Clicking without cliques

Nationwide project pushes students to reach out to new friends


Manelle El-Negery knows what it's like to feel left out for no other reason than being different.

"I was rejected because of my religion," the 11-year-old said as she sat among five new friends in the cafeteria at East Middle School in Westminster. "Because I'm Muslim, parents said I was a terrorist and told their children not to play with me."

Manelle said that happened two years ago, when she was in the fourth grade, but she has not forgotten how it made her feel to be judged by people who barely knew her.

"It made me feel bad," she said. "I was mad."

Last week, Manelle joined children nationwide - from more than 8,000 schools - who decided to challenge the existence of cliques by participating in activities that forced them out of their comfort zones and into the paths of students they see every day in the halls, but have never taken the time to meet.

Called "Mix It Up," the four-year-old project is sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Study Circles Resource Center, two national nonprofits that sponsor programs to promote tolerance and acceptance.

The program aims to help students "identify, question and break down walls of division" and to "help people really get to know each other and begin to respect different viewpoints," according to the Mix It Up Web site.

This was the first year the program has been held at East Middle, where pupils spent three days participating in activities that helped them expose cliques and start the process of eliminating the social boundaries that might be keeping them from making new friends.

Among the activities, children completed a survey that asked such questions as, "What best describes our school: welcoming to all kinds of people or quick to put people in categories?" and "At our school, how easy is it to make friends with people in different groups: very easy, kind of easy, kind of hard, very hard?"

They also played group games that helped to illustrate the effects of acceptance and rejection. The activities helped them visualize what had become their buzz word - "ostracize" - said Philip D. Popielski, the school's assistant principal, who spearheaded the school's Mix It Up activities.

For one of the games, students were broken into five groups, with each group receiving a different set of instructions:

Group 1 was told it would have to join one of the other groups because there would be room only for four groups.

Group 2 was told not to let anyone join, not to tell anyone its secret handshake or its password.

Group 3 was told it could accept new members, but only after asking a series of questions.

Group 4 had to vote on whether to accept new members; if the voting student's last name started with A-M, he or she had to always vote yes, while N-Z always voted no.

Group 5 was told to accept anyone who wanted to join, and to share the secret handshake and password immediately.

"We want to bring down the walls of social cliques," Popielski said about the school's efforts. "It's about acceptance."

While many pupils said they enjoyed the games - especially the part about making up secret handshakes - and learned the importance of accepting others, they pointed to the lunch activity as the one that best captured a problem they face every day.

In a national Mix It Up survey, 70 percent of students said the cafeteria was the one school setting where social boundaries are most clearly drawn.

On the second day of the Mix It Up event at East Middle, pupils were instructed to eat at tables in the cafeteria that had been designated by birth month.

As they discussed who was born on which day, many quickly discovered that while they didn't know the others at their table, they already had something in common - they were born within days of each other.

"I'm really glad we got this opportunity because I've been looking for new friends and all these girls seem nice," said Amber Waltz, 11, who sat with Manelle and four other girls she didn't know but who shared July birthdays.

During lunch, the assistant principal underscored the school's intentions to have similar activities throughout the year to encourage more such encounters.

"It's hard for young people to do this," Popielski told the children. "It's hard for even adults. Anybody who has ever changed jobs, moved to a new house or changed schools knows how difficult it is to meet new people. But what you'll find is that while you [and other people] may be different, you're also very much alike."

Popielski, who began working at the school in February, later talked about his own recent experience as the new guy on the block.

"I came here from a school [in Anne Arundel County] where everyone knew my name," he said. "I came in February feeling like the new kid. It was awkward."

Manelle, who serves on the school's multicultural committee and helped coordinate the Mix It Up event, said she hopes the activity helps to spark more friendships.

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