Teachers Act Up!

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

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!!

Thank you Chloe and Maya for your review of Duolingo and Cat Spanish

Well, I’m officially addicted to second language gaming with Duolingo.  I’m on a roll reviving my Portuguese, beginning German, and taking “English” through Spanish–by my 4 year old daughter’s request –she wants “to learn English” and loves the pictures and spoken portions.  So my anthropologist buddy Trish said her daughters were also into these programs and I asked if they could write a review of their two favorites–here it is!!! Makes me want to go cat crazy next! I am so excited about these programs and hoping they stick around, stay free, and get better and better!  Try one out and see these two crazy cats and their wonderful review!


Learning to speak Spanish on your mobile device: A review of two apps


By Chloe Niesz Kutsch (age 10) and Maya Niesz Kutsch (age 12)


            Nowadays there are many apps that can help you learn Spanish. But which one should you use? Here is a comparison of two of our favorite Spanish language apps: Duolingo and Cat Spanish. Starting with Duolingo, there is a map that can show you what you will learn. Each lesson has different related words (for example, animals, people, verbs, etc.). You have a coach who is an owl, but the coach doesn’t do much. After you set a goal for how many minutes a day you want to work on this app, the coach tells you how much time you have left and how many points you have gotten. You have four ‘hearts’ when you start Duolingo and you have to try to keep them by doing well. You lose a heart when you answer a question incorrectly.

Duolingo is vocabulary-focused; it does not teach you survival Spanish (common phrases for example) as much as Cat Spanish. Sometimes you learn words and sometimes you learn phrases. The app tests your translation, allowing you to type words or choose them from a word bank. Sometimes when you tap on a word, it shows you the translations. This can be helpful, but it can also allow you to ‘cheat.’ In addition, one advantage of Duolingo is it has audio tests where you listen and select what was said in both Spanish or in an English translation. Also, there are speaking tests that show you what to say and then judge how you said it. If you are more experienced, Duolingo allows you to skip ahead to more advanced activities. A great thing about Duolingo is that it’s 100% free. Some disadvantages are that you can only redo lessons individually and not review all of the words you’ve learned altogether. You do not get a chance to preview the words that you are going to be learning before the lesson actually starts. Duolingo sometimes uses pictures, which can help you learn vocabulary, but the pictures are not as frequent or as interesting as Cat Spanish. The lessons end when you lose all of your ‘hearts,’ so you don’t always get to finish a level. Compared to Cat Spanish, Duolingo is not as interesting or funny.

            Cat Spanish, which features a bilingual cat as your professor, works by associating cat pictures with both English and Spanish words. Cat Spanish teaches you “survival Spanish,” phrases which you would need to know in a Spanish-speaking environment. There are more kinds of learning challenges in Cat Spanish than in Duolingo. You translate from English to Spanish and Spanish to English by choosing words from a word bank or typing in the translation. There are audio tests where you choose which phrase you heard. One of the best features in our opinion is the conversation feature. You see a person with speech bubble with a phrase in English. You reply with the Spanish phrase that makes the most sense (to a cat).

When you are on the main screen there is a button that you can click that shows you all the phrases or words that you have learned with pictures beside them. Also, if you want to, you can learn or review these phrases all over again. For each Spanish phrase it shows you a picture of a cat that relates to the phrase. The cute cat pictures help you remember. The picture, English phase, and Spanish phrase are all associated together, which helps you learn the words. This app is also humorous. We have heard that studies have shown that when you laugh or when you think something is humorous, it releases something in your brain that makes you a better learner. We think the humor helped us learn. The cute pictures and the humor also made us want to come back to this app. The app is very cat-oriented; sometimes it portrays dogs poorly. So this app is better for people who like cats. A disadvantage of Cat Spanish is that there are no speaking tests. Also, it’s free for a few levels, and then you have pay for it.

We enjoy Cat Spanish more, but they are both good apps. Maya likes the cats and finds that she remembers what she learns better with this app. Chloe thinks that Cat Spanish is more interesting and funny than Duolingo. Hasta luego! 




Cat Spanish

Speaking tests



Select the correct translation






Audio tests



Review feature










Grieving for Maxine Kumin in Rhyme

Maxine Kumin was so great at maxims–her adages often repeated by students, like “Memorize poetry, so you have a library of the mind when you become political prisoner.”  A pioneer woman who broke so many barriers in the manly world of letters she was brought into as a young, talented writer in the late 50s.    Her kind belief in my work–encouraging me to submit and ultimately publish a poem with Robin Becker at Women’s Quarterly that another teacher had destroyed.  Her brownies, ponies and garden.  Her love of rhyme.  Her spare and fiery curse words.  Her tiny frame and big horses. Her long marriage.  Her metered outrage.  A toast to you, inspiring, caring, mentor.  Here’s a draft I’m working on today as I read your words and think about raising more young sweet poets in your memory.

First Grade

—-for Maxine

Two thousand three hundred nine words

rhyme with “estar” but my son can’t think

of any for his tarea en español, prefers

action figure distractions, spilling his drink,


breaking pencils, falling from his chair—

anything that’s not homework until

I suggest “vomitar,” to vomit  and “estornudar

to sneeze. Pleased, he asks if “to kill”


in Spanish would rhyme, and “to hit,” and “fart,”

–smart boy, figuring out a second tongue

multiplies words that disconcert, courts

deep laughter in theatre dark. So strong


his will to be liked, to understand peers, offer

jokes, to translate “butt” and savor what comes after.

Feeding Someone Who Speaks Spanish as a Second Language in México

Yesterday, I had “green juice” after a workout—made with celery, parsley, cactus, pineapple juice, and water.

Five days ago I ate cow’s tail in a delicious taco made at El Mezquite, a new wonderful “botanero” restaurant that gives snacks (botanas) such as beef tripe soup (“pancita”) with each alcoholic drink.

At the Llano market today, I ate the cow’s neck and bought a cup of bee pollen granules to add to my morning granola.

For the next day’s supper, we bought a kilo red snapper fillets brought on ice from the isthmus to our Oaxaca market.  As the vendor fileted the fish, another customer came and bought the egg sack, knifing through the fish belly to pull out these tubular goodies.

“What are those and how do you eat them?” I asked the customer in Spanish.

“La hueva.”

I looked shocked. “The egg sack? You eat the mother fish’s egg sack?”

“Caviar?” She replied.

“Oh! You have very fine taste,” I said, placing my pesos into the vendor’s scaly hands.

Language, food, and culture in Oaxaca

Language, food, and culture in Oaxaca

BurgerKing candies challah chamoyapples chicharron Street_food totopos

I decline a bag of chapulines or grasshoppers, a salty, protein-rich snack on sale for many Oaxacans and curious tourists.  I can hardly look at the “best pozole soup”  served with pig’s ear or snout floating among the hominy.

I get my “normal” questioned every day in Oaxaca but alongside disorientation are also variations of gratitude, horror, uncertainty, incredulousness, joy, fear, and surprise.  My taste buds, like my language skills and patience, are changing, but slowly and with no small degree of resistance. But I do see my mental and gustatory regard for what is and is not edible, “normal”—even delicious—may have the potential to evolve, becoming what they have never been before.

For instance, my first piece of fried pig skin and hot sauce was detestable.

“Oh, no gracias.  I don’t eat that.” (Not said: “How can you EAT that?”)

Then those flaky chicharrón squares appeared on every street corner, served at birthday parties and holiday celebrations.  Suddenly, I wanted to crunch that sweet, flakey crisp in its spicy drippings just like everyone else at the party.  I don’t want a habit of eating fatty pig crisps, but I never thought I would or could acquire a taste for it. When I recently dropped crushed chicharrón pieces into my Aztec soup, I felt that I had indeed changed for the better.

Red apples dripping in tangy tamarind sauce mixed with chile spice (chamoy) on a stick—this gives candied apples a whole new meaning and one I am still not yet eager to try.  But listening to a podcast on Splendid Table about the history of Mexican sweets and their mixed Spanish, African, and indigenous origins in convent kitchens, has given me a new way to see the plaza corner sweet tables.  My friend Marcela brings a basket filled with these intensely flavored and colored goodies to the after-dinner table: caramel between white catholic wafers or wafers in bright neon colors that melt on the tongue; coconut bars in the colors of the Mexican flag; round disks filled with honeyed nuts; guava fruit in a thick roll.

Some of my American and Mexican friends in Oaxaca are proud Sam’s Club members; others also have a Costco card and drive to the closest one in Puebla, 3-4 hours away.  I feel lucky when I enter with them and buy those same cherry tomatoes in their familiar plastic cups; the same juice box crates my kids adore.  The pretzels and Ghirardelli brownie mix they only sell at Walmart, a good 40-60 minute trip by public bus—I do that on indulgent occasion.

I think it’s normal to hunger for what is familiar and be suspicious, afraid, or even judgmental of what is not—especially at first, perhaps especially so if you feel (as ridiculous as it may be) that your origins are at risk of being lost.  When judgment and fear begin to caramelize into intrigue, even desire—one senses, if only for a savory moment, the art of fusion, to be here and there in mind and body.

“Comfort food,” is comfortable because it cuts to the core of how we learned to taste as children, in the culture of our homes and communities.  If comfort is normal then discomfort, tasting what is unfamiliar—and at times, unappealing—is strange.  It felt strange to google a recipe to make challah bread in our Oaxaca home, to remember Spanish words for “yeast” (levadura), “knead” (amasar);  to learn the word, esponja, to describe the sponginess of rising.

I bought a bag of thick sea salt made at the coast and dotted our first loaves and wondered about our family’s possible twists—pieces of jalapeño and panela cheese or spreading challah slices with cream cheese dotted with my friend Ceclia’s incredible home-made salsas.

Everything seems up for negotiation and change and the possibility of new normals for what tastes good.

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