The Politics of the Language(s) We Speak (Or Don’t)

I just spoke to the department of education representative for the Foreign Language Assistance Program.  In September I wrote a plea on this blog to readers to write their congressman:  please authorize FLAP funding–too few Americans can communicate in non-English world languages and this was the only federal program charged to increase world language abilities in public schools. “Was.” Past tense because on December 23 the entire congress voted not to reauthorize FLAP funding.  In January, the school where I’ve been working for 1.5 years to establish a meaningful Spanish-English world languages and literacies program was told they would not receive the third year of federal funding.  We only just got started.

January, 2012.

Six students sat around a half moon shaped table.  “Las ocho fases de la luna [the 8 phases of the moon],” their FLAP funded teacher said.  “Vamos a dibujarlas y ponerlas en orden [we’ll draw them and put them in order.]

Each child had 8 black color paper squares and a white crayon.  They drew and labelled the moon’s phases:

Luna Nueva (New Moon)

Creciente Iluminante (Waxing Crescent)

Primer Cuarto/Cuarto Creciente (First Quarter)

Gibosa Iluminante (Waxing Gibbous)

Luna Llena (Full Moon)

Gibosa  Menguante (Waning Gibbous)

Ultimo Cuarto/Cuarto Menguante (Last Quarter)

Creciente Menguante (Waning Gibbous)

As one child drew, her white crayon broke.  She learned how to ask for a new one in Spanish.  Another child sang Montell Jordan’s lyrics to himself “this is how we do it!” and numbered each moon phase, saying “uno, dos, tres, cuatro….” in Spanish, the language he speaks at home.  Another child worked on creating an index card “pocket” on a manilla folder–she learned how to say “tape” (cinta) and card “tarjeta,” and how to make a pocket by taping only three sides “solo los tres lados.”  She wanted a green marker to label her folder–her teacher pointed out that what she wanted was “el color verde” and pointed out that even crayola is multilingual–with “green/verde/vert” written in kelly green on it’s thick white side. Another child asked his teacher, “Do you have facebook?” And the teacher asked in Spanish what this had to do with the moon? The child replied that his facebook password would be “the moon.” The teacher and several hispanic students started talking about “facebook en español,” stretching a “science lesson” into a lesson about world communication and Spanish as a global language.

How does our world view shift when we learn that people look up and label the “same sky” differently, when we make connections to cognates such as “quarter” and “cuarto” and distinctions between words such as “waxing/waning” to “iluminante/menguante.”

Beyond acquiring a bilingual vocabulary, these children were learning to communicate like citizens of the world, making connections between science content and their lives as transnational citizens.

Senator Isakson wrote me back on September 15: “it is urgent that Washington get its fiscal house in order….I believe that in addition to passing a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, we must also reform our broken appropriations process and reduce wasteful spending….I have nine grandchildren. The rest of my life is about seeing to it that we leave them a country that is as free, as prosperous and as safe as the country our parents left to us.”

Any American who wants to leave our children and our grandchildren with the greatest chance for prosperity and safety must take the teaching and learning of World Languages under serious consideration.

The FLAP representative tells me there’s a new appropriations bill on the table through reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to sponsor programs for “well rounded education” that include “the teaching and learning of arts, foreign languages, history and civics, financial literacy, environmental education, and other subjects.”  While I was hopeful, my interlocutor in Washington dampened my spirits.  “It’s unlikely this kind of bill will go through in an election year.”

That’s alright.  I have lots of time.  One positive outcome of growing older is having to learn patience–this is how we do it!  Remember, too, the beautiful lyrics of Same Cook:

It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die

‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky

It’s been a long, a long time coming

But I know (oohhhh), change gonna come, oh yes it will

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