A tried and failed attempt / by Michelle Nicola

After writing “De Dónde Soy” poems, I wanted to dig in to the question of how our ancestors shape our lives. I thought of another one of Linda Christensen’s lesson gems, Sweet Learning.  

In the Sweet Learning lesson, students start by making a T chart and listing all of the people who taught them something in one column, and what they learned in the other. The idea is to then write a short narrative piece about when they learned to ride a bike, cook a favorite recipe, the meaning of kindness.... the list could go on. 

I helped students with their lists by first asking students to share whole group. Jorge shared that his uncle taught him about respect. Jazmín shared that she learned her strong will from her dad. Haydé shared that her cousin taught her to do well in school.  

Once we had about 10 or so items on the collective list, I asked students to make their own lists of as many people as they could think of and what they had taught them. 

Then, we read two different mentor texts, “Mi Raza” by Rafael Figueroa and “El pan de Siria” by me. “Mi Raza” was a poem that I found on Facebook at the perfect time for this lesson. Professor Rafael Figueroa, an ethnomusicologist who I’d met a few weeks before when I interviewed him about the African presence in the music of Veracruz, had written the poem for Día de la Raza. In it, he pays homage to his three grandfathers, the Spanish one, the indigenous one and the African one, celebrating what each of these three roots taught him. It was an authentic text written by one Spanish speaker for others and it was perfect.

I also decided to write a narrative piece about how my Lebanese grandmother taught me to make Syrian bread. We had just finished writing a poem, and I wanted students to be able to choose between a poem or a narrative.  

We finished reading the two mentor texts, and students decided on poem or narrative, then got started writing. Here is where I could have done things differently. I needed to build up students’ writing chops with a shorter piece first.  I needed to teaching setting and dialogue a bit more, and guide students in figuring out to to develop both. 

At the end of class students turned in their narratives and poems. While some succeeded in using narrative techniques, most wrote things like, “I learned from my grandma to be respectful. She is very respectful.” When I asked students to talk to me about how their grandma taught them respect, they looked at me blankly, unsure how to answer. I had needed to ask them better questions.

After a first draft, students handed in their work and I wrote feedback on each paper. I had every intention of revisiting the drafts the following week, but then the penpal letters arrived, and the week after that school was cancelled because the town needed the salón social (a covered patio where school was taking place until the high school was rebuilt after damage from the earthquake), then it was Día de los Muertos.... it got to the point where I decided that the best course of action would be to scrap it and move on.  

Suffice it to say the lesson wasn’t the success I’d hoped for, in that the writing students completed will not be used for my inquiry project. My friend Rabbi Brian does this thing where he asks people how they feel when they are making a mistake. “Horrible!” “Awful!” “Embarrassed!” are all common replies. Rabbi Brian’s eyes twinkle as he leans in and says, “Nope, that’s how you feel when you realize you’ve made the mistake. When you were making the mistake, you didn’t know it was a mistake, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it!”

In my classroom in the States, I’ve hung the same poster for the last four years. The poster says, “In this classroom, everyone gets to make mistakes,” and in the corner is a picture of Britney Spears with a speech bubble that says, “Oops! I did it again!” As the years go by, I find myself having to explain to students who Britney Spears is, but the point is made - we’re human, and making mistakes is part of it. Often what we do after the mistake matters more than the mistake itself. In the case of my tried and failed attempt, I took the knowledge I gained about my students’ writing abilities to design a better lesson for the future. I listened for what was true of their stories- maybe they didn’t writing the most dynamic dialogue, but now I knew that Jazmín identifies with her dad’s quick temper, that Brian spends time with his uncle camping . . . there is always an opportunity to grow. I may not have advanced my inquiry project in a tangible way, but I did learn more about my kids, and that relationship building, though intangible, is the more important learning, if you ask me.

Students at Coyolillo High School sitting in a writing circle. (October 2018)

Students at Coyolillo High School sitting in a writing circle. (October 2018)

Here are a few Sweet Learning essays!