June 27, 2013 at 8:22 AM ET
The quiet din of polite conversation echoes through the room. One of the ladies rises from the table and places her napkin on the back of her chair, while the gentlemen stand at her departure. As Shannon Tilby circulates around the room, someone grabs her attention and whispers a question: What is the proper etiquette when eating a banana?
“In a fine dining restaurant they will not serve you a banana,” explained Tilby, a fifth grade teacher, who laughed as she informed the diners -- her students -- to simply peel their bananas. (She didn't expect they’d have bananas to peel.)
Tilby wasn’t surveying the scene at a fine dining restaurant — her students were practicing their newly honed manners during a fine-dining experiment in her classroom at Falcon Ridge Elementary in West Jordan, Utah. While Tilby and a group of parents had transformed her room into a restaurant, they had not anticipated banana peels.
Tilby had conceived of this dining experience after noticing a general decline in etiquette.
“I thought, in general, kids, not just mine, were deteriorating in their manners,” she explains.
To counter this, she re-emphasized manners in class and believed her students might retain more by practicing in a restaurant. But she faced a problem — Tilby didn’t have the funds to take her 22 students to an upscale restaurant.
So she decided to create a restaurant in the school.
Tilby asked parents if they could help make her classroom look like a restaurant and work as servers. Seven agreed and one parent even connected her to a local company, Diamond Rental, which donated table linens, plants, silverware, candles, and drapes.
One mother sewed aprons for the servers to wear with their black pants and white shirts and Tilby coordinated the event with the cafeteria so the lunch would occur on a turkey dinner day.
With the logistics in order, Tilby started integrating manners into her class. She taught her students the basics — what fork to use for which course, where to place their napkins, and how to place their silverware on their plates.
She also related dining to her academic lessons. She explained tipping, meaning the children learned about percentages and rounding in math. In English class, she highlighted adjectives and the students practiced by describing the menu.
They even used design software to make a logo for the restaurant. As the event neared, the students began earning money by completing homework and learned how to budget. She hoped they would understand that people go out to eat when they have the money.
“[We talked about] all the things you take for granted when you go out as an adult. So [they felt] more prepared,” she explains.
Britta Stott, a mom who served as a waitress, says her son, Dayton Packer, was so excited about the dinner that leading up to it he corrected his family members’ dining etiquette (he nagged his brother repeatedly to put his napkin in his lap). She enjoyed seeing the students dressed in suits and dresses, enjoying a meal.
“The kids were very reverent and polite and had this quiet energy. [They] were super excited to see their classroom that did not look like a classroom,” Stott says.
“It was interesting to see them all on their best behavior.”
Tilby — who also asks a businesswoman to conduct mock interviews with her students so they understand how to apply for jobs — says she wants her children to have every opportunity to succeed as adults.
“I want them to have an edge; I just think those skills [are important]," she says.