"Walking a Mile in Your Shoes" was the theme guiding a series of Mix It Up Day activities at Woodstown Middle School this year. Activities began two days prior to Mix It Up Day, as students in grades 6-8 participated in classroom-based discussions. Led by the guidance team, these discussions centered on the idiom "You cannot understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes." We highlighted the value of this form of perspective taking as a key to settling conflicts, achieving empathy and working together in a community.
To make the idea real, we paired each student with another student in the school for a "getting to know you" activity; each pair would walk in each other’s shoes during lunch period on Mix It Up Day. While some students initially groaned at the thought, we treated the apprehension as a natural response to stepping outside of one's comfort zone and used discussion to reframe this reaction. For example, we encouraged students to see that the other student might feel equally uncomfortable, and that meeting and conversing with new people is a vital social skill.
The next day, students sought out their partners after lunch and found a quiet place to talk. Each pair began the activity with two paper sneakers and a series of starter questions. The activity was chaotic at first, as 300 students sought their matches, but as students paired off and low chatter began to fill the cafeteria, teachers began to whisper, "They are actually talking to each other!"
It was helpful to recognize that many students aren’t comfortable instantly striking up a dialogue with a new peer, so the conversation questions were instrumental in helping the students quickly transition into meaningful conversations. We suggest these conversation starters, which we titled “What would I know if I really knew you?”
- What is your favorite movie, music and food?
- The hardest thing you've ever done?
- Your biggest dream or number one wish is...
- Who is your closest friend and why?
- How do most people see you?
- What do you love about school, and what is hard about school?
- Show me where you sit at lunch.
After 20 minutes of conversation, we distributed art materials, and students decorated the paper sneakers to represent their partners. Students then returned their sneakers, and a smaller group of students assembled them into a large collage labeled, "Don't judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes." As they left the cafeteria, students had one last task: Show their partners where they usually sit so they could fill each other’s shoes the next day, Mix It Up Day.
We encouraged students to wear mixed-up outfits, such as backward/inside-out clothing and mismatched patterns for Mix It Up Day. Staff assisted students in finding their new locations in the cafeteria, and by the time students were eating, it was clear that the entire student body was thoroughly mixed—and adapting admirably. Again, we placed conversation starters on all the tables to encourage students to interact, and the cafeteria had a subdued-yet-friendly feel.
We were very pleased with how students responded to the lesson and by how instinctively they "got it," from the larger themes of empathy and perspective taking to little acts of kindness.
Going into each classroom two days before Mix It Up Day was critical to the success of the large group activities. We were able to relate why social understanding and compromise are essential to not only their own futures but also to the success of our society. These smaller group discussions appealed to "the better angels of our nature," so the expectation was set high for the upcoming activity.
When finally meeting their partners, students were generally positive, quickly recognized when their partners were uncomfortable, and made extra efforts to be understanding and encouraging. As the activity ended, one student approached us and asked, "Can we do this every week?"
Kim Nelson is the middle school counselor for Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional School District.
Tom McHugh is a school psychologist for Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional School District.