Friday, April 20, 2012

Report from the lunchroom

At the request of our school superintendent, I sat through an hour of lunches at our elementary school earlier this week. I can’t say I’m any closer to understanding why these kids are being told to be completely silent during two minutes of their already very brief lunch, or why they are being threatened with assigned seats at lunch if they don’t quiet down, or why the adults who supervise the lunchroom feel compelled to police the kids’ behavior as closely as they do.

The kids weren’t noticeably noisy or ill-behaved, and just seemed like ordinary kids. The lunchroom attendant walked back and forth among the tables, intervening to stop kids from breaking lunchroom rules (for example, by sharing their food), sometimes “writing people up” in her notebook. (At one point, a kindergartner who I know was sitting at the table behind me and turned around to talk with me. As we were talking, the lunch attendant came up and physically turned her around to face her own table. So much for that conversation.) Throughout the first lunch period that I attended, the principal also walked the room, monitoring the kids, at one point scolding a student for talking back to the lunchroom attendant in a way that was disrespectful, but which didn’t sound like talking back or disrespect to me. I have no way to tell whether my presence there affected the routines.

To the extent the experience was reassuring at all, it was only because the kids seemed to ignore the school’s more unreasonable rules. No silence was achieved during the two-minute “voice level zero” periods, though the room quieted down a little. I suppose the school’s administration would consider that a bug, not a feature.

I timed two of the lunches. In one, the last kid through the line had thirteen minutes to eat before the supposedly silent two-minute dismissal period began. In the other, it was ten minutes. There were lots of unoccupied tables, indicating that longer lunches would at least be possible, in terms of capacity.

There are some signs that the school is trying to make some changes. Recently the classrooms teachers distributed a survey to the kids about the lunchroom environment, which I think is a great thing to do. Word has it that the teachers brought the issue up in a staff meeting. The kids report that the lunch attendant is a little more restrained lately – less likely, for instance, to take food away from a child for misbehaving – though she still sometimes yells at the kids loudly enough to be heard in the nearby classrooms. This week’s school newsletter included the following:
The Hoover Family invites you to have lunch with your child during the month of May. We are working on listening to students concerns and ideas to make their lunchtime more comfortable and welcoming. We are, also, working to establish the lunchroom expectations of Entering, Eating, and Exiting. These expectations are:

ENTER: Line basics, Use a Level 0 or 1 voice, Take only two side items

EAT: Body basics, Use a Level 1 or 2 voice, raise your hand if you need something

EXIT: Lights off, zero voice, Leave no trace

Your support in teaching and modeling these expectations during lunch will greatly benefit the students and lunchroom environment. We want to ensure respect, responsibility, care, honesty, and courage are practiced at Hoover. Thank you to those parents who have taken the opportunity to visit Hoover’s lunchroom.
I wish I knew what the problem is that they are working so hard to solve. I think they should work less hard, and just let the kids eat their lunches.

Or, if that’s too outlandish, how about getting the kids together and saying this:
We want to ask for your help in keeping the lunchroom from being too noisy or too messy. We’ve been imposing a lot of rules on you this year, and we’ve realized that many of them are unnecessary. We want to treat you the way we’d like to be treated ourselves, and everyone needs at least a little social down time in their day, when they’re not being overly monitored and scrutinized. But there are some problems that can arise, so we’d like to ask you to be conscious of a few things. First, please don’t be so loud that people in the classrooms will be disturbed. Second, please don’t make a mess, and if you do, please clean it up. Third, sometimes we need to make an announcement. When we do, we’ll signal it by flicking the lights on and off; please stop and listen when we do. But we won’t ask you to be silent just so we can dismiss tables; the lunchroom attendant will just let your table know when you can leave. Finally, of course, please be kind to each other.

As long as we’re achieving those basic goals, there’s no reason for us to interfere with what you’re doing. Where you sit, which way you’re facing, whether you move around, and what you do with your food is your business. If you do become too loud, the lunchroom attendant will ask you to be quieter. And of course, if you do cause a real problem, you’ll get in trouble. But we won’t punish an entire group just because a few people are causing a problem. Most importantly, we know we need your help to achieve these goals, and we think the best way to get people’s help is not by threats or prizes, but by appealing to their good will. We think these few rules are good for the entire Hoover community, so we hope you’ll help us with them, but if you think any of them are unnecessary or unfair, please let us know and we can talk it out as a group.
Wouldn’t that approach be more comfortable and welcoming than the current, more authoritarian and intrusive approach? Wouldn’t it model better ways of interacting with people? Wouldn’t it be at least as likely to achieve its goals?


Unknown said...

Wow. I'm not sure I would of been able to sit quietly and keep my mouth shut with such a blatant display of authoritarianism. I probably would not of been able to resist making a comment to the attendant about their missing armband.

FedUpMom said...

I think they should work less hard, and just let the kids eat their lunches.

Chris, you dangerous radical!

FedUpMom said...

though [the lunchroom attendant] still sometimes yells at the kids loudly enough to be heard in the nearby classrooms.

Hmm, if the effort to enforce quiet among the kids actually produces more noise than the kids, the point of this exercise is what exactly?

Margaret C said...

did you seriously just say that they take/used to take food away as a punishment? Why? It's a basic right, eating is. Also, it's the kid's food. And did you see the attendant just take it, or ask for the kid to hand it over?

Does the school expect the parents to understand their buzz-words like body basics? And when did parents agree to bring their kids up to use voice level one or two? Do they want to? Anyway, I hope people show up, it will be interesting to say the least. And maybe provoke change, with several dozen parents in the same room discussing the school's discipline.

Chris said...

Billy -- Ha, don't give them any ideas.

FedUpMom -- I would love to know what the point of the exercise is. PBIS might not be accomplishing anything else, but it certainly is creating work for administrators to do.

Margaret -- The lunchroom attendant would take food away if she decided that someone was playing with his or her food in an inappropriate way, even if the child might have been intending to eat it.

Anonymous said...

I think until you have been on the other side as an attendant you really can't understand why they have to do what they do. It's not easy to control a lunchroom full of kids. I fully believe in social time but most of the time the noise level goes from a murmur to obnoxious behavior and if there was an emergency they would have no idea because they're too loud to even hear a signal. Most of the time it comes down to the kids needing to be respectful and as an attendant you have to be able to keep control.