Pupils mix it up, widen their experiences

Elkridge Landing Middle wants children to move outside their social circles

November 19, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The soundtrack from High School Musical blared in the Elkridge Landing Middle School cafeteria as pupils took their seating assignments.

They would be sitting today with kids they barely knew, instead of with their friends, as their school took part in national Mix It Up At Lunch Day, sponsored by Tolerance.org, a Web site that promotes diversity.

Across the country, about 10,000 schools participated this year by asking students to switch seats and get to know kids outside their social circles. This is the second year that Elkridge Landing has participated, said Tina Flynn, school counselor.

Flynn said she learned of Mix It Up At Lunch Day, which was started five years ago, from art teacher Patti Battaglia, who read about it in Teaching Tolerance magazine, published by Tolerance.org. The students receive lessons in tolerance before lunch and, after lunch, talk about breaking down cliques.

At Elkridge Landing, pupils were given index cards with their seating assignments. Each group of five pupils had a leader in charge of filling out a worksheet with information about each member of the group. Pupils were asked if they were born in a foreign country, had siblings or were left-handed, among other things.

Last year, eighth-grader Courtney Reich, 13, met her best friend, Lauren Conrad, at Mix It Up At Lunch Day. "I started talking to her ... and we became really close," said Courtney. "I think it's good because you make new friends."

Sana Manejwala, 13, likes the idea, too.

"Basically, it's so we can talk to people we don't normally talk to," she said, looking around to see where her friends had been assigned.

But some pupils, especially the eighth-graders, viewed the lunch-time switch as something to tolerate more than embrace. "I'm away from my friends," said Aaron Chiu, 12. "There's nothing to really talk about."

Tyrel Tolliver, 13, said he could put up with it for one day - but he didn't expect to make new friends.

Principal Tom Saunders said some pupils complain, but "once they are in it, they like it." The goal, he said, is to introduce kids to each other, not necessarily to create deep friendships. "Once you know somebody, it's harder to be unkind to them," he said.

Amy Fantz, a sixth-grade special-education teacher, said younger pupils are more open to the event than older ones.

"The sixth grade, probably, gets the most enthusiastic about it," she said. "They're coming from multiple schools, so they're all sort of new to each other anyway. Sixth-graders, in general, just buy into everything a lot more."

Sixth-graders at Elkridge Landing came from three elementary schools: Rockburn, Elkridge and Bellows Spring. Most are eager to meet new classmates, and that impulse is nurtured during the annual Outdoor Education trip in October, in which children get to know each other over two days at Camp Ramblewood in Darlington.

On Mix It Up day, sixth-graders Meghan Patton and Brianna Sterner were at one table filling out their questionnaires. Both came from Rockburn Elementary and were working to keep their old friendships while meeting new people in middle school. Both thought Mix It Up made sense.

"I think it's better to break out of groups," Meghan said.

Brianna agreed. "I think it's a good way to meet new friends and talk to other people," she said.

At another table, Jake Spalding, Emily McCready, Sulma Menjivar, Molly Hart and Jihyo Choi were also filling out forms.

"I think it's a good idea because I get to meet new people," said Sulma.

The event got a generally good review from eighth-grader Alex Stencil.

"I guess it's OK," he said. "If you have good kids at your table, it's OK."

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