Sweet Learning

Life's most important lessons are rarely taught in school.

By Linda Christensen

According to my friend, Eddy Schuldman, “When children first learned to read Hebrew, the rabbi placed a drop of honey on each letter of the alphabet. When children mastered the letter, they licked the honey to make the learning ‘sweet.'” I like the image of “sweet learning” because too often in education we speak of “rigor” and “getting tough” without talking about the joy of schooling or the thrill of discovering something new.

Some of my “sweetest” learning took place on Humboldt Bay. On Saturday mornings, my father and I piled in our old Ford and headed to Eureka’s waterfront. We’d stop at California Fruit Market on 2nd Street, where Pop bought a newspaper, a pack of chocolate pinwheel cookies for me, and a few groceries for his friend Big Ernie. Then we’d climb into the rowboat and my Saturday lessons would begin. On Humboldt Bay my father taught me how to cast off from the dock and how to row. Once we moored our skiff at Big Ernie’s, my father showed me how to secure the boat to the dock, find tube worms on the pilings at low tide, thread them on a hook, throw my line, and reel in fish.

I no longer live on Humboldt Bay, but the memory of my father’s teaching stays with me. When I visited a Roma village outside of Letanovce, Slovakia, I was struck by how much education took place in the village. Children learned to gather wood, build fires, dip water from the well, and carry it home. They learned how to cook, clean, and sew from their family members – just as my father taught me.

This lesson on sweet learning brings our students’ lives, their families and cultures – whether they are Roma, African-American, Laotian, Irish, or Norwegian – into our classrooms while we nurture students’ reading and writing skills. I use it at the beginning of the year so I can learn something about the cultural background of my students, and so they can share their identity in positive ways with the rest of the class.


1. As students read out loud the two stories, “In My Father’s Kitchen,” by Laura Tourtillot, and “Mi Abuelita,” by Alejandro Vidales, I ask them to think about what Laura learned in her father’s kitchen and what Alejandro learned from his grandmother.

2. After we’ve discussed what Laura and Alejandro learned, we go through each story and look for the “elements of fiction” that help the writers tell their story. I ask students to circle the dialogue and underline the descriptions of characters and setting.

3. I start the writing by making a list on the board of people who’ve taught me over the years:

  • My father taught me how to row a boat and fish.
  • My mother taught me how to make clam chowder.
  • My brother-in-law, Darrell, taught me how to drive a car.
  • My brother, Billy, taught me how to find egrets’ nests in trees.
  • My sister, Tina, taught me how to make a platter of food look elegant.

As I create my list and talk about each person and what that person taught me, I ask students to make their own lists about a sweet learning experience.

4. When it looks like most students have five or six people on their lists, I ask them to share a few. Sometimes when students get stuck and can’t think of one person to write about, hearing their classmates’ lists helps get them started.

5. Before students begin their drafts, I remind them of the “elements of fiction” – dialogue, character description, and setting description – and ask them to include these elements as they tell their story about a sweet learning experience. Their homework is to finish the writing and bring the draft to class.


6. My class, when room permits, is arranged in a circle because I want to impress on students that they are learning from each other as well as me. As each student reads his or her learning story, I instruct the others to listen for what they like in the piece – specifically: the use of dialogue, the humor, the description of a parent or the setting. They must find at least one positive thing to write down about each person’s story. I talk about the importance of positive feedback: We want people to keep writing. If we critiqued them instead of praising them, they might not want to write or share again. My typical line about what kind of feedback they should write goes something like this: “Don’t just say the piece was good. Be specific. Tell how you liked the description of Laura stirring the applesauce or Dana’s dialogue.” After each student reads, the class applauds and students tell the writer what they liked about the piece.

In this writing, I also ask students to keep track of what “sweet learning” took place. What did their classmates learn? Where did the learning take place? What were the conditions for the learning? In other words, did they learn by doing? watching? practicing? Did someone give them a manual? Did they get praised?


After students have read and shared, we talk about the “collective text” of our stories. What were the conditions that made for sweet learning? From whom did students learn? Typically, what students discover is that they have learned a lot from the people in their homes. No one handed them a manual on “how to build a fire,” instead they learned by watching and practicing under the guidance of a significant adult. We talk about what schools could learn about teaching from these “experts” in our lives.

As a teacher, I want to acknowledge the wisdom that resides in my students’ homes. Because I live in a society that honors the wealthy and tends to hold in greatest esteem “high-status” formal knowledge, I must find ways to honor the intelligence, common sense, and love that beats in the hearts of my students’ families. In my classroom, I want all of the students to feel pride in where they come from, in their heritage, and in the people who clothe, shelter, and teach them.

Linda Christensen is an editor of Rethinking Schools and Language Arts Coordinator for Portland (OR) Public Schools.