What If?

The editor of Teaching Tolerance explores the ins and outs of social boundaries at school.

Last fall, we conducted a survey asking students and teachers around the country to take a hard look at the social boundaries in their schools. Early responses reveal some interesting patterns:
  • Of the first 1,000 students, 53 percent described their schools as "quick to put people in categories";
  • 56 percent of the first 1,000 teachers rated their schools as "welcoming to all kinds of people";
  • According to the students, the top three factors that create group boundaries at school are style (60 percent), athletic achievement (53 percent) and appearance (52 percent); the students cited race and ethnicity at 25 percent and 18 percent, respectively;
  • From the teachers’ perspective, academic achievement ranks as the top influence on boundaries among students (64 percent), followed by athletic achievement (59 percent); the teachers rated ethnicity at 50 percent and race at 42 percent;
  • When asked about crossing boundaries, students rated those of appearance (17 percent) and style (16 percent) as the most difficult to get over;
  • On the same question, teachers cited race (20 percent) and income (19 percent) as the biggest social hurdles for students;
  • Regarding boundaries among their colleagues, teachers and staff pointed to beliefs as the strongest factor (52 percent), as well as the toughest boundary to cross (24 percent).
  • The two groups agreed on one count: Students (68 percent) and teachers (77 percent) named the cafeteria as the school setting where social boundaries are most clearly drawn.

We all need our comfort zones. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of the school day, lunch is the only time we have to choose the people we’re with, to regroup and let down the guard that classroom pressures often require of us.

But we couldn’t help wondering, What if…?

As the kickoff to a new youth activism initiative called Mix It Up, we invited students across the U.S. to suspend their cafeteria boundaries for one day, take a new seat and see what happens.

An estimated 200,000 students at more than 3,000 schools participated in the first annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day on November 21st. Here’s what one of them had to say:

I was a little concerned about being the only girl at a table of guys, because I'm typically a very shy person, but everything worked out fine. …

The best part, though, was afterwards. When everyone was dismissed, most people were smiling, and still talking to those they'd sat with.

It felt like, for that brief 25 minutes, we were all new kids, meeting each other for the first time with no preconceptions.

That made it all worthwhile.

Throughout the spring semester, Teaching Tolerance and, in partnership with the Study Circles Resource Center, will be helping students and teachers move beyond this first step to explore deeper dimensions of social boundaries and fitting in. For full coverage, or to get your school involved, visit Mix It Up.

Share Your Story

Did your school participate in Mix It Up at Lunch Day 2002? Tell us about it!