August 2019
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Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA

In 2017, I became the "Richard Ruiz Artist-Scholar " in residence with a group of preservice teachers from the University of Arizona studying for one summer in Guanajuato, Mexico. As a U.S.-born TESOL and World Language teacher educator and poet who has written in and about Mexico for many years, including in my recent poetry collection, Imperfect Tense, I was eager to share the ways in which poetry writing soothes and fortifies feelings of displacement, anxiety, wonder, and curiosity that can accompany immersive translingual-transcultural experiences (crossing thresholds of language, culture, nation, and race). It is my long-term goal to train educators as teaching-artists: trained to engage in creative and playful approaches to curriculum and instruction in and across boundaries of many kinds.

To help a diverse group of preservice teachers to critically and creatively navigate their emotional and sensory responses, I designed poetry assignments to use for creative and agentive learning during a study abroad education program. One student in the program was a Mexican national; six of the nine were of Mexican heritage, and all nine students described themselves as language learners in Mexico—acquiring proficiency in academic Spanish as well as acquiring the languages associated with the education fields in which they were training (math, special education, language education, psychology). None of these participants indicated they had much, if any, previous creative writing experience in English or Spanish. The main purpose of my course was to immerse these preservice educators in poetry writing, encouraging them to extend the iPhone camera images through which they documented their time abroad to include critical and aesthetic reflection.

Inspired by the noted American poet W.C. Williams, a physician who documented professional and personal observations through poetry, I encouraged students to document 2 weeks of sensory observations in Mexico. Inspired by Williams' famous line from Patterson: Book 1: "no ideas but in things," my instructions for students were to take a few minutes each day to write what they experienced in Mexico, keeping it simple and as full of concrete sensory detail as possible. One participant, Caitlin, remarked how this exercise helped her go beyond "having fun" toward meaningful reflection that felt new to her:

Writing poetry has been making me more reflexive of the things I've been doing. Because normally when I go on vacation, or whatever, I just kinda like do it and I come home and I'm like "Oh I had fun!" But by writing the poems and [journaling] it's like making me reflect more, so I'm getting more out of it.

Many students, like Emilia, wrote about their homestay experiences, where writing lines of observation elevated sensory appreciation in her new context. Here are a few lines from Emilia's poem about the "Casa de Sra. Caballeros."

Deep sleep, my eyes open, focusing on orange cream colored walls, the sound of Paco, the yellow-headed amazon parrot, slowly touching my ears.

Orange tile, that same color of papaya, glossier,

Square shaped, using my slept in and tired legs, one by one down three papaya colored steps.

The peaceful silence, slight sound of fire turned onto the black and white colored stove. I take my seat, there in front of me sits a tray of different kinds of pan dulce: the conchas, the bolillos, the donut in the tray’s corner, with beautiful milk chocolate covering the round, sweet, bread's top.

As students continued to document sensory images in free verse drafts, I also taught them to write in traditional structures, such as the "villanelle" form that requires three-line stanzas that repeat the first and third lines and rhyme the second lines throughout the entire length of a six-stanza poem. Writing in form, specifically the villanelle, gave students the chance to twist and turn a commonly heard phrase or image into resonant meaning. In Caitlin's case, she said every day her host mother asked "¿Cómo les fue?" [How did it go?]. Limited by her Spanish language skills, Caitlin always answered with one word "bien" [well], unable to provide more complete or nuanced answers. The bilingual poem gave her a place to articulate what she wished she could say: the wonders she was observing and the beloveds whom she missed back home. Poetry and artistic engagement cultivated aesthetic as well as critical, social justice abilities to exist in the nuanced and multifaceted space of both-and. The poem illustrates her ability to sit in the tension of "both" enjoying immersion in a new language, culture, and landscape "and" also experiencing deep longing, loneliness, and even remorse. "Both-and" skills may help teachers value similar complexities they observe in their students, classrooms, and schools as well as in complicated bilingual proficiencies. In this case, Caitlin drew on emergent Spanish skills to value study abroad linguistic and cultural experiences and simultaneously expressed her longing in English for people and places back home.

Homestay Question

by Caitlin Welty

“¿Cómo les fue?”

Bien, sparkling turquoise water warmed my muscles, although,

I miss you every day.

Seared into my brain, “cinco, seis, siete”

Dancing in a tangle of arms, yet the steps flow.

“¿Cómo les fue?”

I hear the whisper of a familiar song, stay

a little longer and help me forego

the thoughts of you every day.

A stroll through the alleys made my worries fade away,

Vendors all around, but they come and go.

“¿Cómo les fue?”

A teacher expressing his frustration with the school system, which makes him say,

All students should feel valued y contentos

I strive for that every day.

I don’t want to leave, I want to stay

in my new found home, Guanajuato.

“¿Cómo les fue?”

I miss you every day.

Writing formal poetry and studying formal craft helped our group discuss the importance of word choice (denotation and connotation); rhythm; pacing; clarity of reference and deictics in language use (e.g., where ambiguous words, such as here or there, depend on context for meaning), and many other themes that many students indicated as useful for making connections between learning to write poetry, learning about another language and culture, and learning how to teach diverse K–12 students. For example, many students in the Mexico program echoed sentiments expressed by TESOL preservice teachers I work with who are studying abroad in the United States. For example, Kexin from mainland China reflected in a postcourse interview (Cahnmann-Taylor & Hwang, in press):

Kexin: Whenever I read and revise my old works [poems], I become more skillful and sensitive to the use of words, structure, and ways of expression. Therefore, [as an ESOL teacher myself] when I teach literacy, I’d ask my students put more emphasis on revising old works, so they can develop introspecting and critical thinking ability.

One very important theme in our poetry course in Mexico was learning new and different ways to see what is all around us. Two students, Grissel and Joselin, talked about not only how the writing itself helped awaken their sensory perception but also how much they learned about Guanajuato from peers. They both described how images in peers' free verse and formal poems awakened them to experiences they had failed to notice before while passing the same sights and sounds. Grissel said,

I'm becoming more aware of stuff like in Dylan's poem last week where he mentioned the statue, I hadn't even seen it…so now I'm like oh, there it is! It's like I feel what [my peers] are feeling through their lenses…I'm seeing through their lenses and I don't see it as they do. It's just crazy, it's like I'm living it through them.

Viewing the same poetry assignments and lived experiences through peers' creative writing expanded both our individual and collective abilities to notice and make meaning in our new impermanent home abroad.

Writing poems was also helpful as many of these young teachers in training were learning how to shift perceptions in what they found of value in their surroundings. For example, Marley discussed how poetry writing helped her examine her relative economic privilege compared to the laborers she observed in Mexico City, where the group stayed for the first days of their study abroad. Marley wrote this poem based on a Theodore Roethke poem, "Dolor." Students were to imitate Roethke's first line: "I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils," concretizing an abstract emotion through careful description of objects in a specific place. In Marley's poem, she shifted preconceptions of theft we had all been warned about in Mexico City by personifying tiredness as theft, one that leaves her sentient to the hard working people who routinely care for the urban place and its people. An excerpt from the poem:

I have known the overwhelming exhaustion of streets,

Broken and uneven just like the soles of my feet.

The tiredness treads time like thieves

We discussed the way Marley, Emilia, and other poets incorporated the lexicon and grammar of Spanish into the English worlds of their poems or how their bilingual identities might be honored through verse. As their poetry teacher and language educator, I felt a responsibility to serve as vulnerable guide, one who was willing to share my observations and assumptions and reflect on them by sharing my own very new poetry drafts. Writing vulnerably alongside my students may have helped them expose more of themselves in their poems: that one student wrestled with the ways in which Mexicans were represented as white on milk cartons and other advertisements; that another secreted a hearing aid behind long dark hair; another had a sister who struggled with a life threatening illness.

Poetry, I argue, helped create a dialogic classroom, a two-way street where new teaching artists might exchange meaningful, personal, and of course appropriate observations with students. My hope was that these new teaching artists would return to their K–12 classrooms in the United States as if these, too, were like new countries, observing and documenting new colors, artifacts, languages, and values that students bring into their classrooms with wonder and care. If poetry writing can help teachers "get more out of" experience abroad, as Caitlin suggested early in our time together, perhaps poetry writing might train U.S. teachers to get more complete pictures of their students' complicated cultural and linguistic lives as well.


Cahnmann-Taylor, M., & Hwang, Y. (in press). Poetic habits of mind in TESOL teacher preparation. Language and Education.

Additional Resources

Rag Queen Periodical: Two of my own poems published after I returned from teaching poetry in Guanajuato, Mexico:

o “Eleven ways An American Family Looks at Mexico City, 2017”

o “Villanelle, Guanajuato Mexico”

● “The Power of Words to Save Us”: Interview with Marie Howe on poetry as witness, from the On Being Project.

Villanelle: Glossary term and examples of the villanelle from the Poetry Foundation.

● “UA Initiative Working to Improve Literacy in Mexico”: Article on the Richard Ruiz Scholar-Artist Residency Program 2017, Guanajuato, Mexico, from UA News.

Melisa (Misha) Cahnmann-Taylor is professor and program chair of TESOL and world language education at the University of Georgia. She is the author of four books, including a book of poems, Imperfect Tense, and three books on arts-based education research and practice.
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We are excited to announce that the theme for our September 2019 issue is Indigenizing TESOL. For this issue, we are looking for works that celebrate, empower, and explore Indigenous communities and peoples around the world.