Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: April 2012

I have been invited to speak at the Fall 2012 Georgia TESOL conference, October 26-27 at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta.  The conference theme is “Great Expectations” and I hope to have these expectations of myself as I present ways I’ve used theatre with TESOL & Bilingual educators in the effort to “Act Up!” for social change! We’re still figuring out the details of when I’ll speak–I hope these details will soon be posted.  Meantime, I hope to see some of you at GA TESOL this coming fall!

Also, this fall another wonderful conference opportunity: The University of South Carolina is pleased to announce the Third Annual Latino Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Literacies Conference to be held at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC. The conference, sponsored by the College of Education, is designed for individuals interested in celebrating Latino children’s literature and literacies in their schools, libraries, literacy organizations, homes, and community-based sites of learning. Featuring internationally-acclaimed scholars Dr. Donaldo Macedo and Dr. Augustine Romero and award-winning Latina author/illustrator, Maya Christina Gonzalez, the conference is truly a unique experience.  The call for proposals is open.  Another great fall learning opportunity!



In an effort to inform bilingual or emerging bilingual students across campus about my fall 2012 course, I used the shortened University system title, Spanish Children’s Literature rather than writing the complete course title: Teaching Literature in Spanish for the K-12 Foreign Language Classroom.

Soon after, I received the email message below.  For humor and anonymity’s sake, I signed the email as from “The Language Vigilante”:

Hello Melisa,

Suggestion for a title change:

Unless you are aiming to have your students read only children’s
literature that is published in Spain, the title of your course should
read “Literature for Children in Spanish.” Your course description also
needs to be revised to show your intention for the course.

I actually find it interesting that although you teach teachers and
future teachers, your command of the English language and that of the
Spanish language needs improvement. This is not the first time that I
send you a correction for a message you send out. The previous time my
suggestion improved the error in Spanish.

–The Language Vigilante (pseudonym used)

Dear Language Vigilante,

My first instinct upon receiving this email (indeed, your second—you’d caught an earlier error on my blog when I wrote “feliz” instead of the plural “felices”), was defensiveness—

I used a version of the shortened university title [SPANISH CHILD LIT];

I know my Spanish (and English) can be improved—but aren’t we all, always, language learners (L1, L2, L3, L4…)?

Isn’t the point of emails and blogs vs. a piece of published prose to imply shorthand, thoughts in draft, to risk small errors in an effort at more immediate communication?

Isn’t there a more cordial, more humane way to identify mistakes in language that are less punitive?

Are you a mean, unhappy person?

Thankfully, just after reading this email missive, I received a link to “What We Nurture with Sylvia Boorstein,” aired on the NPR program “On Being with Krista Tippett”.  Boorstein, a celebrated Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, shared what the GPS might teach about “recalculating” in terms of our inner peace, what she called “equanimity”:

It [The GPS] never gets annoyed at me.  If I make a mistake, it says, “Recalculating.” And then it tells me to make the soonest left turn and go back….If something happens, it challenges us and the challenge is, OK, so do you want to get mad now? You could get mad, you could go home, you could make some phone calls, you could tell a few people you can’t believe what this person said or that person said. Indignation is tremendously seductive, you know, and to share with other people on the telephone and all that. So to not do it and to say, wait a minute, apropos of what you said before, “wise effort” to say to yourself, wait a minute, this is not the right road. Literally, this is not the right road. There’s a fork in the road here. I could become indignant, I could flame up this flame of negativity or I could say, “Recalculating.” I’ll just go back here.

I regret I am not more spiritually enlightened and I did indeed “phone a friend” (email actually) for support.  Indeed this moniker, “The Language Vigilante,” itself reflects how far I probably am from my own equanimity and enlightenment.  But I did make a wrong turn and while I have not yet spiritually arrived, the experience reminds me of a message I wish to send to other second language learners—indeed to anyone who still considers him or herself to be learning one’s first language in addition and/or through the medium of a second:

You will make language mistakes.

You will be misunderstood.

You will be judged.

You will need to find your own inner GPS system to “recalculate” and move forward.

One of the reasons most cited for the challenges of second language learning, especially for adults, is anxiety about not getting it right.  Indeed, the anxiety is often about getting it all wrong—so wrong you will feel misunderstood, falsely accused, infantilized and/or berated.  This is why children are often perceived as having a second language learning advantage—we are much more patient and nurturing (not always) when children make language mistakes.  We expect a three year old to make overgeneralizations and to have trouble with subject verb agreement (e.g. “he goed to the store” or “They goes to town”). Often, we see these productions as cute and developmental—inevitably children will acquire more standard language abilities.  But past a certain age—four, fourteen, forty— and beyond spoken dialect-friendly contexts—we expect more.

Language Vigilantes are everywhere-in the classroom, at the post office, lurking in soccer field corners and online chat rooms.  They are ubiquitous, they are punitive, and they are taking enforcement of grammar rules into their own hands.  We must prepare ourselves to hear these external (and sometimes internal voices), and say to them, “recalculating.”  In other words, when we are misunderstood or wrongly understood, we must teach and be taught numerous strategies to negotiate meaning and to know when being misunderstood is a language or grammar issue versus an issue regarding degrees of status and power.

In summer of 2001 I took a job teaching a visiting group of English foreign language (EFL) students from a women’s university in Japan.  Part English instruction, part tourism, the program included guided visits to historic sites in Philadephia and New York City. The young women were eager to practice English in real contexts and during our visit to Old City Philadelphia they decided to try to send postcards back home without my help.  The group of ten young women lined up at the clerk’s historic counter—circled really, helping one another navigate change purses full of new American coins and bilingual Japanese-English pocket dictionaries.  I stood outside waiting until one of the girls beckoned me to where an unhappy clerk demanded, “Either you do it for them or come back when they’ve learned more English!”

The young women were embarrassed—they knew they had aroused the clerk’s anger and they called for a lifeline in their English language teacher.  I was angry at the impression this postal worker conveyed—despite statues and bells in the name of liberty, “real” Americans were impatient and intolerant of difference.

Yet, the B. Free Franklin Post Office was the perfect place to experience the ironies of our democratic, yet intolerant, foundations.  It was Ben Franklin, who founded the printing press and safeguarded the development of American English, who published these racially and linguistically charged accusations against Germans:

Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf2/increase.htm

In a country that has always demanded expediency, that took revolution into its own hands, that is as steeped in democracy as it is racism, it is no surprise there are Language Vigilantes, trigger happy with language errors. Excoriating language users, like myself, who fall short of perfection, Language Vigilantes exist in nations and languages around the world and believe they are doing the right thing—upholding standards, excellence, laws of decency and decorum.

When we language learners and language users encounter one of you (especially those “cops in our own heads” [Augusto Boal, 1979), we must stop, take a deep breath, acknowledge the sting of being judged and/or misunderstood, and say to ourselves: recalculating.  Wrong turn.  Pull over, phone a friend, find a new teacher, persist.  Insist on your right to use language and to make mistakes, to become your own best teacher, and to continue down the path of communication with dignity, humility, and love.

This is not to argue against correction and the art of revision–surely this post is badly in need of another major edit.  We must simply greet the Vigilante, Critic, Editor, Censor, and say to them: Hello! Good to be reminded you are there.   Thank you for the directions? Turn left when I made a right? Okay, I’m already moving forward, finding my own way, recalculating.

If “Bilinguals are Smarter” are Americans Dumber?

The Sunday 3/17 issue of the Times had an article about “Why Bilinguals Are Smarter,” arguing that bilingualism facilitates a kind of mental flexibility and muscle that has been proven by empirical studies with infants to the elderly; simultanous bilinguals (those that grow up with two languages) to successive bilinguals–those who learn a second language later in life.  That “bilingualism is a cognitive advantage” coincides with a similar message from Dr. Stephen Krashen who visited our college last week—but beyond bilingualism, he also noted that cognition improves through two additional activites: reading and drinking more coffee!

Read copiously, speak more than one language, drink a daily cup (or three) of coffee—this sounds like a treasure map to bliss.  I would only like to add to this list all the health benefits of chocolate and red wine in addition to empirical evidence that “retail therapy” actually does work (everything in moderation of course).

The NYTimes article sites a 2004 study with preschoolers on a sorting task, a 2009 study with babies and their “anticipatory gazes,” and a recent study with elder bilinguals who proved more resistant to dementia and Alzheimers—this is all great news and I’m indebted to scholars in the field of bilingualism who labor on studies to help prove what so many of us already know (through experience, through narrative, and yes—through rigorous study) to be true:

There are advantages to being bilingual.

This must have been the 15th, 25th, or maybe 37th article on the advantages of bilingualism that I’ve read in respected periodicals over the last 10 years.  (If I were more bilingual, I might be smarter and know with more precision how many of these articles I’ve read).  What I don’t understand is why the public continually receives this message, why so many of us ‘uhhum’ in agreement, and yet how seldom this makes a real difference in how we deliver language and literacy education to U.S. schoolchildren.  We still fundamentally believe (through unquestioned tax dollars) in the importance of tests to showcase student learning; tests that are exclusively in English; the misperception that any K-12 educational programming that is done in a non-English language will hurt students’ cognitive and test-taking abilities; test results are the be all end all indicator of student learning…..and the cycle continues.

Immigrant parents know the value of bilingualism but receive the implicit and explicit messages that what is important is to learn to read and write English.  English to pass the tests. English test scores to get to the next grade level.

Last week I translated for parent-teacher conferences at a local school and in one session a boy’s mother was warned that the tests indicated her son was way behind grade level reading.  Dr. Krashen pointed to the irony that “grade level” means 50% and that if one understands the math, it is impossible for all children at a certain age to be “at grade level” because only 50% can actually be there! (I am still working out the math but I think I get his point!).  The parent, hearing the serious message –that her child might not pass to fourth grade– through my interpreter’s voicebox, asked “But what can I do? He only wants to play soccer, and he doesn’t want to read.  And I don’t read English.  What can I do?”

My mind began to wander to newspapers and magazines in Spanish about soccer matches, wondering if the parent might find internet sites or an engaging soccer “home-run” story in Spanish to share (read Jim Trelease on the home-run story).  I dared to add another unstated question to my translated list: “What language can I read to my child in? Is it okay for me to read in Spanish?”

The teacher responded: English.  Read in English.  Maybe find an older sibling or a neighbor that can read to him in English if you can’t.

What that parent (and child) “can” do was lost.  Research has shown, continues to show—25, 37 times over—that reading, in whatever language, promotes universal literacy skills.  Reading in a non-English language actually HELPS reading skills in English.  Why wasn’t this the teacher’s first message? Because in our current testing climate and monolingual culture, despite all the news articles and research extolling the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, it’s still perceived as a deficit—especially when it comes to immigrant children and their families.

Those of us who read the NYTimes article (or any of the others like it) may all agree that bilingualism is an advantage. But it’s an advantage we seem to agree we U.S. taxpayers and voters can (and some zealous patriots still say ‘should’) all live without. The ways we shape, (over)test and (under) fund our public education system denies that bilingual advantage from all U.S. children, but most outrageously it is denied from immigrant youth who have the most potential access to growing up bilingual.  Immigrant youth, especially the density of Spanish speakers in the U.S., introduce an invaluable language resource into our school systems that is not only untapped, it’s plugged.

The article explains “Why Bilinguals are Smarter” but it doesn’t yet begin to explain “Why (most) Americans Aren’t Bilingual.”  Does this make us “dumber” than the rest of the bi/multi-lingual speakers in the world?

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