Waiting for the potluck

What We Learn at a Potluck Lunch

When I was planning spirit week with the middle schoolers, I divided them up into pairs and told each pair to brainstorm about a theme, constumes and activities for spirit week. Half of the teams proposed potluck for the activity on their day!

Before Covid-19, potlucks were a more regular occurrence in our school community. We had them on a half day before most major breaks. When we went into Covid restrictions three years ago, we had to suspend potluck lunches, and the tradition has been tenuously re-starting. But our middle schoolers remembered them and have been consistently asking for them at most special occasions since. Why? These children come to school every day with a nutritious and ample lunch and snack customized to their food preferences. It’s not for the food — or at least not entirely for the food.

My answer to that question is that a potluck meal is one of the most essential, elemental expressions of community that we can have. From the time of the earliest humans, eating together has been a way to bond, share, connect, and nurture each other as a group. Freely sharing food, the very thing that keeps us alive and going, is a way of expressing, without words, that we value each other, sustain each other and want each other to thrive. When food is shared, we feel accepted and supported, regardless of any petty disagreements or difficulties.

This year, each classroom made a dish to contribute to the potluck as well. These ranged from simple (the k-1 students making applesauce in a slow cooker) to very complex (the middle schoolers planning and staging a taco bar). But these tasks were undertaken with joy and pride by our kids. And in that, there was another important benefit of community. There is ample research showing that children find full membership in community by learning how to be meaningful contributors to it, and that community membership is a strong incentive for learning and developing competency. A flexible and nurturing community makes space for this participaiton, as we did by putting the Telescopes’ macaroni and cheese on the table with all of the other dishes. In doing so we let the kids own the potluck.

Potluck lunch is a lot of work. Families have to make and share a dish, and setting up and cleaning up is a lot as well, especially after the kids dance off to the gym for recess! I am thankful for the volunteers who helped with this.

On Friday afternoon, I met with student government again. I had each pair of representatives talk to their classrooms about what was good about spirit week and what could be improved. The clearest signal from all classrooms? We loved the potluck!

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Karen Carney

is the head of school. Karen’s career demonstrates a rich and diverse set of skills: project oversight, curriculum development, educator training and mentoring, and classroom instruction. Prior to coming to Chicago Friends School, she worked as a senior specialist in science curriculum for American Institutes for Research. Before this, she oversaw educational programming at the Adler Planetarium, first as its director of education and then as associate vice president for visitor experience and learning. She has also worked in instruction and teacher development at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Learning Sciences Research Institute and has authored more than 20 scholarly papers, book chapters, and conference presentations.

Karen is an active, dedicated Friend (Quaker) and has held various leadership positions at the Evanston Friends Meeting. She enjoys baking, cooking, and painting and is a member of the Playmation improv comedy team.