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10/31/16

Clarendon Elementary kicks off successful way to teach tolerance

Sitting alone at a table with a big colored dot on it, a shy girl shrugged, looked around the cafeteria filling up with other students, and ate her lunch.

But this was no ordinary lunchtime for Clarendon Elementary—it was “Mix It Up at Lunch” day.

Social divisions at lunchtime

Mix It Up at Lunch Day is a campaign launched by Teaching Tolerance. It encourages students to identify, question and cross social boundaries. The organization surveyed students across the nation and learned that the cafeteria is where divisions are most clearly drawn during the school day—something anyone who has had to sit alone during lunch can understand.

So for just a day, Oct. 25, schools like Clarendon asked students to move out of their cafeteria comfort zones and connect with someone new over lunch.

With a lot of planning, Principal Peter Van Court and Assistant Principal David Kloker created charts and colored circles and gave each student a name tag and circle color. As kids arrived for lunch, they found the tables corresponding to their color and sat down... with kids they didn’t exactly know.

Talking with someone new

Some students were visibly excited to talk to someone new.

Others searched the room for their friends and waved, appearing reluctant to sit down with ‘strangers.’

All were tasked with talking each other up with a list of planned questions (ask the person next to you their name, their favorite color, etc.) and then introduce their new acquaintance to another person at the table.

Then it was on to meatier topics: students were asked to share things such as, would you rather be invisible or able to fly?

Second grader Elizabeth wasn’t sure what to make of the lunchtime mixer at first, but she could be found chatting amiably with her table mates at the end.

“I talked to two kindergartners and found out we all like soccer!”

Principal Van Court says the event was so successful, they might do it more than the suggested once a year.

“We’re a big school, so this kind of activity is important because of our two programs, multiple communities and cultures all here. Mix It Up provides a real opportunity to develop relationships ‘outside the box’ in a safe and informative setting,” says Van Court.

Van Court adds that the school now has “Mix It Up” benches on the schoolyards to provide a follow-up opportunity for students to connect on a daily basis.

Small steps toward a larger goal

According to the organization's website, Tolerance.org, studies show that interactions across group lines can help reduce prejudice. When students interact with those who are different from them, biases and misperceptions can fall away.

Back at the solitary girl’s table, now crowded, she is sitting up and smiling, listening to the chatter around her. Shyness may have been keeping her from taking full part in the day’s activities, but with Mix It Up Day, she had a chance to learn about kids she never met before and feel included.