Respects Differences: Vignette #1

 Vignette #1

In her ongoing attempts to help students demonstrate respect for and affirm their own and others’ differences, a high school art teacher helps launch a “Mix It Up” day at her large, urban school. A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program, the annual “Mix It Up Lunch” day is one of many programs aimed at reducing prejudice and improving intergroup relations both in and outside of the classroom.

Frustrated by the tension and growing disrespect for differences that she witnesses among students in both her art classes and in the lunchroom, Courtney Ward decides that a school wide call to action is necessary. Although Courtney works hard in her classroom to create an environment of equity and respect for her diverse students, she is eager to find more ways to help them acknowledge, celebrate, and respect the differences among them. While she realizes that “cliques” and social groups are inevitable, Courtney hopes to get the students and adults in her community to really see each other. When she hears about a National Mix it Up Lunch Day program while attending a conference on equity in education, Courtney jumps at the opportunity to introduce the event to her high school. In a safe, fun, constructive and supportive way, the event creates a chance for students (and staff) to sit with different people at lunch and make connections across the differences that tend to divide people. She turns to the project’s founder, The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program, for support materials and guidance. Eleven years into this annual day of breaking down barriers, Teaching Tolerance has identified much that goes into making the day a success. After reading “Building Your Mix It Up Team,” and successfully pitching the idea to her principal and guidance team, Courtney invites a tenth grade history teacher, a twelfth grade math teacher, the long-time adored football coach, and a favorite cafeteria cashier to join her for lunch in her classroom. Tapping them for their known rapport with the student body (and making this clear to them in her introductory e-mail), Courtney is delighted when this unusual mix meets and agrees to help launch the day. Their own “mix it up” moment proves a powerful connection and serves as a good model/introduction to the school wide event ahead.

The group decides to cast a wider net and reaches out to various students, parents, and community groups that intersect with the school. With a team of twenty plus organizers and the supporting materials from Teaching Tolerance, the wheels are set in motion. This “mixed up” planning group starts by spreading the message throughout the school by word of mouth, art work, literature, and social media. With an air of mystery, “Are you ready to Mix It Up?” signs appear throughout the community. With a buzz generated and key players at the helm, the community begins to rally. Teachers are encouraged to tap into lessons and activities for the classroom, and student groups and teams work to publicize the event. With posters on the wall reading “Converse and be Diverse!” and “I note the obvious differences/between each sort and type, but we are more alike my friends, /than we are unalike,” (an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Human Family”), a meaningful tone is set. Most importantly, the planning committee makes certain to create a festive and fun atmosphere around the day. They decorate with balloons, move the tables around in the cafeteria, and debate over the various ways to mix up the students: assign tables based on birthday month? The first letter of students’ names? Random hand stamps? Driven by the student leaders, they ultimately decide to hand out lollipops at the entrance of the cafeteria and students settle into tables accordingly. With ideas from the Teaching Tolerance resources, student planners place jelly jars with icebreaker conversation starters at each table. While breaking out of comfort zones is not easy for many of the students, the majority participate willingly. Awkward beginnings make way for new connections and the cafeteria is humming with conversation.  When students, teachers, and staff debrief after the event (a crucial part of the day), it becomes clear that the day was a success. The students respond positively and are eager for future mix it up events. Knowing that over 1.5 million other students across the US are simultaneously taking part in the day (according to Teaching Tolerance), the students in Courtney’s school share that it feels good to be part of a larger event.

Aware that the research conducted on Mix it Up Day shows that schools “experience deeper impacts when they plan at least two follow-up activities during the year to sustain the message,” Courtney taps into the planning team during their debrief meeting. Students suggest having other mix it up lunches, a day of mix-it up service, and some mix it up after school activities. With high post event energy, Courtney is eager to see how some new community awareness and experience will impact how students come to affirm their own differences and those of others in their school collective.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

  • This “Frequently Asked Questions” page about Mix It Up Day provides basic starting information about the day – from what it is to how to get supporting materials. The page links to a series of other Teaching Tolerance Mix it Up articles that provide helpful evidence from “Mix Model Schools” and share ideas/activities about how to get started and successfully execute such an event.
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