Mixing it up

“Mixing it up” took on a meaning quite different from the brawling the term brings to mind for many, as Avonworth Middle School students took part in a project sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center to help young people avoid the stereotypes and misconceptions that lead to discrimination, bullying and worse. Pictured above, students Sydney Smith and Isaac George pick lunch table assignments with behavior intervention specialist Melissa Kleiner, the goal being to “mix up” the students’ normal cliques and introduce them to other classmates. Teachers and staff members worked with students at each table, encouraging conversation that could create personal relationships so critical to ending bullying and prejudice. Avonworth was one of 1,000 schools nationwide to “Mix It Up” on Tuesday, Nov. 9. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

In 1967, S. E. Hinton published "The Outsiders," a novel set in Tulsa, OK, where two classes of teens, the poor kids, known as the Greasers, and the Socs, a reference to the socially elite, constantly butt heads.

Drop back to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and you find the Montagues and the Capulets, who eventually became the Sharks and the Jets in "West Side Story."

And today, every school has its jocks and its preps and its Goths, among others.

Nothing wrong with adolescents gravitating to their interest groups. Nothing wrong, that is, unless those groups promote prejudices, discrimination, stereotyping.

In an effort to combat such problems, Avonworth Middle School joined nearly 1,000 schools nationwide in offering eighth graders a "Mix It Up" on Nov. 9, with students drawing numbers that randomly assigned them to lunchtime "mixes" of kids with whom they normally would not sit.

Organized by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an group founded in 1971 and dedicated to fighting hatred in America, the program required little groundwork.

Jason Smith, eighth grade civics teacher, and Melissa Kleiner, behavior intervention counselor, co-taught classes, and then planned the event, intentionally "keeping it light."

"Teachers, counselors, the principal and others were at the tables with the kids," Kleiner said. "We had conversation starters on each table, such as, 'If you could be a cartoon character, which one would you be?' Our overall goal was to start to break down barriers."

Smith said that he hoped the program would motivate students to look beyond their cliques. "They got a chance to meet people they see in the halls but do not often talk to. Hopefully, they found that they share some commonalities."

While the program was conducted with a light touch, the heavier issue of combating bullying was also part of the purpose of "Mix It Up." Kleiner and Smith noted that students are less apt to bully someone if they have built personal relationships.

Even though there was always the chance that the random numbering might group students with no common interests, Kleiner said she was willing to risk some "silent" lunch tables. "It was a good cause and I was willing to give it a try."

But Kleiner soon realized that her concern about silent lunch tables was unfounded. While a few students said they felt "awkward" in the groupings, most gave the experiment a thumbs-up.

"I thought this was going to be a useless experience," said Miranda Cox, "but I found it to be interesting to learn new things about my classmates and teachers."

John Gould called "Mix It Up" "…a great experience. My group was energetic and loved to converse. We talked so much that we ran out of questions that were left for us, so we made up our own."

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