“How would it be if there were no rules?,” one female student asked at the lunch table.
A male student cautiously responded with, “crazy;” and another yelled, “awesome!”
For “Mix It Up” at Lunch Day two weeks ago on October 28, the rules changed at Environmental Sciences Magnet School (ESM) at Mary Hooker in Hartford’s “Behind the Rocks” neighborhood. Rather than sitting with the usual group during lunchtime, students were asked to try sitting with students they don’t usually interact with each day, or maybe ever.
In the past, a number of city and suburban schools around Connecticut have also participated in the event. This year, “Mix It Up” Day was supported locally by the Sheff Movement, a coalition for quality integrated education for all kids. In collaboration with the Sheff Movement, a handful of other interdistrict magnet schools also participated in the “Mix It Up” Day in the Hartford area.
As part of their mission to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation, these magnet schools are thinking about how their students interact with each other. While the goals of desegregation are defined numerically for magnet schools, these activities are addressing the more qualitative aspects of diverse schools.
Are kids interacting across racial, ethnic, and economic lines? Do racial, ethnic, economic, and gender groups have equal status in these schools? Does the school’s academic program support and include students in equitable ways?
So at the invitation of the school administration, I visited Mary Hooker for two lunch waves and saw “Mix It Up” Day happening in person. The idea to hold a “Mix It Up” day has been a longstanding effort of the Teaching Tolerance Project (Southern Poverty Law Center).
I observed two lunch groups (grades 3-4 & 5-6) participating in “Mix It Up” Day. Students entered the lunch room with Pharrell’s song “Happy” playing on the speaker system, then staff asked the students to sit at tables by birthday month, rather than the usual crew. The different colored balloons at each table corresponded to different months in the year. (See photo below) Some kids weren’t too bothered. Others were a bit annoyed.
Once they were at the tables, students had a handful of questions in a bucket that they could choose and ask of each other. These were icebreaker questions to get to know each other. Some were funny, others more serious.
Questions ranged widely and included, “If you could be an animal, which would you be?” Two boys answered “dog” and another said a mythical creature that I’ve never heard.
Another question was, “What is your favorite sports team?
One sixth grade boy replied, “Dallas Cowboys.”
I replied, “I’m sorry, man.”
Not exactly answering the question, another boy said, “I like sports.”
The last student at the table said, “I don’t like sports.”
Moving around the lunch room, I asked a few students, “Do you know the other students here at this table?” They mostly responded, “no.”
But some kids managed to sit next to friends, as I learned from other kids at the table that told on them. According to a few boys at a table, two girls that were best friends managed to sit next to each other at their table. (The girls denied they were best friends though.)
Judging by the awkward looks and the kids randomly seated by race, ethnicity, and gender, these seating arrangements were legitimately new. The most interesting response to whether they knew the randomly assigned students at their table was, “I know who they were, but never talked to them.”
The issue is straightforward: kids form cliques and groups in school and these groups often overlap with racial, ethnic, class, and/or gender affiliation. Students, educators, and parents have noted this phenomenon and many have wondered whether it represents exclusion or positive group affiliation. In 1997, Beverly Daniel Tatum, who is the current President of Spelman College, questioned in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?
In many ways, I don’t know that we’re any closer to confronting the issue even if we’re willing to ask Tatum’s question. Some places don’t even see this as a problem, and maybe it isn’t for some.
Interestingly, researchers from Stanford University recently reported findings from their study showing that the way adults structure school impacts how student cliques form. Schools are taking notice. In response, a number of local schools, like ESM School at Mary Hooker, are building positive climate that is inclusive of all kids.
How do the schools you attend or work in confront racial, ethnic, gender and economic inclusion in and outside the classroom? Are these issues even addressed at all?
Share your thoughts in the comments!