Teachers Act Up!

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

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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