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Ed. Magazine

Food for Thought

Students and adults tackle an issue over lunch — as equals
Students at Focus lunch

“Authority brings order. Authority brings conflict.” 

That was the discussion prompt at the first Focus Lunch. 

David Blais, Ed.M.’15, came up with the idea: gather groups of teenagers from different backgrounds and set them up to talk during lunch as intellectual equals with adults, some from their own immediate community. The end goal was to grow, learn from each other, and potentially effect change. 

David Blais

David Blais

That first lunch meeting was held at the Ed School in 2015 and was in response to a call for projects that might help address the tragedy and conflict in Ferguson, Missouri. The students involved were from Cambridge Rindge and Latin (one of the most diverse high schools in the area) and had staged a protest walk-out; members of the local police department were the adult guests. 

The idea proved revolutionary, and Focus Lunches, which Blais brought to New York City Public Schools after he graduated, have been increasingly popular every year. Recently, he talked to Ed. about how the lunches run, when students feel seen, and not revealing the names of the guests.

What was your first Focus Lunch like? 
It was pretty magical seeing how the students and adult guests took to it so easily. In an effort to fine-tune the training and lunch rituals before an official launch, I ran a pilot program with 12 students. I gathered a cool and diverse group of adults from HGSE as our mystery guests. I ordered some catering, pushed desks together in a classroom, and topped them with tablecloths and flowers. Those little touches are important. 

The main indicators of success were in the students’ reflections. They shared that they felt heard and the questions they raised during the lunch proved that there was definitely some deeper thinking taking place! 

How exactly do the mechanics of the Focus Lunches work? 
I take students through five 90-minute sessions of training. In session one, we practice creating a safe space and building community; in session two, standing up for your beliefs and learning to agree and disagree; in session three, the power of asking deep questions; in session four, the art of facilitating discussion; and in session five, we have a practice lunch. After we close our final day of training, each student gets a small pin. At the end of each lunch session, the students present a pin to each adult as well. 

I work with the school to select the topic — one that will suit the community well. We look through some of the writings that students have produced during the training for ideas. Then I line up adult guests who might also be willing to grapple with the topic. They are provided with a one-page guide telling them a bit about the process, but the topic won’t be revealed until they attend! After the lunch, the students stick around a bit to help clean up, fill out a brief reflection sheet, and sign a card of thanks to each of the guests. I place a group photo on the front of the cards and get them out in the mail — sealed in wax!  

What lesson do you want people to leave a Focus Lunch with? 
In a best-case scenario — and this often happens — I want students to walk away feeling that they can be seen for their ideas and thoughts. 

What has been your absolute favorite moment from the whole process so far?
I think my favorite moments come when the students surprise the adults and themselves with their wisdom. 

A couple of years ago, HERO High School in the Bronx was looking for a way to better serve a group of boys who were often suspended, were rarely in class, and had brushes with trouble outside of school. The first day I got all the boys in a room and introduced the idea to them. They were skeptical, but I began laying out how the training would go and what the final Focus Lunch might look like. I explained that they would facilitate a discussion with a few adults that they don’t know. I felt a shift in the room the moment I said, “They won’t know anything about you either.” 

When the Focus Lunch arrived, they wowed everyone. The adult guests included a middle school principal, a bank VP, and a musician. After wrapping up, the principal asked me, “Who are these boys, the student council? A leadership group?” He had no idea that they were first selected because they had behavior and attendance issues.

Where do you see Focus Lunches going in the future? 
I have found some like-minded administrators at Manhattan's Food and Finance High School so the immediate next steps for Focus Lunch are to further build the tradition of this program at this school. Last year I trained almost all the 10th-graders to be both facilitators and participants and we had several amazing adult guests from diverse personal and professional backgrounds. By the end of this coming school year, most Food and Finance students will be trained to participate! Going forward, I dream of being able to hire current Focus Lunch students to train future students and help the practice expand to more schools. 

Heather Corn is a writer from Ohio. Her last piece for Ed. was a profile of Clare Murray, Ed.M.’20, and cARTie — her art on the go.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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