What happens when you take one part students, one part faculty and staff, one part yummy food and one part Teaching Tolerance? You get Mix It Up at Lunch Day at Hartford, Connecticut’s Watkinson School. So, what’s the special sauce?
It turns out that special sauce is student leadership development. An annual tradition at Watkinson, the school first participated in Mix It Up at Lunch Day in 2004, two years after the Teaching Tolerance initiative began. And the involvement of trained student leaders has been integral to its growth.
Mix It Up At Lunch Day is not a “stand-alone” program at Watkinson. Rather, it is a collaboration with the Help Increase the Peace Project (HIPP), which Watkinson middle schoolers have participated in since 2000. A program of the American Friends Service Committee, HIPP is designed “to address issues of interpersonal violence, prejudice, and injustice with participants of all ages, with a focus on middle-and high-school age youth,” its website states. Middle school students at Watkinson are selected to become HIPP facilitators in the sixth and seventh grades, and returning seventh- and eighth-grade HIPP facilitators serve as leaders for Mix It Up. The students undergo a thorough, yearlong training to become HIPP facilitators. Mix It Up gives the students an opportunity to apply their training in a new way.
The leadership of HIPP student facilitators in Mix It Up establishes a strong and positive tone in the middle school. These student leaders also lead icebreaker activities at new-student orientations, work with their peers in advisory to have difficult conversations and select the annual theme for the middle school bulletin boards. For the 2016-17 school year, the HIPP students chose the following theme: “How do we create a culture of inclusion?”
HIPP student facilitators decide on the role they want to play in Mix It Up. They pretty much do it all, from coordinating with the middle school art teacher to create a bulletin board template to choosing the colors of napkins and tablecloths. With scaffolding provided by faculty advisors, these student leaders choose appropriate quotes and team-building activities from the HIPP student manual, and they offer input regarding the grouping of students for each lunch table.
On the day of the actual Mix It Up event, the HIPP student facilitators, working in pairs, lead their table groups through the activities they helped to plan. Although there is one middle school faculty member at each lunch table, the HIPP facilitators are in charge. The middle school teachers have learned to step back and let the student facilitators lead. This, in turn, has contributed greatly to a culture of trust and growth for both HIPP student facilitators and teachers alike.
HIPP teaches the students listening skills and how to help others. When students encounter a dilemma, they are asked, “How do you listen? How do you ask adults for help?” This process promotes empathy because the students learn to focus on what they are hearing and feeling. It also allows teachers to collaborate with students to reach a solution.
Dr. Diane Weinholtz, director of the middle school at Watkinson, has overseen Mix It Up at Lunch Day and HIPP since their inception there. During that time, she has witnessed a direct impact on the culture of the middle school, which is a culture of kindness. There are fewer negative interactions and more supportive and helpful behaviors among students. “We don’t have to talk about bullying because we talk about the positive aspects of relationships,” Weinholtz says. “We ask the students what are they doing to show kindness, so the ways of being in a community are already in their minds.”
Webb teaches Spanish to middle and high school students at Watkinson School in Hartford, Connecticut.
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