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Do we need lunch periods, or even cafeterias?

A flood of emails Monday resisting my suggestion of longer school days to raise achievement leads me to wonder if parts of the regular school day could be put to better use. Is the typical raucous high school lunch period, in an overcrowded and sometimes dangerous cafeteria, really necessary? My colleague Jenna Johnson wrote last week of imaginative principals letting students avoid the cafeteria in favor of staying in classrooms to catch up with work or having club meetings. Can lunch become a time for stress-free learning, rather than Lord of the Flies with tile floors?

Okay, I confess I have long considered lunch a waste of time. I avoided the cafeteria during high school. My favorite lunch was eating a sandwich in a classroom while convening the student court, of which I was chief justice, so we could sanction some miscreant for stealing corn nuts from the vending machine. (I heard a radio ad for that classmate's business when I was home recently---he has become a successful attorney.) At the office these days I stay in my cubicle and have crackers and fruit juice, maybe a cookie if somebody has brought them from home.

But a non-cafeteria lunch could also be good for students who aren't total dorks like me. Johnson cites the work of Carole Goodman, the creative principal of James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring. "For more than eight years," Johnson reports, "Blake students have been allowed to eat anywhere, meet with clubs, catch up on work, retake tests and even skateboard in the parking lots." Principal Jay Pearson does the same at Marshall High School in Fairfax County.

The extra time for clubs is what grabs me. Check out the latest thinking on instilling 21st century skills in our restless youth. I am doing a series of Friday columns on the need for more thinking in class, and more practice collaborating with others, a skill crucial in the modern workplace. Surveys of people looking back on their high school years revealed that --duh--clubs and sports were where they learned the most about that.

So if we encouraged more club activities, with time during lunch, with inspirational advisors and maybe even with free pizza, our nation would not in 30 years become a Third World country begging for tips from rich Chinese tourists.

I am not sure we can get rid of school cafeterias altogether, but it might be worth trying. In some schools that midday gathering can be toxic. I have seen principals forced to marshall faculty and staff to drag kids out of the room and back to class.

And there is the health issue, but maybe that's just my problem. My wife is the senior editor at USA Today in charge of the newspaper's current investigative series, "Trouble on the Tray." I have heard many things from her about school lunches that I did not want to know. I can, however, think of better uses of the midday hour than sitting in a large room trying to hear one's self think, and inspecting the tortured piece of animal tissue on my plate to determine what it might do to me.

Anybody else down on the midday school cafeteria madness? Share your thoughts.

Follow Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/

For all the Post's Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education


By Jay Mathews  | December 8, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  21st century skills, Carole Goodman, Jay Pearson, learning collaboration, school cafeterias, school clubs, school lunch period  
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Comments

My school has gone out of its way to have only 1 lunch period, and we use it largely in the way you suggest. In addition, we have a pretty small cafeteria so we can't have all the kids in there at once.

I suspect that schools that for whatever reason have to have multiple lunches would find this more difficult due to teaching schedules (it's hard to get help from a teacher if they are teaching another class), or logistical issues (500 kids walking through the halls are loud, even if they are not trying to be).

That said, from my experience I very much recommend this if possible, as a lot of kids, especially those who bus, think that lunch is the only time that they are willing to get help.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | December 8, 2009 7:00 AM | Report abuse

Think of the time wasted herding hundreds of kids in and out of cafeterias, waiting in lines for food, jostling for seats, etc.

One of my kids is in a very challenging private middle school. She gets 20 minutes for lunch, usually with her advisor and his small group of students, and 10 minutes in another morning class for a quick snack break. Eliminates the "girl drama" at lunch time, the time lost in transition, allows for mid-morning sustenance, and she doesn't complain about not having enough time to eat. Makes sense to me.

We pack her a healthful lunch every day. I suppose this would be a problem in lower income districts, where the schools provide free or reduced lunch.

Posted by: trace1 | December 8, 2009 7:30 AM | Report abuse

This is terrible. Many nutritionists believe that our epidemic of obesity is at least partially due to our weird relationship to food - the way we wolf down junk as we run from activity to activity. Lunchtime in school should be (but isn't right now) a time to sit down, and learn to eat real food slowly. When I lived in France as a kid, we got a whole hour for lunch, and our cafeteria served real food instead of chicken nuggets. I have long advocated for longer lunch periods in our schools. This idea is a step backwards

Posted by: bkmny | December 8, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

The problem with this idea is that it will further ostracize those kids who get their only meals of the day at school. What happens when they are the only ones in the cafeteria? Will they decide it's not worth it to go?
There must be a better way to use the time, but I don't think eliminating lunch time is the answer.

Posted by: pstohrhu | December 8, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

Part of the reason for the public education system was to train kids to accept regimentation so there's a historical justification for a lunch room. You eat when you're told to eat and where you're told to eat.

In the more modern setting there's simply inertia since no one in the public education system knows of a time when lunch wasn't a mandatory where and a mandatory when. Also, dictating is comforting to bureaucrats inasmuch as there's the illusion of control over the sorts of trouble, that might reflect badly on the bureaucrats, kids can get into if they are simply allowed to run around loose.

Posted by: allenm1 | December 8, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

At my kids' public elementary school, the kids eat lunch in their classrooms. Makes for a much more relaxing and pleasant experience than eating in a big noisy cafeteria! And the school does provide lunch for those who want to buy it, just like other schools- but in this case, someone just wheels a cart with all the lunches in it down to each classroom.

Posted by: bubba777 | December 8, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

There's nothing worse than "when I was a kid" arguments. Before you drop lunch for the small meetings, consider whether the latter work because the majority of the kids are at lunch. When it's no longer an alternative but the outside-the-cafeteria is the norm, you may lose those nice out of the way opportunities.
My experience with high schools is that a time for lunch is built into a student's schedule but there's no attendance taken. Kids can choose.

Posted by: murshap | December 8, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

I have no problem with permitting other things along with eating lunch, but have a big problem with eliminating lunch, per se. Eating properly includes when one eats, and eating properly is critical to one's health. It is hard for anyone to learn anything if they aren't well. It makes little sense to force kids into our schools - education being required until the age of 16 - but to ignore or downplay the conditions that make learning possible.
It's not lunch that's the problem, it's regimentation. Look at perhaps the best public high school in the USA - Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County, VA. Its students are free to roam the halls and to gather as study groups whenever and wherever they want to. Other schools should follow this protocol but administrators don't want to loosen their authority, so the kids are forced here and there - the cafeteria being one place.
Let kids eat where they want to do what they want while eating, but insist that they have lunch.

Posted by: LoveIB | December 8, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

My children's large public high school does this "single period" lunch, mainly to gain time with teachers. I do not want schools to discourage kids from using this time to EAT during that time. They get no other opportunities to socialize during the day. A club meeting or activity could be OK as long as kids can eat while doing it and get to be with their friends.

Standing in line to buy school lunch takes too much time, so many students avoid this. Why can't the free or reduced price lunch rules be changed so students can get a bag lunch in a plain brown bag? They can grab that then go be with their friends.

I understand teachers' desire to pull kids in for extra help during lunch periods. I think the teaching needs to go on DURING the class, not during lunch. Let kids eat during lunch period.

Posted by: Rochl | December 8, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

You people who are suggesting to do away with the Lunch period ARE CRAZY, WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO TAKE AWAY FROM THESE KIDS WHAT WAS OFFERED TO YOU, WHY DO YOU NOW FEEL LIKE THESE THINGS ARE NOT IMPORTANT TO THESE KIDS? THEY WERE IMPORTANT TO YOU, SO LEAVE THE SCHOOL SYSTEM LUNCH PERIOD ALONE!!!!! WHAT YOU NEED TO DO IS GO BACK TO THE WAY OF TEACHING 30 YEARS AGO AND MAYBE THESE KIDS WILL ACTUALLY LEARN HOW TO READ, WRITE, AND DO MATH AND NOT JUST HOW TO PASS A TEST, YOU SO CALLED NEW PEOPLE MAKE ME SICK. ONE MINUTES YOU ARE SAYING THAT THIS MAYBE THE ONLY MEAL SOME KIDS WILL RECEIVE IN A DAY, NOW YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT REMOVING LUNCH, YOU MAKE ME SICK, ALWAYS TRYING TO CHANGE THINGS THEY DO NOT INCLUDE YOU. IF YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY ABOUT THE SCHOOL SYSTEM (DC. MD. AND VA) KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.

Posted by: pink1 | December 8, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

My public high school did this when I attended (1993-1997). We had two designated lunch periods- 4th and 5th periods of the day- you would have a class during one of the periods and then you could eat wherever you wanted during the other. It was a godsend, especially for the shy kids, to be able to eat with a small group of friends or on your own for a while.

Our school orchestra really benefited from this system. For those who couldn't fit orchestra into their schedule during 4th period when it normally met, there was a "Lunch Bunch" section which met three days a week during fifth period lunch. We would eat in about 15 minutes at the beginning of class and then work the rest of the time. You still got course credit for it, too. I and a couple dozen other kids took Lunch Bunch all four years of school; if you were trying to prepare for college it was about the only way to participate in orchestra and still have room for enough academic classes in our schedules.

Posted by: techiechick | December 8, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

for pstohrhu---I appreciate yr concern for students who need that school lunch. I think this would make life even easier. The school can provide bag lunches, distributed to classrooms where students would gather, with teachers they like and trust, for clubs and other activities. Much better than the cafeteria zoo.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 8, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

I went to James Hubert Blake High School (class of '07) and, looking back, I can see the many way's Carole Goodman's lunch idea helped me out. Firstly, I wasn't trapped by the cafeteria "social politics" that I have seen in many other high schools. Secondly, open lunches allowed me to be part of three clubs and not have it interfere my after-school drama practice (something I am aware I would have not been able to do had I been wasting my lunch time idling in the cafeteria). Plus, club participation and retention was high because the "ride home" was never a problem, which allowed for many more people to really feel like part of the school (which can be seen in Blake's overly-enthusiastic student pride). Many thanks to Principal Goodman.

Posted by: enrique_perez1989 | December 8, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I was wondering what happened to Jay. Now I know. That was my meal routine in graduate school and I would never force it on anyone else.

Posted by: gary4books | December 8, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Speaking from experience, this is an absolutely ridiculous idea. When I was in high school (graduated 2002) many of the honors track students were forced to give up lunch in favor of fitting in additional class time. My freshman year, I forefitted lunch to take an advanced science course. My classmates and I ate lunch on the floor in the hallway in the 5 minutes before our lab started. Needless to say, this was not a particularly pleasant experience, especially when you had students trampling over you during their passing period. The following year, the district switched the high school to a trimester system. Every student was generally guaranteed a 1/2 an hour for lunch and 1/2 an hour for "free" period or study hall, although music students forefitted most of the designated hour long blocks to rehersal. In a school that was built well before the student population blossomed to 800 students (small town CT), it was really difficult to get the 230 member band through the lunch line in 15-20 minutes.

By missing the designated lunch period, I missed out on the social interaction that is provided in the cafeteria. The crucible of the school cafeteria allows students to think and act freely, something they are generally not allowed to do during a structured academic class. Yes, it sometimes devolves into chaos, but why aren't we using these experiences to teach students how to conduct themselves as adults? Your idea to allow student clubs to meet is interesting, but it should be an option for the students.

Posted by: asteines | December 8, 2009 11:30 AM | Report abuse

This is interesting. Sometimes teachers require students to do make up work at lunch so the student has no lunch time. This seems unfair and unhealthy. Teachers should respect the student's need to have some time to eat and socialize.

Posted by: pittypatt | December 8, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

If ther wasn't a lunch period, how would I have ever taught my class? We met during lunch period once a week and the kids gave up their free time at lunch to come. So-- At least in some high schools, many useful things take place, especially those that offer one lunch period. ELementary school lunch in a cafeteria is time to to scream and yell and a general problem. When I taught elementary school, horror of all horrors---we ate in the room with our kids. There was no cafeteria. Worked quite well. Nuttin is ever perfect but we gotta eat and relax some during a long day.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | December 8, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Gary4books brings back memories. I always ate my grad school lunch, which I made myself, in the tiny library of the Asian studies building where I spent much of my time. It was always the same thing: a toasted cheese sandwich (squashed by the morning it spent in my book bag) and a carrot. I liked it. I STILL eat that lunch occasionally at home. That is, obviously, a problem.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 8, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

I think it's great to rethink old standards like lunchtime. I believe recess and before-school times need an overhaul, too. And I've seen some good things happen in several buildings where I work.

My favorite use of "other" time is to give kids who are behind some structured time to catch up. In one school where I worked, we set up a kind of "waterfall" approach to homework. When a kid got behind in the classroom, they "fell" into lunchtime worktime. If that didn't work, they "fell" again to before-school worktime. And so on, right to Saturday school. Worked like a charm because no matter where a kid landed, there was a supervised and well-structured situation for them in which to work.

Posted by: StevePeha | December 8, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

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