Sept 24, 2019—As an educator I have many rituals, practices, and traditions that inform my approach to teaching and learning. One in particular sticks out. When I’m slow to enact it my students are quick to ask me why and to call for its immediate implementation. The ritual and rhythm of snack time is at the center of their concern and interest. The classes I teach run from 4:00-6:20 and many of my students are practicing professionals in education, social work, and allied fields. They often come to class tired, hungry, and frequently distracted by the day’s work. The things they did right, and the things they did wrong. Their mistakes in particular seem to really impact their social-emotional state, even when the mistakes are less frequent or significant than their successes. In short they are often emotionally stressed, physically hungry, and in need of slowing down and centering.
Food is the base layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is both the foundation of all other needs while also holding them captive to fulfilling the need for food first. When hunger dominates, learning, a higher tier in the hierarchy, can rarely be achieved. In basic human psychology and good pedagogy it makes sense to care for the nutritional and emotional needs of students before introducing content and engaged thinking. It is the obvious pedagogical move that is too seldom stated as such. But for me, there is more going, more to this story, more beyond the wisdom of tending to stomach so brain can hear, process, and learn.
When I first started teaching I was often annoyed and bothered when students brought food to class. Even worse when they were eating during a lesson. I was unable to say why food in class felt wrong. I just knew it was. My early attempts to make sense of my concern included: disrespect for me and classmates, a seemingly individualistic act in a space that was communal, and a personal inability to wait to eat until later. All eventually seemed inadequate in capturing my dislike of the behavior. I tried all the usual strategies for managing the behavior such as making announcements, talking to students privately, and ignoring the behavior. None seemed to lessen my personal angst. I began to ask myself what I was missing. What was I not listening to or paying attention to that energized the deep core of the struggle. Why did the importance of food in Maslow’s Hierarchy explain the need to eat but failed to ease my concerns, which I fully named as my problem and in no way could it be construed as student ill intent.
I can no longer say when it happened, what the catalyst was, but I can tell you how I transformed my understanding of food and eating away from a distraction into a practice of community and caring. A ritual everyone looks forward to and willingly partakes in, a part of the instructional space as important as texts, teacher, and student to learning and human flourishing. At some point I made the connection between food and the patterns throughout human history of people coming together in community. Around a meal they would tell stories, mark important moments, share fellowship, and reimagine a life giving relationship between individual drive and communal responsibility. That was it, the reason I disliked eating in class. As currently practiced in my pedagogy it fell short of the importance of food as a builder of deep connection and community. I almost immediately initiated a “snack time” in my teaching during instructional breaks. On a voluntary basis, each week, a different group of students will provide the food. It doesn’t matter what they bring. It doesn’t matter how much they bring. It doesn’t matter if a student forgets their week or another brings extra on a week. It only matters that food is present, it is understood as a ritual of community, and that at the end of break everyone is nourished in body and spirit.
At the start of every quarter I share the food story, my initial dislike of eating in class, and my conversion to fully embracing it. At the end of the narrative I pass out the snack list for students to signup, if they wish, to bring something to share during break. I now understand what I was unable to see earlier in my career. Food is a mechanism to foster fellowship and community. In the simplest of terms it is a deep form of hospitality, to self and others. It is an invitation and ritual to reach beyond the moment, beyond individual needs, past the tendency to treat others as something different than self, and to expand the range of human potential in a learning space.
Hospitality as noted by Christine Pohl in her book: “Making Room” (1999) is a remarkable “mystery” given the deep emotions and connections it fosters for the giver and receiver in what otherwise seems like a mundane and “ordinary activity”. Pohl studies faith communities and the wisdom they can offer regarding hospitality, especially in contexts where the importance of hospitality is lost or downplayed. I find the following touch points helpful in thinking about my practice of hospitality in the classroom. They also provide a compelling rationale for my act of snack time.
- Depending on someone else to provide, even minimally, for your needs builds compassion and empathy for others in need. In a classroom setting this can help support the wider mission of building a caring community where sometimes you have to ask for help with an assignment or reading;
- Through the sharing of a meal one experiences the joy of being welcomed into a group “even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life sustaining network of relations”;
- Hospitality “transcends social and ethnic differences” by creating a space of equals around a shared table where interaction is “face to face, gracious, unassuming, nearly indiscriminate, and always enthusiastic”; and
- To fully benefit from hospitality “requires an openness of heart, a willingness to make one’s life visible to others, and a generosity of time and resources”.
These are lofty goals and a bit of stretch to think that they are all possible in a classroom setting. However, even little shifts in human to human interactions along the lines of hospitality will enable the development of a more life giving and academically enriching classroom. If a little food can achieve this small goal I’m all in. How about you?