There’s a reason why the image of a family gathered around a table enjoying a meal together invokes warm feelings of communion and kinship. While we can’t recreate a shared family dinner with all its intimacy inside the schoolhouse, teachers can help to develop in children the kinds of virtues and conversational skills that are necessary to enjoy this experience outside of their school day. The school lunchroom, often noisy and messy, is the perfect place to begin because it provides all faculty, staff, and volunteers the opportunity to form young people in the ways of proper manners. Table manners and common courtesy lead to rich conversations and deeper friendships, and teachers can support their students by engaging them in this natural part of their day.
Baldassare Castiglione, a renowned author during the Italian Renaissance, wrote in his notable work The Book of the Courtier that proper etiquette and courtly grace can gain one entrance into the highest courts – even that of the prince. While our aspirations may not be quite as high as that, it is important to note that even those concerned with gaining prestige knew the value of not “sucking on one’s teeth” during a shared meal. In the Fifth Grade, students learning about the Renaissance know well the types of behaviors that were seriously frowned upon while seated at the table. How can we instill, model, and practices good manners during our short lunch periods?
One idea that our school has put into practice is something called Civilized Lunches. One day each month, parent volunteers come into the lunch room to facilitate an intentional, respectful meal. They pass out napkins to each student, and no one is allowed to eat until everyone is seated and each student has his or her meal prepared. Teachers and parents then sit with their students, and discuss topics that are connected to what they are learning in school, what aspirations they have, and which heroes they most respect. Table etiquette is modeled and reinforced throughout the meal, and students recognize that lunch time that day is something special – the ritualistic approach to polite eating and conversation impose a sense of responsibility for the common space and a stronger friendship between everyone seated.
Students love having their teachers come to share a meal with them. They feel important, because the most important people in their day have taken the time to get to know them and what they care about. Far from feeling like another duty, teachers also appreciate the leisurely environment that the lunch period provides. By sharing a deep appreciation for the communion experienced during the day, teachers continue to teach the important virtues like responsibility, respect, and friendship-and these habits can transfer to the home. We aren’t human because we eat – we’re human because we make eating a part of the human experience. What better place and time to teach these values than with the people who are committed to training the mind and improving the hearts of young people every day?