How I Changed the Dynamic of my Classroom with this Practice

I taught sixth grade reading in Southwest Philadelphia for five years. 100% of the student body received free and reduced lunch. The food was disgusting and I don’t blame my students for refusing to eat many of the meals. We didn’t have a full kitchen so the option we had to choose for our students was a very basic plan which essentially involved heating up food in the plastic packaging they came in.

It was not uncommon for my students to cry in class because they were hungry or put their head down on their desk and refuse to get up. It’s pretty shocking to see a sixth grader cry (both boys and girls) because they’re so hungry. A first grader maybe because lots of things make them cry, but by sixth grade, you’re so much more aware of social norms. Crying in class is embarrassing. If you can help it, you don’t.

Care for Hungry Students
Whenever possible, I’d give hungry students food from my lunch. I had a mini fridge in my room and often kept cheese sticks and yogurt and gave them out whenever someone didn’t feel good because they were so hungry.

Finally, my fifth year of teaching I decided to try this out and there was an immediate difference in the attitudes of my students. I’m kicking myself for not starting it sooner.

At the beginning of each class, I used a “Do Now.” A Do Now is something students are supposed to do as soon as they walk into the class. It helps with the transition and gets students working right away. In the past, my Do Nows were academic and based on previous learning. I finally decided that something not based on academics was actually way more important and would increase my ability to properly teach my students.

1. Right now I’m feeling __________________ because…
And then I chose one of the following prompts:

2. I need to tell you… This weekend I… This weekend I’m going to…

While my students filled this out, I walked around the room with snacks. I sold granola bars and fruit snacks for a quarter. I bought bulk packs from the grocery outlet with my own money originally and then would use whatever money I “made” to buy more. Working in the city, my students usually had some money on them because they walked to and from school or took public transportation.

When I stopped at their desk to see if they wanted a snack, I read their Do Now answers and would say a quick response to whatever they wrote down. In sixth grade, it was super common for frustrations from one class to carry over to the other. If they had a bad interaction with a previous teacher it was hard for them to shake it off. By having this routine in place, I was able to tell quickly who was having a hard time and may need a few minutes to bounce back. I could send kids to the water fountain who had a headache, run to the bathroom for a stomachache, back to “Alaska” (a place to chill) who were angry, or console someone who was upset. All of this was done within the first five minutes of class. It was great for rapport building because there was also celebrating, high fiving and just generally learning about my students.

Was it academically rigorous? Nope. But it was really important. It took hardly any time out of instruction and ultimately ended up saving teaching time because problems were solved proactively.

Every day I saw students share their quarters to make sure their classmates weren’t hungry. I loved watching my kids happily snack on their granola bars as class began because I knew they felt cared about. It was honestly one of the best things I ever did as a teacher.

I know many schools have rules about teachers distributing food but from my experience, the district I worked in didn’t have the position to do that. It feels like a very suburban stance to regulate the food coming into the school. We just wanted our kids to have food in their bellies. There are SO many issues facing students in urban environments that food as motivation was often necessary. We competed for pizza parties and celebrated the PSSAs with an ice cream party. My school was much more relaxed with food so I knew doing this wouldn’t be an issue. You have to know your school and maybe have a conversation with your principal to see if this would work for your school community.

At the end of the year, I used all of the money I “made” by selling granola bars to buy water ice for the entire sixth grade.

Teachers, if you’re allowed to do this, I can’t recommend this enough! It’s next to impossible to reach a hungry kid and this is such an easy way to meet their needs. Please share this post with teachers you think may be able to try this!

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