Teachers Act Up!

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

January 20, 2017

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take “everyone on Earth” to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Estes’ writing gives me more hope than my own, but I feel this poem draft gives room for my sadness to breathe and is a “calm thing that one soul can do.”  W.C. Williams wrote:

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

And this morning, I read Williams’ poems and wrote.

Eight a.m., January 20, 2017, Arlington, Virginia [new draft]


Gauzy curtain, through transom glass,

mailboxes on crotchety legs,


curbed, trash-can rule breakers,

burdened electric wire sag,


persistent squirrel squeak

beneath higher than thou branches,


white-breasted nuthatches squalk,

din about dim, misplaced spring, orange


cloud-gashes, a blaring bandstand day, tumbled

like pebbles of grief-stricken sky.

Write. It feels good.

My poetry class met on Monday and it’s now Thursday. This morning is the first day I sat down to write a new poem (in too many weeks, months?).  I am sad I waited this long but I think I waited because I needed the courage to rev the engines again, to clear the room of the haunting voices that say: you can’t write, what have you got to say? nothing will be good when you start, so why start now?

But this morning the house is quiet, I rise early and I remember my instructions to the students: find a place to sit and write regularly for a few minutes each day.  Sit in the same place.  See how it changes as you document what you see.  Write without editing, just write.  Then you will find your ten best lines, 5 or more best couplets to write an observation poem as we discussed in “Nantucket”  (by W.C. Williams). [*merged assignment learned from great mentors Anne Waldman and Robin Becker].

So here I am and after having written this first draft on the first “warm” morning we’ve had in North Georgia in awhile. I feel a sense of relief.  I saw things.  I put them into words.  I felt the symbolism or the emerging symbolism of my day to day world.  It is pleasing, just the way it is pleasing to exercise –AFTER it is over.

So I urge my students (and myself): start.  If you have already started, or have a regular writing practice, good for you! It does take time to find one’s words, to find exact language that is not something that comes on a cereal box.  It’s hard work to name our worlds in our own ways.  But it’s worth it to discover one’s own voice and then to be able to inspire that in our students, and the students of our students.  In this political economy of twisted words and half truths, it’s vital to touch base with the power of language, of truth “worked out” and sweaty on the page.

Please write.  Do it for you, for your students, for me.  It takes time so please don’t wait any more (like I did).  And please ask me, ask one another: did you write today? 3 minutes? 5? It doesn’t take long to get in the habit. We may discover ways we can add our small observations to the larger world, how to bear the grief and pain of it and celebrate joy.


It’s not a poem yet but at least there are words to mark the passing of time.  Here they are –no line breaks, a little judgement–in their drafty first day back form.  I hope to return to this same seat tomorrow.


Kitchens, draft one.

My eyes used to linger only on the dining table:narrow legs, flimsy hold, small length, middle gash of liquid stain. Now I see transom glass and pressed tin, selecting exact specifications of my next dwelling–pregnant pantry, counter space berth, a centered island where I can watch dishes while my children grow to party like adults, envisioning their own someday kitchens, rising to a deep sink bowl, undermounted to quartz, a touch faucet for messy hands, a dishwasher that whispers, as if this truly were a retreat, sanded floor ocean lapping against new barstools, sunbathing beneath glowy pendant balls hanging down from the sky. And can lights, lots of cans. These are the distractions to content ourselves while our filthy rich politicians get served heavy appetizer platters in their many domiciles.   No one tells you the underside of the dream kitchen–that it will someday fail. Too many cords where they do not belong, the fluorescent green color giving way to something new or ‘retro’. No one mentions how a kitchen dirties, no matter how much storage, the milk still spills, spoiling floors, leaving its rank smell behind. How the cookie trays rust. How to replace things. I’ve learned to want the next one and the next one, to wish for another light here, a shelf there, a new heavy gadget and a corner to set it. I finally have a fancy electric mixer that does all the work. But someone has to mix then clean while another one eats and eats and eats.


Doctoral Student Advising -9/2016

Two of my doctoral students wrote with extensive worry about how to strategically plan one’s dissertation to coincide with job market value and so I am writing my opinion about this.  I want to caution all doctoral students who read this that any one person’s advice, no matter how wise it sounds, is always compromised by the small corner of this process we each have experienced.  Take this and any other advice with a grain of salt and perhaps these will become notes for another publication of some kind.


FAQ: Will my dissertation topic be valuable on the job market? How can I broaden what I’m doing to make it more marketable?


As architect Mies Van der Rhoe is famous for saying, “God is in the details.” My own experience with doctoral advising as well as interviewing other new PhDs for positions in our department, is that the more specific and focused your dissertation, often the better. You may think, for example, that a dissertation focused on the general question of second language acquisition would be a more marketable theme than one focused on study abroad programs to Beijing. However, a general topic is at risk of being perceived as unfocused and too broadly defined. I believe you must first ground yourself in a very specific case and from there, you can draw important specific as well as general implications for the general field—your ability to take a specific focus on study abroad in Beijing and connect it to the wider field of TESOL or Mandarin instruction or approaches to world language education will be what makes the difference to your success. While there may be a position specifically seeking someone with expertise in Beijing study abroad—this is unlikely. More likely, it will be your whole package that will be evaluated for fit. If the job you want has one committee person vested in only hiring someone fluent in Turkish—you may not know this and you may not get the job. What can you do? Your responsibilty as a doctoral student is to find your passion and dive into this world deeply, making connections between literatures and theories that may never have been brought together before. What makes you a unique candidate is your unique and specific focus and then the way you take that depth and specificity and help it become relevant to a wider community. However, this does not mean that all specific foci will be equally valued in the job market place for faculty or administration. This leads to the next FAQ.


FAQ: If I do focus my dissertation topic on something very specific, how can I situate myself to get the job that I want (or a job in XYZ state for with ABC teaching load etc.).


When I was completing my dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, I had never imagined I would take a job in Athens, Georgia. I had hardly been to the South and couldn’t imagine how I would fit in such a place. But when I completed the dissertation and there was a job announcement that seemed to be a good match with my degree, my dissertation focus, and my skills, I knew that I would apply for this job and I was thrilled the committee felt I was a good match and voila! My life was changed. I realized then, that when pursuing an academic position, one seldom has much control. When one year the “hot” issue is a need for a focus on face to face courses on immigrant education and the next cycle, the need is for “online second language courses”—you will drive yourself crazy if you try to shift your coursework, writing, and research according to what appear to be market trends. All you can do, is to strive for depth and quality, write to publish, network with a variety of experts in your subfield(s) and consider how you might “diversify the portfolio” of what you do—e.g. if you focus on a narrow topic of co-teaching in the push-in ESOL classroom (for a real example), then perhaps also consider how to publish on your research methods (case study or performative focus groups; mixed methods or classroom discourse etc.), and articulate your unique theoretical framework as well. Don’t change WHAT you do, but how you package what you do and its relevance in different terrain. Maybe your work is “education” generally but might lend itself to a Romance Language or Comparative literature department. Maybe your methods are qualitative but you also integrate software programming that may be relevant for a position in Instructional Technology.     You have no control over this. Repeat. You have no control over what kinds of jobs will be available when you are ready to apply for positions. But you do have control over the passion and depth you invest into your subject and to review the job availability trends. You can begin in your 2nd or 3rd year of your Ph.D. to review the Chronicle of Higher Education regularly and begin to identify what types of positions are the closest matches for what you bring to the table. You will also be able to see who is posting these jobs and keep your eye on the field. You can also note who is moving the field in articles you read—where are the authors employed? Does this department look like a good fit? You cannot tell if you would be an addition to such a program or viewed as redundant. You have no control. So what can you do? When jobs are important and you can’t control what the academy will want when you graduate, what options do you have…..


FAQ: What if I never get a university position or the only positions available have extremely high teaching loads that leave too little time for writing or are in locations where you don’t want to be?


Again, repeat: you have no control. But you do have control over researching what kinds of related work you might pursue if your ideal university position is not available or even a job that is not ideal at all. University Professorships become fewer and fewer while our economy is falling to pieces. State university budgets become tighter—as faculty retire or leave, these positions aren’t always replaced. Language departments have suffered deeply. Who would have thought French departments would be removed? But this has happened because of some perceptions that fields of literature are no longer desirable or sustainable. We can grieve these changes, fight them, but we also need to ask why these changes are taking place and what we might do to keep ourselves relevant. This includes being able to shift how we use our doctoral degrees for a position in the field. Some students look at different administrative and planning offices on K-16+ campus for work: Centers for Teaching and Learning; Study Abroad program directors; Language program directors; interdisciplinary work across language education and other programs; K-12 school leadership; other campus entities (e.g. Latin American Studies institutes, Asian American Studies, African Diaspora Studies, Women Studies, Qualitative Research Programs, etc etc.). Some students complete Phds and work in governmental positions (United Nations, Centers for Disease Control; Fulbright offices, positions with other national governments looking to develop L2 and/or English world language programming); others work in private business (Testing agencies, curriculum development, publishing houses). There are many many jobs for which those holding Ph.D. degrees with expertise in second or world language programming qualify. There is no use in worrying but there is value in getting to know the interconnected web of those who are interested in what you do and/or could value from your area(s) of expertise.


FAQ: What do people really look for in a prospective candidate for a university professor position?


From my experience drafting calls for position announcements, the committee often tries to balance the specific needs held by the program (e.g. need to find a new colleague who specializes in online TESOL instruction or expertise in assessment, bilingual education in the U.S., etc.) against more general descriptions to draw a healthy pool of applicants to consider. Committee members often create rubrics that identify the extent to which a candidate matches the job ad criteria (holds a Ph.D. in the specified field; to things that are more specific, e.g. “fluent in Korean and one other non-English language,” for example. Look closely at the required qualifications and do not waste your time with applications for jobs where you do not fit the criteria. If you may fit, but you are not sure, you may inquire with the chair of the search committee. Often these queries are positive ways to identify yourself as interested in the position. You should maintain a professional demeanor in all such correspondence—everything you write can and will be used in discussions of your candidacy. Maintain a formal and interested tone as you determine if you are truly a good fit for any given position. Committees look carefully at letters of recommendation—who is sending them, are they online, do they professionally and positively evaluate the candidate. Letters are very important. Accomplishments are also important—are you actively publishing your work? Are you pursuing grant support? Does your teaching philosophy match the department’s interest?


In Sum: You can never know if your Ph.D. work will come together at the right time and with the right degree of rigor and relevance to land you the job you want, where you want it. Instead of focusing energy on the “what if” situations of a precarious job market, it is wise to invest all that energy into a focused and passionate dissertation as well as side projects (with other mentor faculty and peers) that create a varied yet focused portfolio of work that will help you put your best foot forward for academic as well as related positions requiring or desiring a Ph.D.. While we all require jobs at the end of this process, we also must acknowledge the limited control we have over what job and where. However, a focus on high quality reading, writing, and thinking will always result in opportunity. “Do the best you can.” That is what I suggest you say to yourself over and over. “The best dissertation is a done dissertation”—yes and one that is focused and meaningful to you personally. You are making many sacrifices to pursue this degree so it should be one that you are doing because you must, because you care about this field and topic, and because in the end you will bring an informed wisdom to a wide variety of opportunity which you are prepared to find and/or create.

First Reading from my new book: August 19, 2016 at Avid Bookshop!


Friday night August 19, 2016!!! I will be accompanied by one of my favorite Athens musicians–Dan Horowitz on bass.  We’ll be next door to Avid at the Firehouse–please help me fill the space with community.

Imperfect Tense

% of US adults who read poetry…..or anything

Too few US Americans read literature (plays, novels, poetry, short stories).  We’re too busy watching series on netflix or HBO or fiddling with our iphones.  I need to put my devices down (not the kindle app!) and join the mission–with many other educators and writers–to change these statistics.   What else can explain the fiction of this year’s Republican and Democratic nominations for president? You can see reading stats in this dismal graphic:



The % of US adults who read any fiction is less than 50%.

Sadly, the % of US adults 18 and older who read poetry has declined to a mere 8.3%.

And yet my 8-year-old son begs us to read poems at bedtime, delights our copy of Hailstones and Halibut bones.  My 6 year old daughter pulls out a book of children’s verse from the Free Library Box in front of a neighbor’s house with glee! She pleasures in the surprise of rhyme, the taboo talk of burps, the sonic nonsense of Jabberwocky, the fresh imagery of Strand’s lines:

     Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

—from “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

Good readers play a crucial role in enriching our cultural and civic life. They are more likely to ask questions of those running for political office.  They are more likely to do their homework and question what is stated as “fact” to win votes.  They are more likely to stand up for others, to understand differences in perspective, to vote in elections, to volunteer, to do charity work, to question bullying (Trump), to imagine what is possible instead of caving to the inevitable (“I would vote for Bernie, but…..”).  Non-reading has dire consequences including these:

  • Deficient readers are more likely than skilled readers to be out of the workforce.
  • Poor reading skills are endemic in the prison population

The data from this 2008 study and the 2004 NEA “Nation at Risk” study before that, prompt three unsettling conclusions:

  • Americans are spending less time reading.
  • Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
  • These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.

Let’s talk.

What are we reading and what are we not reading?  Let’s dare one another to read for pleasure.  Let’s find creative ways to turn pages of a great short story, novel, play, or book of poetry–please read a whole book of poetry.  Think poetry is too elitist? Too hard? Too much of a turn off? I’ll help you find a good poem, a good book of poems……and be sure to read poetry out loud, hear the words sizzle.  Oh, and please mark your calendars for election day and vote!


My new book of poetry has a cover!!!! 

I feel so lucky, tan feliz tambien!! IMG_4694

Robinson Jeffers & The Big Read in Athens, GA

360px-Robinson_Jeffers_Hawk_Tower,_Tor_House,_Carmel,_CA_2008_Photo_by_Celeste_DavisonRobinson Jeffers “Tor House” in Carmel, CA

I am so happy to have the opportunity to host a Big Read event featuring the poetry of RobinsonJeffers(7.2015)Big-Read-Seal-Artwork [click to read more about Jeffers]

Big Read events in April, May, & June are all listed here at this website:

Athens GA Big Read Events Listing (UGA)


Big Read Jeffers in Athens, GA (events)

Join us for the public kick-off, April 7 at the State Botanical Gardens 7pm!


FullSizeRender.jpgWhat is the National Endowment for the Arts?

  • The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent agency of the federal government whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America.


What is Arts Midwest?

  • Arts Midwest, a non-profit regional arts organization headquartered in Minneapolis, serves audiences, arts organizations and artists throughout the nine state region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United States, Arts Midwest’s history spans more than 25 years. Arts Midwest works in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts to manage The Big Read.


What is The Big Read?

  • The Big Read is one of the NEA’s partnerships which provides opportunities for thousands of Americans to experience quality arts programming throughout the country.


  • The Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.


  • Managed by Arts Midwest, the NEA initiative offers grants to support innovative community reading programs designed around a single book.


What is the impact of The Big Read?

  • Reaching new audiences: The Big Read encourages widespread community involvement through an array of programming designed to attract diverse audiences.


  • Partnerships: Since 2006, more than 34,000 partner organizations have taken part in Big Read programming. These partnerships are key to growing the audiences for The Big Read while also providing the opportunity for community organizations to form lasting and meaningful partnerships with local businesses, libraries, artists, etc. that continue beyond the scope of the program.


  • New Experiences: By providing a diverse selection of books to choose from, The Big Read encourages the understanding of different viewpoints and cultures and encourages engagement between different groups of people that otherwise might not have occurred.


What does the NEA’s research say about reading among Americans?

  • The 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts revealed that more than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults’ rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012).


  • The NEA’s 2006 study The Arts and Civic Engagement: Involved in Arts, Involved in Life shows that literary reading strongly correlates to other forms of active civic participation. Literary readers are more likely than non-literary readers to perform volunteer and charity work, visit art museums, attend performing arts events, and even attend sporting events.


  • The NEA will continue to encourage communities to read and discuss a diverse range of books by awarding Big Read grants.


  • In addition, the NEA’s 2012 report When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance​ revealed that among American’s top motivations for attending the arts are socializing with friends or family members (73 percent); learning new things (64 percent); and supporting the community (51 percent). The Big Read provides audiences with all of these opportunities which encourage arts participation.





TPRS–Total Proficiency Through Reading & Storytelling


I am sitting in the class watching the most marvelous beginner Spanish instruction–not in a University, not abroad in an immersion setting, but on a mountaintop in Brattleboro, Vermont.  After one day of instruction, the students read and comprehend a minimum of 130 written words, and comprehend twice that orally.  They are laughing and telling stories about Hilary Clinton who can’t cook, about Eduardo the elephant, “Zanahoria (carrot),” an invisible tiger and their male classmate who claims to be a princess.  The mantra in this class is “Todo es posible en la clase de español.”  And it’s true! Everything seems possible here–the teacher illustrates absolute gifts in presence and improvisation.  At the same time she controls a range of vocabulary that is limited but expansive enough to express a great range of actions and states of being.  I am in AWE.  If you don’t speak Spanish and want to get started in a deep and meaningful way–get thee to Vermont!  Here is a link to her class website.  I can’t wait to write more about how this class works, why, and why more language teachers and teacher educators should be trained in this method.

Bravo and gratitude to TPRS practitioners.  May us “old folks” trained in traditional language teaching methods focus our attention on this method and continue to spice it up with culture and long-lasting communicative abilities.



(photo: la maestra, Elissa McLean)


(photo: “Hilary Clinton” who needs cooking lessons and her teacher)

I am actively seeking anything that has been written about TPRS in terms of research and theory in addition to what Stephen Krashen has written–my project is to comb through journals listed in the link below–students this is a great compilation of literature in our field.


Visual Broadsides of Ida Stewart’s poetry from “Gloss”

As mentioned previously, my luck poetry course had the good fortune to have two visiting poets this semester and the option to create “visual broadsides” in response to one of their poems.  Here are some sample broadsides in response to Ida Stewart’s gorgeous poems from her book “Gloss”–my favorite new book of poetry.  The experiments are wild, smart, and shed light on the oppressive environmental destruction occurring in the name of coal mining in West Virginia.  The poems model the potential to amplify language, stretch it to its core components, to explode syntax and phonology, yet remain grounded in telling a vital story that is at once personal and universal, devastating and hopeful.  Big rave for Stewart’s book “Gloss” and for these students whose stunning visual responses raise the poetry bar!

Visual Broadsides of Sholeh Wolpé’s poems in “Scar Saloon”

My poetry students and I have had two guest poets visit our class this semester.  The first was the great UGA alum-poet, Ida Stewart (who visited our class via Skype!) and the second was the wonderful Sholeh Wolpé, visiting us in person via the Georgia Circuit poetry invitation and in collaboration with the Georgia Review (thank you Georgia Review!).  Students were given the option to choose any poem by either poet and write either a straight “craft essay” or to create a visual broadside–interpreting the poets through a visual medium and fewer written words.

This assignment never ceases to amaze me and I am reminded of arts power to speak to art, the importance of multimedia response, and the endless creativity of which we are all capable.  Take a look at these stunning visual renderings of Wolpé’s  poetry–she writes from the perspective of brave witness, testifying to human’s potential for great violence and great healing.

A warm and wide thank you to both these fantastic poets, Ida & Sholeh, for sharing so much of themselves, their understandings of craft, of politics and emotion in poetry, of art-making, and art education.  Thank you!!

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