Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: September 2012

A Visit with The P.A.InT. Center in Sarasota, FL–Arts-Integrated Teacher Education!

Lucky me, I got to spend a day and a half 9/27-9/28 with the folks at the PAInT Center at USF-Sarasota.  Partnerships for Arts-Integrated Teaching (PAInT) is an initiative in the College of Education, designed to help students learn through arts integration in the classroom. 

Here is a link to more details about their vision to enhance all teachers’ access to the arts and some photos from our day of Theatre for Critical Multicultural Education (thanks Pat!).  The photos showcase our work using Boalian techniques of Forum Theatre and Rainbow of Desire.  We asked ourselves many challenging questions including: how do we approach teacher education with candidates (many of whom are in their early twenties) for licensure who hold onto to racist, homophobic, sexist or other discriminatory views? We engaged in what Terry Tempest Williams refers to as “sacred rage” and what Freire and Boal refer to as dialogic pedagogies.





Part IV: To create “contact zones” of human connection and differences in perspective

To create “contact zones” of human connection and differences in perspective [Part IV of Why Teachers Need the Arts (and the Arts Need Them!)


Mary LouisePratt’s (1991) introduced the concept of the “contact zone,” a term she used to refer to “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (34). Pratt illustrates “the contact zone” through an analysis of a bilingual Quechua-Spanish manuscript, titled a “new chronicle,” dated in the city of Cuzco in 1613. The Andean author, Guaman Poma used a familiar colonial genre to agentively write his own story in his own words, “using the conqueror’s language” (Spanish) as well as his own (Quechua) as a form of self representation as well resistance and critique (35)—a chronicle that went unread for 350 years.


This process which Pratt (1991) defined as a transcultural contact zone, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) had also theorized invoking the Aztecan term nepantla, a permanent in-between space where one dwells in collision—between languages, nation-states, sexual orientations, genders, and cultural assumptions.  While concepts such as nepantla and the “contact zone” have made an impact on university curricula, including major shifts to include ethnic and womens’ studies at campuses across the United States, a widespread assimilationist paradigm is still alive and well in terms of K-16+ English language norms and international/immigrant student education.  Educational institutions might be said to be part of Anderson’s (1991) “imagined communities” where solidarity is achieved on an “essentially imagined basis” (74) where standard English ability is both “code” and “Code,” a medium of communication as well as a symbol of genuine belonging.


Pratt’s (1991) chapter describes a search in education for “the pedagogical arts of the contact zone,” ways to create K-16+ and graduate school curricula which elicits and honors discourses of belonging and critique, attentive to agentive student demands: “I don’t just want you to let me be here, I want to belong here; this institution should belong to me as much as it does to anyone else” (39). Like Pratt (1991), Davis (2008) and many others, I join critical and aesthetic-minded educators in a turn toward the arts as powerful tools for establishing all students’ rights to participate fully in U.S. academic discourses—regardless of language, race, class, (dis)ability, or country of origin.  While classes in the literary, visual, and performing arts may have a positive effect on students’ L2 development and growth in academic subject matter learning, I am more invested in aesthetic ways of knowing which enable emerging artists to develop critical, transcultural voices.


Drafting poems, molding clay, rehearsing lines of music or a play—these actions require the student-artist to develop the fine art of “perspective.”  Student-artists share their art-making and discover the many different interpretations that might be brought to the same piece, those that may have been unexpected and that teach the artist something about her own work.  Serious art-making requires trial and error, considerations of others’ reactions, investments in aesthetic communication that respects and transcends difference.


In light of our rapidly changing demographics which will include increasing numbers of minority leaders in business, social services, government and other leadership, educators need to explore opportunities for classroom participants to share abilities to communicate across linguistic, racial, and cultural competences and social experiences to succeed in an ever more diverse world. Training in the arts can provide teachers (and their students) opportunities for rich and expansive understanding of diversity (Paris, 2012). As Davis (2008) articulates:

The arts provide ways for children to create and communicate their own individual cultures, to experience the differences and similarities among the cultures of family or nationality that are imprinted on different forms of art, and to discover the common features of expression that attest to a human connection contained in and beyond difference (pp. 22-3).


Teachers training in art-making processes experience the clash between what one thinks is being communicated and what is actually communicated—a reflexive muscle that can benefit classrooms where 32 students may hear 32 different sets of the same instruction.  Being able to hold up a piece of artwork to outside critique and perspective is like holding a crystal up to a piece of light.  Perhaps, such experiences may help us to see the confusion that comes with classroom diversity as a rainbow palette of possibility.

Why Teachers Need the Arts (and the Arts Need Them): Part III, A Lyric Container for Suffering

A Lyric Container: To have a productive place to put the burdens of our day

Being a teacher is not easy.  Children of all ages bring with them backpacks of incredible emotional complexity and varied lived experience.  I will be haunted to this day by a third grade student in my Los Angeles classroom in 1993.  I can still see Angelica’s small head of uncombed black hair asleep on the desk and the bruises on the backs of her slender folded arms.  When I asked her about the bruises she explained her sister beat her with a brush and she couldn’t sleep.  She also couldn’t read.  Angelica made my job a little bit harder each day and as a novice teacher in my early twenties I didn’t know what to do with that information.   I decided to march home with her and see the conditions of her life for myself.

I saw a small room of an apartment under the freeway, leftover chicken bones covered with flies, and an angry older sister left responsible for her siblings at too young of a teenage life.  Following the L.A. Unified School District rulebook, I did what I was supposed to do and alerted the Division of Family and Children Services to report the abuse.  When I saw Angelica the following days and weeks until the end of the year, I learned that whatever I had done, had only made things worse.  That was the end of my career as a teacher as I had decided there were too many burdens out of my control and I needed a place to put them, a container for reflection.  So at Twenty five years old, just three years after I had started my career as a teacher, I sat in the California Writing Project program for teachers at the University of Los Angeles when for the first time, a poetry instructor gave me permission to write.  The whole summer I was to write creatively and reflexively—not just about teaching but about my life, my failed dates, my running group, my hurried bowls of cereal before class.  The oppportunity for writing poetry inspired in me a new way of teaching, a workshop model where for the first time I was writing alongside the children—insisting on quiet and concentration so that at the end of the 20 minute third grade period we could share our stories, get feedback, and write our books.  Books weren’t easy to publish then, computer word processing was still new, there weren’t programs for layout.  We had to build our books and illustrations ourselves.  I was never so proud of a literacy assignment.  But this pride had come too late. I had already sent in applications to go to graduate school the following year and with emergent success and a container for the emotional cycles of a teacher’s day, I packed my L.A. apartment and headed for the red woods to start of my graduate studies at U.C. Santa Cruz and then across the country at the University of Pennsylvania.  But I was already addicted to the experience of making art with words.  Throughout my degree programs in education, I snuck the poems into my life. When I finally became a full-fledged professor, I gave myself permission in 2005 to take myself seriously as an artist. I finally felt I could afford to do it—I could afford the cost of such a program (at least I thought so! I was grateful for some lucky fellowships and prizes that defrayed the costs considerably), and I could afford the time.  I also felt I couldn’t afford not to—I needed to have a stronger poetry “container” to place my experiences as “witness” in educational contexts as well as in my personal life.

Thus, I signed up for a “low residency MFA” program where I could keep my job and over two years time work on my poetry during winter and summer breaks and during the academic year by mail with a mentor poet.  This M.F.A. program at New England College was a wonderful experience.  But I can’t help but wonder if I had had the opportunity to write creatively from the beginning of my teaching career, would I have been able to stay—emotionally, intellectually, physically— in that third grade classroom a bit longer and have written better, more urgent poems because of it?  We talk about teacher burn out and teacher shortages; we bemoan teachers stuck in their ‘old ways’ or new teachers who lack experience.  The arts can level the playing field, they invite all angles of experience and they provide a healthy container for reflecting on practice in order to remain in practice.  I don’t think writing poems would have fixed Angelica’s problems at home or mine as her teacher, but poetry might have given me a healthy place to grieve; a critical container for making connections between Angelica’s family situation and wider societal challenges regarding poverty, urban violence, neglect, and isolation.  I found a place to take my grief and uncertainty: poetry.  Unfortunately, I found that container when I had already decided to leave my classroom for the solace and thinking space of graduate school.  May more teachers have access to training in the arts in order to make poetic sense of the complicated experiences found in classrooms. Arts-integrated teaching and learning may provide greater opportunities to support teacher health and retention.

Why Teachers Need the Arts (and the Arts Need Them): Part II of More….

To maintain the element of surprise!

Teach a student to think about scripted lesson plans with prescibed outcomes, and the learning environment bores; stir up the air waves with music, theatre, poetry, or dance and suddenly it’s impossible to predict classroom outcomes. The arts act as a kind of unpredictable, oscillating fan—injecting welcome, unexpected breezes into what otherwise might be a very stale room (all the more so in my humid Georgia climate!). Training in the arts demands “the attention of current discovery,” the goal of the arts being to surprise the artist with new ways of seeing and being in the world that are, “as the etymology of the word ‘surprise’ literally states, beyond grasp” (Hirshfield, 2007, p. 28). 

“Surprise” is a challenging aesthetic quality for which to advocate in an educational climate that wants test score outcomes, and the certainty of measured knowledge.  But it is when teachers can be surprised by their students’ that the deepest forms of dialogic learning can occur.  Let me illustrate this by example.

The other day I ran a theatre workshop in the context of a graduate course titled “Academic Communication.”  The goal of this newly created course was for it to serve as an introduction to U.S. academic discourse (and TESOL discourse in particular) for newly arrived international students.  The premise of its design was that the instructor knows a great deal about academic communication skills students need, including how to write a summary, analysis, and critique; how to access and utilize U.S. library resources and communicate professionally in U.S.-based disciplinary organizations, online, and face to face with student peers and higher status professors. Despite my best intentions, there was a monologic undertone to this course’s creation, what Paulo Freire critiqued as “banking education,” the professor’s unidirectional “deposits” of U.S. academic ways into eagerly accepting international student “accounts.”

Freire’s (1970) critical pedagogy focused on the importance of dialogue between teacher and students, the exchange of knowledge whereby the teacher’s role is that of facilitator or guide, nurturing the teacher within each one of his or her students.

Given the more “academic” nature of the course I had withheld my arts-based proclivities until this, the 6th week in the 15 week semester—after all, didn’t I need to focus on more concrete, stylistic features of academic writing? Was there time for the arts? But at this near-midway point in the semester I began to feel a need to get to know the students in academic communication in arts-based ways that didn’t just view them as deficient and in need of more expert academic English communication skills. The arts didn’t have to replace the goal to review the specifics of academic communication, from linking verbs to Western definitions of plagiarism and correct structures for writing an academic email.  I wanted to add the arts, so that both my students and I might feel more alive and engaged, connected to the original potential of our thoughts and spirits. 

In the spirit of creating academic community I invited other graduate students and faculty to join us for a dialogic class session using theatre games. I introduced “Yes, No, Stop, Dude,” a game that asks each player in the circle to start with saying the word “Yes” in repetition but to express it in a “new way” each time the turn is passed to another member of the class.  We were only 5 turns into different expressions of “Yes” (said seductively, affirmatively, ecstatically, hesitantly) when we arrived at “Xuelai,” a masters student from China who has struggled in oral and written participation.  There was an uncomfortable pause which I read as uncertainty.  I was tempted to give Xuelai “an answer,” concerned about the delay in our game.  As I began to doubt the uncomfortable pause, she lifted a humble shoulder and placed an imaginary receiver to her ear. “Yes?” she uttered.  In that moment, I was elated.  While I was relieved the game could continue, I was also struck by her unexpected and novel improvisation which I hadn’t before considered.

As each student took a turn, I was continually renewed by this feeling of surprise—receiving answers I could not have possibly predicted and learning something about each person’s creative and spontaneous process. This kind of surprise is an awakening to the marvels of what students produce that is not required or scripted, and goes beyond expectations to teach the instructor something new. I believe the experience of adding artistic ways of knowing and relating to one another to the academic classroom environment, initiates a qualitative shift in the relationship one has with one’s students and the relationships students have with each other.

This theatre game example may seem like too small a surprise to celebrate but it served me as a reminder, yet again, of the importance of creating classrooms spaces that feel like co-creations and leave both student and teacher feeling renewed and refreshed by the unexpected.  When I teach what it means to summarize an academic article, I may be reminded that there may be as many ways to do this as there are ways to saw the word “Yes” around a circle.  My hope is that I can continue to maintain that feeling of surprise as students’ submit their academic writing for the course grade.

This is not to say that I won’t teach Xuelai and her peers techniques I know work for paraphrasing an article in one’s own words, analyzing and critiquing its contents.  But I hope to do so in ways that allow the students to surprise me with their insights and approaches, lifting an imaginary receiver that also asks me to reconsider my ways of knowing in the academy and what might shift when newcomers from faraway lands become co-constructors of academic knowledge.

Teachers at all levels, infants to adults, need the arts to train ourselves to delight in moments of surprise, to cultivate classrooms where students feel they are active participants to collaborative learning. We need ongoing practice in letting go of singular right answers.  The arts remind us how much value there can be from maintaining the element of surprise so that we learn how much we don’t yet know about each student and their marvelous other identity as “teacher” in our classrooms.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. 

Hirshfield,  J. (2007). Poetry & the constellation of surprise. Writer’s Chronicle 40 (2), 28-35.

Why teachers need the arts (and the arts need them): Part I

To Practice Creativity Within Constraint


The educational system is filled with constraints from how many photocopies one is allowed to make per week or year, to what page one is supposed to be on in the textbook, what curriculum standard is to be addressed, or which assessment will determine the students’ (and their teachers’) success or failure. 

      Teachers know these constraints exist, and are often baffled and exhausted by them (as am I as a professor friend and now public school parent).  When we university educators train teachers it is our responsibilty, too often overlooked, not to dwell in ideals, but address the realities of school and classroom management, providing theories behind dynamic content instruction as well as strategies for how to take attendance and manage 100s of pages of grading while enduring endless faculty meetings regarding the educational crisis of the day—a crisis which is often defined by someone outside the classroom and school building!

      But the function of a culture of constraint can also have unintended effects.  The effect of such a culture can constrain even when restrictions are not there.  Much like Foulcault’s panopticon or Boal’s “cops in the head”—such a culture constrains actions and possibility in absentia when an invidividual absorbs the regularly enforced rules and makes them a permanent ways of life.  This is one of many reasons why teachers need the arts and why we need more explicit attention to training teachers much like we train artists.

      Artists are explicitly mentored to see limitations as opportunities—for example, a playwrite knows her play must be over within approximately two hours or she’ll lose her audience’s attention just as a kindergarten teacher knows her lesson must be over within 10-20 minutes. But how one fills the minutes or hours, the canvas, the stage or the restrictions placed on the classroom is also filled with possibility—every teacher must be awakened to the infinite space for wiggle room (this is a technical term, really.  I learned it from the great Fred Erickson!). But grown ups didn’t invent wiggle room.  Teachers and artists learn this from children, getting in touch with the childlike instinct to wiggle every unconstrained moment of the day—learning what space we can own as ours in order to feel childlike and free. 

      Training teachers as artists also means a training in vision—to see what may not be visible or possible.  To think creatively and strategically; to see opportunity when others might see limitation or impossibility.  Creativity is a skill that is necessary on the stage of a teacher’s life, to imagine new ways of working within the limitations set by our time.  While teachers cannot usually control the standards and curricula chosen by administrators, districts, states, and publishers, they do determine to varying degrees what gets absorbed into their classrooms and what it gets used for.  This process of selection and creativity requires rehearsal; training in the arts can provide just that.

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