Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: December 2013

Mid-December Reflections on Chaos and Spanish Language Learning in Oaxaca

Mid-December.  Time is spinning here.  I can feel it coming.  This month has that same end of October-Day of the Dead fervor in a different red, green, silver and rainbow flavor: the long December 12 lines waiting to enter Church for La Virgencita’s blessing, the excess of fireworks and puestos (small outdoor vendors) selling elote (corn cobs on sticks slathered in mayonnaise, lemon juice and chile), tlayudas (tortilla pizzas), aguas (fruit drinks), ponche (fruit tea), charm bracelets, embroidered hats, games of canicas (marbles) or balloon pops with cheap plastic prizes, wooden hot chocolate spindles, hair bands, super heroes, books, bibles, table runners, watches, puzzles. And the little boys dressed up in baggy canvas pants and cloaks, displaying images of La Virgencita, reminders Juan Diego, the campesino to whom la Virgen, the patron saint of Mexico, was first revealed on this December 12th day of 1531.Image

And the carnival rides. Their electric wires strung through the crowded city park where throngs of children and adults push between bumper cars, ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls, and flying pirate ships that all seem too dangerously clustered together.  These aging rides decorated with paintings of braless, busty women and clown faces seem to go on forever: for less than two dollars a child goes round and round a small roller coaster track or up and down in tiny cages for more than five interminable minutes.  As an American parent I become frantic when I notice the coaster operator stops the ride to regularly adjust the track’s screws.  Where are the safety belts? Where are the big metal bars that prevent any child from slipping out, where’s the message to keep hands and feet inside the car at all times, where’s the height ruler to be sure my 4 year old is properly fitted in the seat.  Nothing.  Nada.

These rides look like they might be discards from long gone carnivals in Kentucky or St. Louis, finding themselves a new paint job and a second life here in El Llano park just like us aging gringos.  We are plugged in, we run long and hard, we are safer than we think.


“You never know what you’ll find when you walk out your door,” said Margie, a retiree from Sacramento who comes to Oaxaca for three months every winter.  “That’s why we keep coming back!” She declined my invitation to the Oaxaca Lending Library event that night in favor of a parade of men on stilts that would end up at a hot chocolate festival in one of Oaxaca’s stunning Centro Académico y Cultural San Pablo.

After weaving through carnival rides to attend the Library poetry reading, chocolate and stilts at San Pablo became my ultimate destination.  The stilt walkers’ wooden, padded sticks leaned against the cultural center walls much like the cactus vines growing up around them. Stilt walkers long down from their perch, the courtyard was now an obstacle course of puestos giving away bowls and mugs of chocolate atole, a thick corn based indigenous drink or “con agua,” the kind I prefer, made with water or as we know it, “hot chocolate.”  It didn’t take long before my gourd cup of chocolate runneth over onto my woven palm leaf bag, nearly missing my huipil blouse.


So much of what we experience this year in Oaxaca, Mexico this year spills over, unpredictable, messy, uncertain, surprising, chaotic, and alive.  It’s interesting to compare these festive impressions with what I have observed so far in Spanish language learning classrooms, including my husband’s class this morning.

Jason’s teacher this week is passionately committed to languages and speaks English with great fluency. But this program promotes the immersion method and never translates anything for Jason, preferring to give linguistic definitions in Spanish to explain lessons on language use—e.g. possessive adjectives (tu bicicleta/your bicycle) compared to possessive pronouns (la tuya/yours).  The teacher writes grammar terms in Spanish on a hand-sized white board, using “my markers” (mis marcadores) and “his bookbag” (su mochila) as examples.


They sit for 45-50 minutes on the steep cement steps of the Santo Domingo Church –and there are fewer confusions in this all-Spanish lesson than I might have thought would occur.  Ése es mía.  “That (one) is mine,” the teacher says, grabbing his backpack.  “Ése” was a review of demonstrative pronouns vs. demonstrative adjectives.  http://www.studyspanish.com/lessons/demonstratives.htm

“Why does “es” come in there?” Jason asks.

Jason has begun to distinguish “ese” that and “es,” (“that” and “is”), even though the sounds tend to elide together.  Spanish for the learner is full of words spilling into one another, confusing tangles of phonemes and morphemes.  ¿Tú viste el partido? (Did you see the game?) The teacher asks, knowing sports are a welcome subject with my husband.  The learner is challenged to distinguish “¿tú viste…?” (did you see?) from its homophone “tuviste?” (did you have?). With context and practice, this becomes obvious and clear but in the beginning the rules and separations are beyond confusing.

It’s like ordering my kids some fries at one carnival puesto, and sitting at the nearby plastic table to learn that rights to sitting at that table belong exclusively to the taco seller.


How is one to know where the lines are drawn? What seat belongs to whom? What sound belongs to what meaning? Easy enough to order three tacos with our fries but less easy to learn complicated linguistic terms and structures and piece it all together.

Margie, the retired Oaxacan regular, says one season in Oaxaca she took private lessons 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

“Even though I knew it didn’t matter, there wasn’t any grade or anything, I would always get so nervous before every single class.  I know its silly but I was always afraid I wouldn’t know something that I’d be expected to know, that I had learned the day before.”

My brave husband isn’t easily fazed but he, too, has moments of anxiety and uncertainty as an adult Spanish language learner.  He says he just has to accept that he won’t understand everything right away and is proud when our Mexican friend notices his language growth when we get together every few days or weeks.

December 16, my son stood in line for one of the first of nine numerous opportunities to beat a piñata for its candy at a posada, nine reenactment evenings of Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem.  He is only six year’s old but towers above his peers and because of his size, earns the right to be blindfolded for his turn at the bat.  After a few successful whacks, he breaks the ceramic bowl and candy spills.  He tears at the blindfold and like all the other Mexican children, pounces down to grab candy amidst the pottery shards.  I lose sight of him.  A pile of children seems to have descended on top of him.  I frantically call his name.  “Oren! Oren!”


A girl points to the middle of the pack.  He emerges, hands full of candies, tusselled, unfazed.  My neighbor’s four year old son also rises from the fray with pockets full.  His father, who’d worked three years in Austin, Texas, just laughs.  “Todo bien, todo bien,” he assures me.  It’s all good.

I am constantly reminded that I over worry and over think, as a parent and perhaps also as a language educator and language learner.  Perhaps it is the acceptance of chaos, only partially be explained, that is the best lesson of all.


I Owe a “Multa” or Fine for Missing a Parents Meeting; Well, Actually, Two: Reflections on Home-School Communications with Immigrant Parents from “El Otro Lado”

Today, I felt like an immigrant.  An unwanted, misunderstood, unfairly treated immigrant.  This is no pity party.  After all, it was one day among many other gentler days when our family has been  treated as welcomed guests, even as special invitations, curiosities, and/or potential friends.  Today, I experienced what so many immigrant parents in the U.S. must feel, the regular pummeling of good intentions met with sanctioned misunderstanding.

We have made a few small attempts to get to know other parents of children in my daughter and son’s preschool and first grade classes.  Only one of about four or five invitations we’ve extended for a play date has been met with an acceptance in our first three months here.  We’ve had at least four or five sweet encounters with parents outside the school, chance meetings on walks home or in the parks.  Moments when we’ve started to feel as if we are making small inroads into the lives of our children’s classmates.  So when another preschool parent made a point to greet me this morning, I was expectant, curious.  Maybe she will help me understand something about the December activities? Maybe she’ll want to join me for a walk around El Llano park where I’d seen her smiling just the other day.

“That meeting you missed the other week,” she started, politely.

Oh yes, that meeting, the one when I was back in the states at the Anthropology conference, when Jason was alone with the children, the meeting that surely was all in Spanish, the meeting the week I had informed the school I was not in town.  Maybe she would share information from that meeting.  What might we have missed? Surely, Liya’s teacher has made a point to meet us at the dismissal gate, informed us of many duties–fees owed for her Christmas costume, an assortment of supplies required for Christmas decor activities (including 6 bottle caps, very specific quantities and colors of crepe paper, an empty baby Gerber jar). We have abided with all these requirements but what more might we have missed?

“Hay una multa,” she says, “There’s a fine. 100 pesos for missing that meeting.” She is the classroom representative and says she has my name on the list.”

Suddenly, the weeks of feeling foreign come rushing forth and all I can stammer is, “I will not be paying a fine.”

Tonight, I receive a polite but imprecise email from my daughter’s teacher not unlike the one I received while in Chicago.

“We need to talk,” it says.

“I will not pay a fine,” I write back.  It’s

100 pesos is less than eight U.S. dollars. I’ve paid more than that regularly for other kinds of fines in the U.S. but those I felt I deserved–fines for parking violations, library book losses, credit card late fees, traffic tickets.  But when I’ve paid these penalties, somehow I felt I deserved them.  I should have known to pay on time, I should have returned the book, or driven at the speed limit.  And justified my errors by considering these fines as donations to the public system.

But how can I, a working parent who was out of the country, be fined for missing an after school meeting that was scheduled when it was impossible for me to attend and impossible for Jason to understand?

After several face book messages late this evening, I speak with my daughter’s teacher by phone.  Ms. Ami has become our beloved confident and lighthouse to all things related to the school culture, why didn’t she let us know?

In her defense, she explained that she did let us know in the manner that is typical at the school, sticking a small piece of paper into the homework notebook with a day’s advance notice.

“But I was out of the country.  You knew that.  Usually, you help me understand things in a follow up Face book message.  What happened.”

“You missed another meeting today.”


“There was another meeting today at 4pm.  You were not there. I sent a note home yesterday.”

Yes, she did send a note home.  A note pasted with four other notes related to the many things parents are expected to buy or pay for or bring to school this season in addition to homework instructions.  As fluent as I occasionally feel in Spanish, these second language texts and cultural expectations are often beyond my capabilities and each is an exercise akin to signing up for health insurance–deciphering and following instructions that I think I understand, should understand, but that are taxing just in their first appearance.  Why didn’t I go to that meeting today?  I have lots of defenses but quickly I realize I simply forgot about the meeting today–it’s as if I’m contesting a traffic violation when I was really only going 9 miles, rather than 10, over 55.  I tried to wriggle my way out of feeling guilty.

“Why didn’t that mom who told me this morning that I had a fine for missing the last meeting, remind me of today’s meeting?” I asked.

“Why was there only one reminder from the teacher buried in a page full of pasted notes (not to mention written in tiny green font with no indication that it was mandatory)?”

“Why didn’t anyone say anything to my husband who picked up the kids at 3pm, an hour before the meeting?”

“Doesn’t anyone work, as I did today at the faraway university campus, and require a meeting to be made up or information to be shared in another format?”

“Why did you schedule the meeting on the last night of Hanukkah? Do you even know there is such a holiday that does not fit in the Christian calendar for which I have so dutifully bought materials?” (my multicultural insensitivity card rolls out as I write this).

“Why, when my husband is the primary caretaker and is present at almost every drop off and pick up –often by himself, am I the one you insist on scolding? My husband who is learning Spanish, my husband with whom your English and bilingual teacher (one teacher aside from the English teacher seems to speak comfortably in English) regularly communicates?”

“Why a fine?”

“What was the meeting we missed (well, two of them) about, anyhow?”

I suppose this last question should have been the first.

The first meeting, while I was in Chicago, was about child abuse.

The second meeting, today, was about the 65 pesos we owe for the Wednesday zoo trip and a story telling performance required by preschool parents next week.  In our absence, we were assigned responsible for helping build “the set” for those who will read children a story on friday.  When Liya goes to the zoo, she should wear a hat.

And the fine?

The 100 pesos will go directly to Ms. Ami’s classroom and will help pay for supplies.  “It’s a school policy,” she says.  We signed some piece of paper in agreement of these policies when we enrolled the kids in school.  I must have missed this detail.  I hope I got dental coverage during open enrollment.  Who knows what else I might have missed?

So we owe $16 (or less) to Ms. Ami so she can buy things for the classroom that she needs on a salary where she can’t afford to just make purchases out of her own pocket money, something too many American teachers do regularly.  That doesn’t seem so bad, I just wish it weren’t called a “fine.”  She apologizes for not having been more helpful in reminders, she is so busy with work –which I can see based on the huge bag of craft supplies we just delivered and the Santa pillow my daughter came home with today which sat beside our Hanukkah candles.  We didn’t light our last candles tonight anyhow.  By the time sun went down, there was homework that needed doing and bedtimes and we frankly just forgot.  So much for the multicultural high horse I had been riding.

But when I consider what happened today with more patience and compassion, I understand that what I experienced was a layer of cultural miscommunication that so many immigrant parents experience on a daily basis in the U.S..  I don’t know the rules here and our family broke them–twice: our failure to attend meetings that most parents seemed to understand were non-negotiable or my failure to understand that a modest contribution to the classroom is the optional alternative.  I like the sound of “contribution” much better.

Perhaps there are good reasons when immigrant parents in the U.S. aren’t able to make a set parent-teacher conference time or when they don’t know to show up at a school event, pay a fee, or arrive on time without screaming children in tow.  Maybe, like us in our third month as parents of children in a Mexican school, they are still disoriented, unsure of their calendars and commitments.  Maybe they don’t have friends or family to help.  Maybe they don’t understand what is essential and important or maybe they learn that what is “essential” really is not or is delivered in an entirely incomprehensible second language jargon.  Maybe they are celebrating a holiday we know little or nothing about in the U.S. culture.  Maybe they are stuck at work or need extra reminders in modified language for foreign comprehension.  And maybe they just forgot.

This experience is not unlike the one I had last year at my son’s U.S. kindergarten when he had arrived tardy too many sleepy mornings and I was sent an accusatory district form letter signed by the school’s counselor.  Then, too, I was outraged.  I wanted to be congratulated for the so many mornings I managed to wake up my son before dawn in winter to get him to school by 7:40am (give or take a few minutes) and I was horrified that one of my first home-school communications was a reprimand for failed parenting, a warning of future legal action if I did not improve our record.  I knew how to handle such correspondence but how must this make other parents feel, those much less of the consequences of such home-school correspondence?

Many wonderful education colleagues in the U.S. have written eloquently on the improvements to be made in U.S. home-school communications and I, too, have a newfound dismay as a parent in the school system.  But now abroad in a strange country with no American friends at the school with whom to laugh this off, with no support system of parents to help remind one another of important gatherings, with no knowledge that what was missed would accrue penalty, it felt more personally insulting.  And there is a part of me that wants to pay this and all my $8 fines in advance and just abandon hopes of community at the school.  I know this is akin to the girls leaving the school yard.  Oh yeah, you don’t want to teach me to play or play nicely? Then I’m leaving!

And I will leave. The date is already set for May of next year.  But I remind myself this is a small, healthy dose of our own inhospitable cultural orientation toward newcomers, and encourages me to consider how much kinder I can and should be to reduce gatekeeping in all my familiar institutions–immigrant parents at the elementary school, international students in my courses, the Albanian woman at the airport with her tattered dictionary and wounded knee.  There are people all around us who are newcomers to cultural and linguistic norms we tolerate or navigate.  What small actions can I take to mitigate this alienation I’m feeling as a foreign parent in Mexico, for someone else here or abroad?

Tomorrow morning, when I see the parents and teachers of my daughter and her classmates, what can I communicate about difference that will help us to help each other to communicate in more complete, compassionate, and more humane ways?

Our contribution to Ms. Ami’s class and zoo payment are ready to go for tomorrow morning.  With more hope and patience, I will ask what part of the scenery I can help make for the storytelling event next week? How will they be celebrating the winter holidays?  Could they please take pity on the foreigner and help remind my family of the next calendar meetings?

Ah, writing through cultural conflict is very helpful.  Thanks for listening!

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