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Exclusiveness in Middle School: “Shake It Off”

By Jackie Douglass & Steve Bennett
Exclusiveness in Middle School: “Shake It Off”

Not surprisingly, the social groups in our Middle School (MS) can tend to be “clique-ish.” At the American School in Japan (ASIJ), we address the issues of inclusiveness, exclusiveness, and relational aggression through our Social Emotional Learning program. However, “You can’t sit here,” was a phrase often heard in the cafeteria, and other examples of exclusiveness were also observed.
Searching for a way to address this issue in a direct manner, we discovered the Teach Tolerance website and its “Mix it Up Lunch” program. Using this as our framework, we adapted these techniques to the specific context of ASIJ’s Middle School.
We introduced this special “Mix it Up Lunch” event through advisory groups, forming lunch groups that crossed grade levels and social groups/cliques through a puzzle-piece activity. The main goal was to help students become aware of patterns of exclusive behavior exhibited in the cafeteria and elsewhere. We also sought through this activity to help students develop the skill of empathy. By explicitly teaching our students to be more aware of other people’s feelings, the hope was that they would be less likely to exclude others.
Five SEL/Advisory lessons were used to prepare our students for Mix it Up Lunch. Students identified the differences between friendship groups and cliques, discussing whether cliques are positive or negative and how and why it can be important to make friends outside of a clique. Questions discussed were: What would happen if the groups at our school mixed it up? What might prevent the groups from wanting to mix it up?
After weeks of preparation, we celebrated the event. Conversation starters helped generate friendly discussion at the tables, prompting easy chatter with questions such as “If you could only eat ice cream or chocolate for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?” and “Between traveling to outer space or to the depths of the ocean, what would be your preference?” Students embraced the opportunity to share ideas as they became more familiar with their new group members. They came away with an understanding that forming connections with peers outside of friend groups is a real possibility.
After lunch, the students and advisors traveled to the MS Gym for the culminating activity. “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift blared over the sound system as each group performed 10 seconds of dance moves in a “popcorn/wave” manner around the gym. The Advisors flooded the center of the gym floor and students followed the lead of the teachers in Flash Mob style, the entire MS community united in one big mob of good vibes! With smiles, laughter, and a bounce in their step, the students and advisors went back to class for the rest of the afternoon.
Our aim was for the students to have fun, be engaged, and become inspired to stretch themselves past their comfort zones on their own, not just on a designated day. Feedback from students and teachers was mixed, but was mainly positive. The outcome was certainly achieved; students mixed it up and engaged in conversation and activity with peers from diverse groups and grade levels. The best result of the day was summed up by one of the participants who remarked at the end of the event, “What a great day! So much positive energy!”
Jackie Douglass and Steve Bennett are Middle School Counselors at The American School in Japan, Tokyo, Japan.

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