Teachers Act Up!

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

Monthly Archives: September 2017

More than fun & games: theatre & #Blacklivesmatter

I am grading my online course materials and preparing for my two theatre classes this afternoon and evening.  The first was designed for first year students to study “improv comedy” and apply it to public education and self awareness.  The second is to add performance tools to the language educator’s “toolbox”–applied and theoretical.  Here is a link to one such improv game, “Yes, Let’s!”

I taught my language teachers about the concept of speaker-listener economy–a fundamental human trait is to want to do the least amount of labor for any given result.  So we compress language to its most essential parts–“Do you want to go to the movies?” While the answer could be: “Yes, let’s go to the movies.”  One common way to shorten the response might be “Yes, let’s [go; go to the movies]” or “Sure, this afternoon?”
So we play this game over and over and draw students attention to this concept while having fun imagining the craziest “invitations” one might give to another and to teach a fundamental improv rule: Yes, and.  That is, improv actors learn to accept another actor’s suggestions in order to build a scene up rather than knock it down.
Q: Do you want to go to the movies?
A: No.
Q: Do you want to go to the movies? (spoken in a heavily accented English)
A: What? (expressed in frustration, disdain)
Answering “no,” or “what?” above, is a punch to the gut.  It stops the invitation in real life; it stops the scene on stage in an improv show.  What about:
Q: Do you want to go to the movies (spoken with a heavy accent)?
A: Still tuning my ear to your music and I didn’t catch what you said–can you ask me again?
Q: I know it’s sometimes hard to understand me (pause, speaking slowly), ‘would you like to see a movie with me?’
A: Yes!
Sometimes what is “economical” (the short way to say something) is not always the best choice!
Improvisation on stage may seem to be “just fun” but in real life we can make great use of these skills–seeing all human actors as connected to bubbles of influence that inform what they say, how they say it, to whom, for what purpose and to what end.  What if we taught ourselves that we always had choices in each lived conversational moment? What if we could see all the bubbles informing what a speaker says and be better able to speak to that “side” of any given human actor?
This article I recently published is a way to “take a knee” in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and with a call for greater human dignity and care.  I am happy to see this article in print and hoping it gives me more courage to practice that which I write about with students in my courses and with real people in everyday living.
Take one.  Take two. Take three.  Every day is a rehearsal for learning how to perform as a more compassionate and considerate human being.

Rosh Ha Shana Poem for Secular Jews

Before moving to Athens, GA I had lived in cities with major Jewish American populations–I didn’t have to remember the high holidays or worry about finding Chanukah decorations or connecting culturally–stores were fully stocked to serve large Jewish populations and non-Jewish community members were well familiar with Jewish holidays and traditions. I remember Rabbi Marcia in Philadelphia asking us, “What hurts about being Jewish?” I never imagined then that I’d live 16 years in the Southeast where Judaism was so much more a minority (invisible and by some, detested) identity, where you’d have to buy the round challah in their first hour of sale on Rosh Ha Shana or you’d be out of luck.

My town of Athens, GA is prosperous and growing, attracting more and more residents from the new Jewish diaspora–so running out of round challah at the bakery is a good thing–they are making it!

Few of my secular and/or intermarried Jewish peers are observant or involved enough in synagogue life (now there is one reform synagogue and one chabad house, and one conservative minyan for worship) to remember and plan for the many Lunar calendar holidays in our tradition and most of us are all too happy to eat Cheeseburgers and take holidays on Christmas and Easter like everyone else.  Last night we laughed at moments of guilt, but I am still uneasy about this, still meditating on what it means to “fully” identify with one’s origin religion and culture and what it means to revise oneself, to reconnect with “homies” in order to once again stretch out into diverse surroundings.

Here’s a draft poem for my wonderful Jewish neighbors with whom it was easy to gather and laugh, share favorite foods and sing a few familiar prayers (almost all the way through).  This is likely unfinished but I wonder if it will resonate with others who want to forgive themselves for doing what humans do and changing.


Secular Jewish New Year

Gathered last minute in a weeknight kitchen,

no commitment, arriving late


to not-enough forks or chairs, forgotten

traditions, mismatched plates,


no one knowing the full, Hebrew prayers.

All we know is that the broom doesn’t worry


if it’s broom enough to sweep apple cake crumbs;

wine glasses don’t apologize, sorry


they’re only “half” a glass or that they never attended

wine school. Even silver nutcracker prongs


retired in their velvet cushioned drawer

might have forgotten, gone


to work on the holidays, as always,

in the walnut bowl.



%d bloggers like this: