In my previous post, I shared the struggles of what could be called Breakfast Bedlam. The “final” solution was the placement of two assistants, one black and one white, to work year-round in the cafeteria, supported by soothing music and monitored by administrators. These two ladies became school heroes for offering to manage the chaos at the start of each day. They lasted a long time and there was some improvement in the behavior of the kids who rode bus 317. Ultimately, these ladies ended their tenure and our school was facing the same bleak scenario as before.
After one equity session (race-related discussions), I was chatting with a teacher who remarked that our students are precious. She meant all our students, including those who stormed the cafeteria every morning. Suddenly, I could see those kids as jewels, of tremendous worth, and felt an overwhelming desire to SHOW them their value. The Breakfast Club was born out of that conversation.
It was easy to get administrative approval to start this initiative. (Duh!) I was so grateful that two other women (both black) joined me in this endeavor; as a white woman, I wanted these kids to see adults who looked like them (especially these two remarkable women). My goal was to create a space like the home breakfasts I had with my family. I sewed sets of table runners to make the chilly (and huge) space look more comfortable. I guess that helped a little.
The cafeteria workers looked on in amusement as we set up for our first breakfast. They had seen it all. The manager observed the first day of the Breakfast Club and announced loudly, “Honey, you won’t make it a week!” But I knew better. Here are some of the major changes that I introduced:
- Kids were now seated by grade level. Seating kids by grade reduced the incidences of bullying and copying inappropriate behavior. Each table had a grade level sign with teacher photos for that grade. Kids were truly excited to see their teachers’s pictures and their first conversations shifted to school topics, not bus fights.
- I enforced a rule that kids could only enter by one door and exit by the other. Anyone who tried to “outrun” someone else found themselves walking back through the correct door.
- I stationed myself at the entry door, greeting each student by name and with a smile. I worked like crazy to memorize their names. At first, the older kids said, “Uh-huh,” and smirked when I called them by the wrong name. Eventually they could see that I was serious about getting to know everyone, so they helped me out a bit. When I spoke to kids, I used their name as much as possible to speed up my learning curve (we averaged about 70-80 kids but had up to 100 on some days).
- My assistants monitored the lines for food while I worked my way up and down, smiling but enforcing a no-talking zone so the cafeteria workers could hear kids recite their lD numbers.
- I provided all the younger students an index card with their 7-8 digit school number on it, as well as those with disabilities or who were too shy or unable to speak English. You can see the cards awaiting the kindergartners here:
- At the beginning, I took time every day to review our Breakfast Club chart. It was a poster-sized sticker chart for the month (not so attractive, since I designed it). When the whole group maintained a reasonable volume as they interacted with one another, they would get a sticker for that day. After a certain number of stickers, they earned a free day of sitting wherever they chose. I would flip the lights off as a signal that they were too loud. At first, it was three times and no sticker. Gradually it became “harder” for them to earn a sticker, with one light off signalling no sticker.
- While the kids ate, my colleagues and I made our way from table to table, chatting and assisting students. I started keeping a supply of forks and spoons in case the cafeteria ran low. We never, ever made kids feel bad for spilling all their food. I would usually get a replacement for them so the embarrassed child did’t have to move. I can’t remember if we had a day without some kind of spill.
- We adjusted the placement of grade level seating based upon the behaviors of kids at each level. We used “uninteresting” groups as a buffer. For example, the fifth graders were not really interested in kindergartners; they wanted to chat with fourth graders. We kept the kindergartners between the two so that kids weren’t interacting with groups from another table.
- We set up a more user-friendly cleaning system. (I would never have put my hands into the previous pans- yuck!) We supplied warm, soapy pans of water and clean cloths for wiping the tables. We “inherited” this cleaning system and used it for a part of one year. Eventually we decided that we would rather have kids eat (and chat) than use their limited time cleaning, so we wiped the tables after they left.
- I always took time right after breakfast to report positive behavior to classroom teachers for the more vulnerable kids, as well as following up on any bus incidents and behavior problems.
I also cooked breakfast for the kids (I’ll have too post that in “I Kid You Not”). At the end of every year, I gave the graduating fifth graders bound autograph books with their photo on the cover and pages for friends and teachers. These books, with their attached pens, became more elaborate as I included groups photos and allowed kids to pose with their teachers. Kids who had hardly eaten in the cafeteria would ALWAYS show up for my breakfasts and the autograph books. Another outcome of the Breakfast Club was unexpected: kids who did not ride bus 317 began eating with us.
Did we have any trouble with the group? It was noisy at first but the consistent praise for sitting quietly, our genuine interest in the kids, and the safety of the environment created a huge shift. The days of bedlam were gone after a couple of months. The mandatory hallways postings were eliminated. A new culture emerged. From the start of the year, kids would come happily to breakfast. Sometimes we could see them racing down the sidewalk, but although we did our best to stop that, the kids were racing because they wanted to be at school. The Breakfast Club was a fantastic adventure in Brain-Friendly Land!