The Shame of Lunch Shaming


Consider this scenario: Laughing and talking, a group of students enters the cafeteria and heads for the lunch line. As they fill their trays and step forward in line, one student is singled out. His tray is taken by a cafeteria worker and replaced with a cheese sandwich and a container of milk as he is quite audibly told that his lunch account is not up to date. No longer laughing, the student takes the sandwich to a table and begins eating.

Have you heard of “lunch shaming”? A common practice, it has popped up in news reports repeatedly in recent years as school districts grapple with ways to handle it and parents, outraged, cry out against it. While the premise for the action—parents’ failure to pay for lunch—may seem like a valid reason for withholding students’ lunches, the impact on the students is devastating. That’s why this reprehensible practice needs to stop.

Part of the blame lies with the federal government’s mandate that school districts obtain household applications and then receive payment at either a reduced rate or the full rate from parents who are considered able to pay. Families below the poverty line are not required to pay, enabling children from those families to eat free. The problem is that not every family deemed able to pay actually is able. As a result, when they don’t pay, students are forced to pay the consequences.

And those consequences vary from district to district. Some provide a lesser lunch as in the opening scenario here. Others require students to clean the cafeteria after lunch. Still others demand that students wear wristbands to indicate their debt. A Minnesota high school was said to be prohibiting students from attending their graduation ceremony if they owed lunch money, which was averted when Superintendent Keith Ellison stepped in to prohibit the action. And an elementary school in Pennsylvania sent letters to parents, threatening to place their children in foster care if they failed to pay their lunch debt (a local businessman paid the debt). Ranging from the ridiculous to the outrageous, these consequences punish students for a situation beyond their control.

Yet there are solutions without any negative effect. Rather than shame students, the entire state of New Mexico, for example, provides free lunch for every student as does New York City, which has the largest school district in the country. Likewise, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsome has just signed a bill outlawing lunch shaming in his state and guaranteeing that students will receive the same lunch, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.

Some other districts handle debt online or by phone, ensuring that students are not impacted in any way. What’s more, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a USDA Food and Nutrition Service program, provides free meals for all students in low income districts. Eligible school districts need only apply for the program to receive reimbursement for breakfast and lunch based on students’ families participation in other government programs, not on household applications.

Lunch shaming is itself a shame. Students are innocent bystanders caught in the middle of a difficult situation. They are not responsible for lunch payments, so why punish them when that debt is unpaid? The shame, humiliation and degradation they then experience is real.

Schools that take draconian measures are the ones who should be ashamed—ashamed of making a bad situation exponentially worse for defenseless children. It’s time to care about the whole child and not just the money accrued through them. Stop the lunch shaming and devise a solution that leaves student dignity and self-worth intact.

The Case for Promoting Students


If you reflect on your own third grade experience, you might recall a favorite teacher or subject, a best friend or a nemesis. But you probably don’t recall third grade as a watershed year. Yet, when it comes to reading competency, researchers say it is. In fact, one study indicates that reading below grade level in third grade is likely to result in four times the chance of dropping out of high school. That’s a rather dramatic conclusion.

With that potential outcome in mind, teachers often resort to retaining students. After all, the thinking goes, if a student can’t read on grade level in third grade, how can he or she possibly be successful in fourth grade? That’s why about 15 percent of students are retained in any grade each year, and anywhere from 30-50 percent are retained somewhere in K-12. However, while grade retention sounds quite plausible, the consequences of retention are a mixture of positive and negative, with a greater negative impact than most educators consider.

Obviously, for example, being held over is a serious blow to students’ self-esteem. Evoking feelings of inadequacy, shame and social discomfort, retention at this point in a student’s education—or worse, in a higher grade—causes a good deal of angst and anxiety that last for years to come. If we’re teaching the whole child, which should always be our goal, how can we in good conscience overlook this significant emotional side effect?

The fact that any benefits are short term is another negative factor. In Florida, for instance, keeping students in third grade caused fourth grade reading scores to skyrocket, yet eighth grade scores stagnated. So what was really gained?

Then there’s the racial component, which is reflected in the fact that students of color in urban schools are far more likely to be retained than white students with the same scores in affluent suburbs. Are we creating yet another means of devising gaps that are labeled as “achievement gaps” but are really opportunity gaps—the opportunities offered by money and other resources.

Likewise, boys have a higher retention rate than girls. This raises the issue of schools being structured in ways contrary to boys’ natural inclinations: their tendency to be restless, to speak a bit louder, to be more rambunctious than is usually permitted in a classroom setting where the expectation is that they will be quiet, still and focused for extended periods of time. While this is a topic worth exploring in itself, it can certainly engender a teacher bias against boys that can lead to their being held back more often than girls simply for acting like boys. Are we really comfortable with the prospect of punishing boys for being boys?

Sure, there is anecdotal evidence that some students benefit from being held back a grade, gaining skills and confidence. However, that’s not the story of the vast majority of students. So it’s time we tried alternatives. With an estimated $10,000 spent for each retained child, multiply that by the 15 percent of students retained each year, and that money might be better spent to obtain the services of reading specialists to help students gain the skills they lack. The growth in self-efficacy alone is worth that investment.

The point is that settling for the status quo of grade retention is the lazy way out. Students deserve the opportunity to develop their reading skills—skills that are transferable to every aspect of their lives. The least educators can do is provide every resource for students to develop those skills without exacting blows to their self-worth.

Why Is Diversity Important in School?

When I taught high school students in the early 2000s, I once asked a new teacher how things were going. Her responses remain etched in my mind even now. She said the school was much better than she had been told at the school district’s orientation meeting. Asked what she had been told, she replied, “They told me this was a ‘ghetto black school.’” Wow.

While the school was certainly more diverse than when I first arrived, it was definitely neither black nor “ghetto.” In fact, it was about 75 percent white, with Latino students being the second largest group at about 15 percent. Clearly, the approximately 10 percent of students who were black did not define the racial make-up of the school. Moreover, the socioeconomic level of most students, regardless of race or ethnicity, was solidly middle to upper-middle class. Yet, unbeknownst to me, the school had somehow acquired a pejorative label based on race and class. How does that happen?

Stereotypes, implicit bias and outright racism are how it happens. Studies show that the way one defines “diversity” or “integration” is largely determined by one’s own race, with whites deeming diversity to have been achieved when the non-white population reaches 10 percent. People of color, on the other hand, don’t perceive diversity to have been achieved until that percentage is 30. While neither viewpoint is wrong, the area of disparity is where the negativity grows, where the disparaging labels arise and the discriminatory treatment of students of color is born.

The assumption that black and poor are synonymous, for example, is commonplace—wrong, but commonplace. From that misconception, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this poverty is not merely economic but also includes a poverty of character, intelligence and even integrity. That’s a huge jump, but it’s deftly made simply because “different” is viewed as negative and threatening. That’s why a school that is only 10 percent black, and not largely of a low socioeconomic level, can be deemed to be “ghetto” and “black” without evaluating the validity of the assumptions.

Even now, in 2019, the vast majority of schools in the United States are not diverse. Neither the student population nor the teachers reflect diversity by any definition. Indeed, when there is even a modicum of diversity, it’s at about that 10 percent level. More than that, and white flight frequently ensues, all based on the stereotypes, implicit bias and racism that place a negative connotation on any place—not just a school—that moves toward equal levels of diversity.

Think, for a moment, of the impact all of this has on students of color. Painted with a broad brush, these “ghetto” students are viewed as inferior on every level, and, by extension, not worthy of equity in their education, including the quality of teachers and resources. That’s why a teacher would be warned against working at a “ghetto black school.”

Now consider how seeing all this affects white students. Sensing an undercurrent of negativity attached to their peers of color, and perhaps even hearing outright statements to that effect, they can begin to acquire similar attitudes. Is there any wonder that they would repeat the patterns set before them?

For all these reasons, real diversity, going beyond minimum levels, is essential. And making diversity a priority is only part of it. Equally important is developing a school culture and even a district culture that celebrates cultural pluralism and seeks to learn about and from all the cultures in the school. And, yes, diversity training may be needed on an ongoing basis to redirect biases among the adults.

Teachers, in turn, can foster students’ critical thinking about their own biases and encourage their viewing of differences from culturally relative perspectives that respect each culture’s differences. The overriding goal is to provide real insight and to instill an appreciation for the richness diversity offers. Ultimately, everyone involved then begins to see increased diversity as an asset rather than a disadvantage.

The fact is that everyone gains from diversity, gaining a broader perspective on life in the long term and the potential for new, rich interactions in the short term. These alone make diversity worth any effort.

Data Driven? Let’s Be Student Driven Instead


Data-driven. It’s a favorite buzzword among educators. In fact, boldly declaring your school or district to be data driven is meant to convey the seriousness of your approach to education. For those reading the term as part of a school’s motto, the words are intended as a statement of that school’s commitment to educational excellence. Similarly, sprinkling your conversation with the term among other educators becomes a way of demonstrating your educational savvy. But here’s the thing: data doesn’t tell you about the most important elements of your students.

Data doesn’t tell you how hard a student works, how many hours they spend figuring out challenging material, how much they care about their academic achievement. Likewise, data doesn’t tell you about a student’s caring heart, their commitment to the tasks they undertake, their dependability, their kindness or their integrity. In short, data tell you nothing about who the whole student really is but rather focuses on a small segment of their academic output to the exclusion of everything else. That’s neither a fair nor an accurate assessment, regardless of what the data indicates.

This is not to say that data has no value. Using it to determine students’ academic aptitude, for instance, enables teachers to discover their students’ strengths and weaknesses. That’s a good thing—particularly when the data becomes the basis for planning lessons centered on students’ needs. And that’s the point: Data should be used to help students, not produce bragging rights for a school or district. And certainly not to the detriment of students.

Instead, data can just as easily be used to skewer students, emphasizing their inabilities, highlighting their disqualification for the academic success they so ardently seek. Scores not high enough? Well, then forget about placement in an advanced class or having the opportunity to participate in elite academic programs and teams. Data can be the be-all and end-all of students’ academic lives.

The use of data as a measuring stick can also provoke anxiety in students. When standardized test scores, for example, become the determining factor for students’ educational future, without regard for progress, effort or other measures of aptitude, both the students and the school lose. In such instances, data, wielded as a weapon, bludgeons students, often encouraging them to surrender academically as achievement seems unattainable.

Educational buzzwords, along with the accompanying practices, will come and go. And the focus on data is no exception. However, in the meantime, let’s be student driven. need to Creating classrooms driven by students’ academic needs and interests, educators can renounce being driven solely by the implications of data. Students’ academic lives depend on this. And on us.

Do You Value Who Your Students Are?


When you receive your class list, it’s just a collection of faceless names. Nothing about the individual students shows up on that list. In fact, even if you review their records, which isn’t a true reflection of all that each student is anyway, you still don’t know the people who will be seated before you during the upcoming school year.

Records don’t tell you students’ goals and dreams; they don’t indicate students’ gifts and talents; they say nothing of students’ compassion or kindness. Those are the real elements that help to define students. Instead, each student essentially begins the school year with a blank slate.

However, as the year progresses, those blanks begin to fill in, adding color, depth and dimension to the picture that is each student. Getting to know students individually is what fills in the blanks. Discovering who they are, who they hope to become and what they bring to the table, so to speak, allows teachers to learn the details that make each student distinct from other students just as much as it builds positive relationships between teacher and students. It’s the discovery of those details that I always liked most.

That’s why the concept of “assets-based teaching” appeals to me, despite my dislike for education buzzwords. A popular idea right now, it basically means using what a teacher knows about students’ abilities and talents to reach and teach them.

If an additional language is spoken at home, for instance, learning and using a bit of that language is culturally responsive, validating the students’ culture. I found out that this particularly resonates with students when I learned to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in the languages of all my students who spoke other languages. Then, as I collected test papers or essays, I used the phrases. Students enjoyed teaching them to me as much as I liked learning and using them. It became a bond among us as well as a classroom tradition as the other students began picking up the phrases as well.

Allowing students to be the experts on topics in which they actually have expertise also nods to their abilities and talents. When I relied on the computer-savvy students to repair my computer glitches and encouraged well-traveled students or those who have lived in other countries to speak of their experiences as we discussed that part of the world, it gave students a platform for displaying their knowledge and for having that knowledge affirmed and appreciated.

Likewise, fostering an environment in which students feel free and safe to voice their fact-based opinions and to defend those opinions not only broadened viewpoints and empowered student voice but also nurtured nascent interest and careers in politics and public speaking. Those were students’ natural abilities that flourished in that setting.

So the question is this: Do you value who your students are? The only way to answer positively is to know each of them individually and then to create opportunities for the details that make each student unique and capable to shine. It’s just another way of reaching and teaching the whole child. Everyone benefits from the results.

Why Classroom Management Is Not the Answer


By Denise Fawcett Facey

In virtually every teacher education program, classroom management is a major emphasis. While it encompasses the order and structure for how everything is done in a classroom, the part that everyone seems to focus on is controlling students’ behavior. After all, the thinking goes, if you don’t control your classroom, you can’t teach. However, have you considered what that traditional view of classroom management really means? Here’s the general goal:

  • Straight rows of seated students
  • A quiet room, with students working silently
  • Students completing highly structured, explicitly defined assignments
  • Unquestioning obedience to a list of rules
  • Foregoing group work and partnerships to maintain order

You get the gist. Overall, order is the primary goal, and compliant students are a major objective. But here’s the thing: This focus on regimentation might effectively provide teachers control and compliance, but it also takes the joy, creativity and individuality out of learning. What you have left is a quiet room, which likely reflects both boredom and apathy. That’s not exactly a recipe for active, innovative learning.

On the other hand, perhaps quiet and compliance are precisely what you want. You have a lesson plan to complete, and all this collaboration and creativity often lead to noisy, messy classrooms. And you certainly don’t want that, do you? If this sounds perfect to you, I invite you to consider what learning really means.

Real learning entails noise and, quite often, mess. Both are byproducts of discovery, innovation and just plain engaged learning. In fact, without the first two, you are hard pressed to develop the others.

Moreover, here’s another fact: a compliant child is not a thinking child. Sure, an understanding of each teacher’s parameters as well as the benefits derived from working within them is essential to a productive learning environment. However, creating a highly regimented environment in which every step is predetermined and predictable, leaves students without any room for higher-order thinking — analysis, synthesis, evaluation, creativity. Equally bad, it’s simply not fun. And, yes, fun is a key to learning. It’s what propels lifelong learning.

So what’s the solution? Consider creating a classroom in which students learn to manage their own individual behaviors, working within a common construct. Rather than a long list of rules and regulations, for instance, a basic agreement to respect one another covers virtually all negative behaviors usually seen in class just as an agreement to put forth one’s best effort boosts academics. Together, those two rules incorporated practically any classroom eventuality.

Then, to keep students cognizant of what it means to demonstrate respect for others, social and emotional learning (SEL) makes a difference. The character development that SEL represents is the real replacement for classroom management. And while we’re at it, the tenets of restorative justice — its emphasis on repairing a relationship harmed by one person’s actions toward another, rather than on punishment for that behavior — go a long way towards fostering self-analysis and self-awareness that benefit both behavior and academics.

When you use SEL and restorative justice, you really don’t need to focus on discipline and punishment. Instead, you can focus on learning, which makes learning and teaching so much more productive and enjoyable.

Starting the School Year Right


By Denise Fawcett Facey

Now that the school year has been underway for several weeks everywhere across the country, how’s it going in your classroom? For some, your classrooms may be humming along. Both you and your students are enjoying the learning that occurs in your classroom. Fortunately, you’ve infused it with the right balance of ingredients that work for your students.

However, that’s not everyone’s story. Right about now, the struggle has become real for other teachers. Sometimes it seems that nothing is going right, and, even worse, that it never will. Keeping students on task, getting them actively engaged in learning and maintaining even a semblance of order, all at the same time, can seem like the impossible dream. In fact, it can be quite daunting. But there’s hope!

It all begins with building relationships. Creating an atmosphere of mutual respect, of valued students and of safety — physically and emotionally — is the underpinning for everything else that occurs in your classroom. These elements enable you to begin creating the sense of adventure that real learning encompasses. To get you started, here are a few tips:

  • Greet Students at the Door

    It’s such a simple act but one that makes a big difference to students. Standing at the door and greeting them as they enter sets the tone for what awaits them. This tells students that you’re happy to see them and eager to be with them. In short, your greeting says, “welcome.”

  • Learn Students’ Names

    Names are integral to students’ identities. That’s why learning them quickly and accurately matters so much. Yes, some names are truly complicated. However, asking, “Miss Johnson, would you pronounce your name for me, please?” enables you to learn the name and means so much to the student. It’s your second show of respect for your students. On the other hand, mangling students’ names serves only to publicly humiliate them, just as not addressing your students by name says they aren’t worth the effort. By learning their names and saying them correctly — and often — you reveal your value of their identity and individuality.

  • Make Few Rules

    No one wants to feel that everything they do is wrong. Yet, that’s essentially the atmosphere created when a long list comprises your classroom rules. Let’s cut to the chase: what really matters to you? The answer to that question forms the basis for the rules in your classroom. Respect for everyone else in the class and a willingness to work every day are the essentials. If you need more than that, be sure that it’s only a couple more and that they get to the heart of what really promotes learning and camaraderie in your classroom.

  • Create Continuity

    Having fresh, new learning experiences each day is part of what makes learning exhilarating. Yet there’s something to be said for structure. Students need to know what to expect in your classroom, basic parameters within which activities are carried out each day. Having procedures and an overall order to tasks and learning provides continuity from day to day. It ensures the structure and safety that students crave — even those who seem to rail against it — and allows creativity to thrive.

  • Be Authentic

    While there’s plenty of advice from educators, telling you to be stern from the outset, inflexible about rules and never to smile, forget all of that. Being your authentic self resonates with students. And, yes, they definitely know the difference. Being who you really are, sharing tidbits about yourself in an appropriate manner and being unafraid to be vulnerable, to admit mistakes goes a long way toward building a strong rapport with students along with trust and respect. Of course, all of these are ingredients for an authentic relationship as well.

Teaching is not an easy profession, regardless of how many people seem to think anyone could do it. But a few key understandings can transform the entire experience. The bottom line is that students want to learn and want to enjoy doing it. Creating an atmosphere for both makes all the difference for you and your students.