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  • Writer's pictureTrish Dotts

How to make middle school students talk about something besides cafeteria food.

Part 1.

Each week at our middle school, a small group of 8th-grade students (Voices) leads the whole school in building relationships and building conversation skills. One of their most provocative lessons are called a series we call Synergy.

It all started when Voices created an awkward environment in our middle-school cafeteria. We hosted an event called the Synergy Lunch. You may remember the social Petri dish of communication dysfunction from your time as a middle schooler. The Voices students were bothered by the age-old problem of the stagnant cafeteria. The stagnant cafeteria exists where people follow comfortable patterns of behavior, always eat at the same table and eat with the same people.

Voices students recognized that this just perseverates the social cliques and interferes with full inclusion. The problem with this environment is there is no natural way to interact and learn more about other students.

Learning more about other students in our own school is important because having conversations with others is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. It is important because when students make connections across peer groups, they are more likely to show empathy, less likely to engage in bully behavior and makes our school safer. Schools need to be safe both physically and psychologically in order for students brains to retain and process content. Voices students wanted to create a school where we are all comfortable talking with and supporting each other.

Voices really mixed things up! They did not want anyone to sit next to a totally familiar face. They wanted to randomize the process as much as possible. In middle school, the desire to be with familiar friends is so strong, that students quickly adjust the best-laid randomizing plans to fit their needs. So, Voices did not tell anyone, but the organizing adults, that today’s lunch would have a big surprise!

As students walked into the cafeteria, they were given a playing card. That playing card determined at which table students were to sit with their lunch tray. Voices students had red and black table tents that were easily visible from the lunch line. The table tents then had the suits, with club, hearts, diamonds, or spades. The participants followed their card, brought their lunches to the tables and sat next to someone new.

For a while, the lunch room was quiet. Students predictably were 'shook' when they discovered that they were going to sit in unfamiliar territory. Te 'Athletes' table is usually so full, that students sit on the crack between two tables or hang of the outside edge. The 'gamer's' table, usually has few girls and plenty of space to spread out and trade goodies and discuss Twitch feeds.

To reduce the stress of sitting next to ‘strangers’ each table had conversation prompts between partners. The conversation prompts were questions a person could ask almost anyone in our geographical region. These "Synergy Questions" gave students a life raft to get through the first awkward moments.

After the event, students responded to a follow-up survey. Voices students learned a lot which led them to create some very important lessons for the next months for their peers to build their conversation skills.

How do you think the event went?

What do you think the Voices students learned?

How do you think the participants responded? What parts do you think they appreciated? What parts do you think they resisted the most?

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