The Power of Boys Lunches in Middle School

Fall 2013

By Will Piper

Let me set the scene . . . in a small conference room close to our lunch room, a group of eight to 10 Middle School-aged boys enter, often clamoring about their day and chatting with one another about their classes or extracurricular activities.  Each boy serves himself lunch from the cart that was prepared by our kitchen staff and sits around a table. Once everyone is served, I ask a simple question, “So, how’s it going?” After we exchange pleasantries, we launch into discussion topics that the students have helped to develop beforehand.

Welcome to Boys’ Lunch, a program that was started in the Middle School at University School of Milwaukee six years ago.  The original goal of this program was to teach boys about anti-bullying strategies.  What has developed, however, is far beyond what I could have ever expected as an educator.  Students, teachers, and counselors have helped create a developmental guidance program for Middle School boys and carried out by Middle School boys, who are using this avenue to discuss, work with, and learn from one another along the way.  Because of the success of the Boys’ Lunch program, we quickly developed a Girls’ Lunch program, too.
 
What follows are key details about the Boys’ Lunch program: how we started it, how we structure the lunches, how the lunches help build a positive community for our male students, and the next steps we plan to implement to strengthen the program and connect it to our Lower and Upper Schools.
 
Just as adults often find sharing a meal to be a great way to discuss topics of interest, students — especially boys in Middle School — find the Boys’ Lunch group to be a an ideal place to break bread, break down boundaries between fellow students faculty, learn about each others’ similarities and unique differences, and eventually create a more empathetic community.
 

The impetus of the boys’ lunch program

Six years ago, as a rookie Dean of Students for fifth- and sixth-graders in our Middle School, I confronted a rash of behavioral issues with boys.  Put-downs, rude and crude behaviors, and bullying were taking place between groups of boys in the locker rooms, during athletic practices, and during other less-structured times.   During a period in early September, I received numerous parent complaints and teacher referrals about these issues. After examining these reports with our school counselor, Paul Salerno, we discovered a systemic issue.  We were disappointed to learn that too many of our Middle School boys suffered from poor emotional health and wellness. To address this problem, Paul and I suggested to our division head, Pamela Nosbusch, that we try having lunch with small groups of boys to talk about issues they were concerned about and offer strategies to cope.  With Pamela’s support, we launched Boys’ Lunches, first for fifth- and sixth- graders, as a way to address the root challenges causing the students to misbehave.
 

The structure of boys’ lunches

Paul and I thought it would be best to touch base with the boys four times a year—once each quarter.  In order to make this beneficial, we needed to be sure the lunches were based on what students wanted to discuss.  Before each session we gave students the opportunity to submit topics for discussion.  They had the option of anonymity or putting their names on their papers.  At the end of each lunch, we offered students a feedback form asking them to evaluate how the session went, what they learned, and what strategies they could use to help navigate their social landscape. 
 
We took the feedback to heart and used it to shape subsequent sessions.  We were amazed at how positive the boys were about the lunches.  Often the only suggestion we got was that students wanted to meet more frequently.  Based on the initial student feedback, we realized that this program was helpful to students and should be expanded, if possible.
 

Flexible format is key

As the years have passed, the Boys’ Lunches have expanded to all four grade levels in Middle School (fifth through eighth), meeting with the small groups of boys four times a year.  We also offer Girls’ Lunches led by our Middle School counselor, Laina Uttech, four times each year.  We have experimented with different formats, including having students’ advisors take part in the lunch groups.  Sometimes we schedule sessions closer together if boys in a particular grade level face immediate challenges. Each year, we are able to craft the program by listening to the students and talking about what matters to them.
 
Depending on the nature of the students and their needs, the structure might differ from year to year.  Last year, I led all of the boys’ groups in fifth and sixth grades, while my fellow Dean of Students, Brian Markwald, led the seventh-grade lunches.  The eighth-grade Boys’ Lunches were led by students’ advisors and members of the eighth-grade team.
Moreover, as a result of trends we’ve noticed in student feedback through the years, we have created thematic strands for the lunches each year and woven these themes into our advising curriculum.  The overarching theme of all of the Boys’ Lunches is: “Becoming a Person of Character.”  In fifth grade, our lunches revolve around the theme of “Growing Into Middle School.”  Sixth-graders have the theme of “Changes: Myself and Others.”  In seventh grade, the focus is on “Respecting Boundaries,” and in eighth grade we discuss, “Moving on to Upper School.”   

 

While the topics of lunches vary based on what students wish to talk about, during the past six years some popular topics, regardless of grade level, have been:
• Time management strategies;
• Strategies for completing homework thoroughly and efficiently;
• Organizational hints and tips;
• Healthy habits, including the importance of rest and sleep;
• Girls: why are they different, and why do they care so much about who we “like”;
• Digital citizenship: building a positive digital footprint, and dealing with aggressive behaviors online from other boys and girls;
• Competition;
• Changing relationships at home as Middle School boys grow (how relationships may change with parents and sibling); and
• Transitioning to the next grade level and its challenges

 

Breaking down boundaries between students and faculty

The open nature of the Boys’ Lunches allows for students and teachers to engage in a different way and learn together.  By having the boys submit topics they want to discuss, we find that students and teachers have similar worries and concerns, and by actively listening to the boys’ and offering workable solutions when asked, we are working together to build positive relationships. 
 
Teachers can present themselves differently in these lunches than in the classroom, serving more as facilitators and listeners.  Just as we are moving away from the notion of educational professionals as “sages on the stages,” facilitating the lunches is about letting the children drive the discussion.  I often ask the boys questions, and then sit back and listen.  I also try to tailor the discussions around the boys’ individual needs. In this way, the lunches are a great way for me as a dean of students to personally connect with every boy in the fifth and sixth grades.  To this end, one of my more outgoing sixth-grade students recently reflected on Boys’ Lunches saying, “It’s awesome that we can talk to you not like a ‘teacher-person,’ but like someone older who’s been a sixth- grade boy before.  It makes it fun and helps.”
 

In addition, students tend to be open about what is going on in their lives during these sessions.  For instance, over the past couple of years in the spring, many sixth-grade boys have been dealing with social media accompanying an onslaught of girls asking them “who they like” on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, group texts, Snapchat, and other apps that seem to pop up at a moment’s notice.  This topic in a classroom setting could come across as awkward to bring up, let alone discuss.  However, in the small lunch model, after a few nervous giggles, we can tackle it. 

Breaking down misconceptions among boys

While many people believe that that boys don’t want to talk about their feelings, they certainly do have a lot to say about their lives in middle school when the right topics come up.  Above all, the most common challenge boys face between fifth and eighth grade is competition.  The issues range from competition in classes about who has the highest grades or can do the best project, to who has the latest and greatest mobile device, to who is “more beast” at a certain video game, even to who can eat the most tacos at lunch!  Boys often realize that even though their individual interests may vary widely, competition is a struggle that affects all of them. A seventh-grader who is interested in drama productions but not sports noted this commonality as he reflected on the Boys’ Lunch program: “I’m glad that we don’t just talk about sports.  Sports aren’t really my thing.  Competition is something we all deal with — whether it’s in drama class or in game club.  Everyone wants to be the best at what they like.”
 
The lunches allow students to share outside-of-school interests that they wouldn’t normally bring up or have the chance to discuss in a traditional classroom or even a large-group lunch setting.  For example, during a session on time management, I asked the boys to list activities they participated in outside of school.  A quieter seventh-grade boy mentioned that he liked to ride horses.  I had known this boy for two years, and had never known this about him.  Immediately, several other boys asked him questions about his interest and riding.  In the days that followed, this boy shared pictures of the dude ranch where he goes in the summer, and several boys chatted with him about his hobby in the hallways.   By sharing something distinctive about himself, this seventh-grader was able to build stronger connections with peers.  Giving boys a forum to share their uniqueness is beneficial and helps build community.
 

Building a more empathetic community

Overall, in the past six years, the Boys’ Lunch program has made strides in encouraging empathy in Middle School through our discussions together.  By discussing differences, hearing that often many boys have similar challenges at the same times in their lives, and crafting solutions to problems together, students leave the lunches feeling empowered.  Ultimately, our goal with the lunches is to build a culture of empathetic boys who are accepting of others.  Boys are encouraged to stick up for one another when they see something going on that is not right, and hopefully realize that they are not alone in their journey through puberty and adolescence. 
 
From a student discipline perspective, since beginning the Boys’ Lunch program six years ago, we have had fewer disciplinary issues with boys involving put-downs, rude and crude behaviors, and bullying.  Often when a discipline concern arises, we reference the lunches and talk about whether or not the boys in question handled themselves the way they should have.

 

Next steps:

In this school year, we continue to look for ways to improve the Boys’ Lunch program.  One way is by expanding the program into Lower and Upper Schools.  I had Boys’ Lunches with the fourth-graders last year about transitioning to Middle School, and it eased their worries.  Likewise, we’ve had conversations with the Upper School dean of students about having a special Boys’ and Girls’ Lunch with eighth-graders to address student concerns about entering Upper School.

Devoting the time to reach out, listen, and connect with boys while allowing them to do the same with one another has helped boost student morale in the Middle School at University School of Milwaukee.  What I’ve learned from hosting Boys’ Lunches for the past six years is that boys not only want to be listened to, but they want to be heard as well.  While boys and girls process information very differently, it is our duty as educators to continue to find meaningful ways for boys and girls to reflect and discuss their challenges as they grow through Middle School.  We all can learn from one another by sitting down and breaking bread with our students in a program like Boys’ Lunch.
Will Piper

Will Piper (wpiper@usmk12.org) is a fifth-grade Middle School social studies teacher at University School of Milwaukee who teaches a class on world cultures and geography.