The Dinner Table Classroom: 5 Ways Your Classroom Should Mirror a Family Meal


by: Alex Stubenbort"Children want to mimic adults. They notice when you choose to prepare fresh vegetables over calling in another pizza pie for dinner. They will see that food made with love and care outweighs going through the drive-through window."-Marcus Samuelsson

As one could probably guess by looking at my now 240 lb. frame, I've had my fair share of filling meals. My life's history often plays like a culinary connect the dots from memorable bite to memorable bite. But what lies at the heart of those meals isn't simply the food alone but the genuine connections and unforgettable commentary accompanying such palate-pleasing provisions. With food having such a place in my heart (both literally and figuratively), it is no wonder why I have compiled a list of 5 ways in which a classroom should mirror a family meal:

1) The smell's enough to pull you in.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are olfactory. Something about my mother's home cooking could stop a group of neighborhood kids in their tracks to announce, "Something smells GOOD!" My brothers and I would then debate what was on the menu for the evening as we ran towards the house in ravenous anticipation.

In many ways, I long for this type of anticipation to be experienced by my students. The way my brothers and I would argue about what was in store should be akin to the conversations of my students as they enter my classroom. In a perfect world, hungry pupils would enter my class in wide-eyed wonder, but such a world is only possible if/when I have a track record for cookin' up something good! That's why we must teach with our hearts laid out on the proverbial table so our students can "taste" the love that goes into preparing each and every lesson—the type of love that finds joy in watching others indulge in our labor.

2) Words (between bites) Matter

In my family, dinner conversation is part art-form and part high wire act. To speak up, to tell a joke, to share political views are rites of passage. With every quick-witted opinion you share, you take another step out on a limb. However, the family dynamic surrounding such a risk eliminates the risk's inherent danger. If a joke falls flat, an idea is shot down, or a political claim is highly contested, the family unit catches you as you fall, dusts you off, and places you firmly back out on your limb with some well-timed comedic relief or short but sincere words of encouragement.

Likewise, our classes should foster and encourage this seemingly uncomfortable level of discourse void of any real risk by creating environments that value walking out on a limb with the built in safety net of family. Like a family, your classroom contains many differing personalities, ideas, and values. But what makes a family function is the unwritten acceptance and celebration of these differences in the name of belonging to something greater—something bigger than any one person. This is what it means to belong in a classroom.

3) The Intricate Dance of Passing the Peas

When my family sits down to eat, outsiders beware! Before "Amen" is uttered by the masses following our supper time prayer, a flurry of hands and voices move into action. Plates are passed at break neck speed while orders and requests melt into a cacophony of sound. From the outside looking in, one would be hard pressed to see any method to the madness; but as someone in the know, I can promise you, what seems like bedlam is, in actuality, a beautiful familial dance.

Do our classes mirror this supper time dance? Are there unseen rules and norms that govern even the most unorthodox of behaviors? Is there a culture of sharing that allows all people at the table to get their fill? I pride myself in creating classroom environments that, at times, seem overwhelming to outsiders while my students thrive in the whirlwind of commotion. What can seem like lunacy from the untrained eye is, in actuality, where innovation makes its residency. Embrace the dance and pass the peas.

4) Make Room For Dessert

It is not uncommon that you'll see men in my family adjusting their belt buckles at dinners to allow for maximum intake capacity. With food so diabolically delicious, one would be a heathen not to beg the question, "What's for dessert?" We don't soldier on in this culinary fight against our limits because it is comfortable; we soldier on because we are curious about what lies beyond the standard 2 courses.

Our classrooms should inspire such wonder. Students' homework shouldn't be rote memory torture techniques but inspired discovery through genuine inquiry. If we challenge our students to apply what is learned with what they live, our influence will tear down the walls of the classroom and introduce our students to the sweet taste of innovation.

5) Until Next Time

Despite the feeling of pure exhaustion, no family get together is complete without planning the next one. Our seemingly masochistic tendency to connect is rooted in the shared understanding that the bond we have is more important than our differences. Families are linked by name, by blood, by ancestry; for this reason, there is no end to their time together. It is eternal.

Our classrooms can be these types of places. We have taken academia for granted for so long that we often fail to see it for the eternal practice that it is. When we are vested in this timeless dance, our differences and idiosyncrasies take a backseat to something greater. It is not enough to share the WHAT of learning with your students; you must also share the WHY. By doing so, you assure them a seat at the great banquet table.

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