Let's sit together: exploring the potential for human relations education at lunch.

Author:Ng, Jennifer

School lunch involves not only lunch itself but also the interactions of people gathered together in the lunch room at lunch time. Researchers who have studied this particular social space have characterized it as an important site of peer interaction, identity formation, and status differentiation. Because these processes are influenced by such things as race (Tatum, 2003), class (Eckert, 1989), gender and age (Eder, 1995), and other manifestations of culture (Milner, 2006), researchers have also emphasized that the resulting friendship circles or cliques in a cafeteria are not random. Instead, they are dynamic formations whose terms and processes of inclusion or exclusion determine group membership, order hierarchies of group power, and delineate relations within as well as between groups (Adler & Adler, 1995; Bishop, Bishop, Bishop, Gelbwasser, Green, Peterson, Rubinsztaj & Zuckerman, 2004; Kinney, 1993).

To counter the divisiveness and hurt that so often ensues from lunch time interactions, students attending more than 2,500 schools in the United States and abroad recently participated in the 12th annual Teaching Tolerance campaign to "Mix It Up at Lunch" (Severson, 2013). This event exemplifies a broad approach to multicultural education that Sleeter & Grant (2009) refer to as "human relations"--efforts that foster interactions between students who might not otherwise believe they have much in common in the hopes of thereby overcoming stereotypes and prejudice to instead promote empathy, respect, and a shared sense of humanity. In the case of students at Mix It Up schools, a featured aspect of their involvement is sitting in randomly assigned seating arrangements and having lunch with classmates different from their usual lunchtime company for one day (Willoughby, 2011).

What might the potential of such an idea be on the social relations of a school if it were adopted as routine practice throughout the year? This is the central question we pursued at Bishop Seabury, a notable school where mixing it up is how they have always done lunch.

Studying Seabury: The School Context and Our Research Methods

Bishop Seabury Academy is an independent, college preparatory school located in Lawrence, Kansas, a Midwestern community of approximately 87,000 people. Established in 1997 with 32 students, six teachers, and one Headmaster, it now enrolls almost 180 students in grades 6-12 and has a staff of 28 teachers and administrators. Tuition for the school costs almost $12,500 per year, though Seabury is committed to an economically diverse student body and thus allocates 10 percent of its operating budget to providing financial assistance to students in need. Bishop Seabury also values racial and ethnic diversity, with almost a quarter of its students coming from minority backgrounds (www. seaburyacademy.org).

The immediate entrance into the school's main building is an open room lined with windows along its south wall known as "The Commons." From 12:30 to 1:10 each day, The Commons functions as the school's lunchroom, where students themselves arrange 25 round tables that seat 8 people each. On every table, students also place a rectangular Tupperware container with utensils inside, another container with salt and pepper shakers, and a plexiglas standing frame that displays the table number and the name of the designated staff member above it. This information helps students locate their particular seat assignments which are posted on a bulletin board every other Monday.

On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, students eat lunch according to a randomly assigned seating arrangement that includes one adult member of the school staff. These mixed-grade combinations change every two weeks, a routine that continues throughout the year. On Wednesdays, students sit with their faculty advisors and advisory group, referred to in Latin as their "altera familia" or "other family." These advisories are also mixed-grade groups, though students' memberships in them remain constant from the time they enter Seabury to the time they graduate. Then, on Fridays, everyone gets to choose where--and with whom--they want to sit, and seniors have the option of leaving the campus entirely.

Bishop Seabury's approach to lunch made it an ideal setting for our study. Not only were seating arrangements regularly mixed through the year, they included the entire student body and its adult staff. Because this structuring of lunch began with the school's inception, it also provided us an opportunity to consider how lunches have changed over time and how school leaders have continued supporting the practice. Indeed, as the Headmaster explained, relatively few modifications have been made, and they include now serving catered food in a buffet rather than family-style arrangement and using a computer program developed by a former student to generate the bi-weekly seating assignments instead of having a staff member create them manually. The recent addition of 6th grade to the previously 7th-12th grade school increased its enrollment by more than 10 percent and prompted practical questions of whether Seabury's lunches could continue being accommodated in its existing space. However, broad support from staff as well as students and the reconfiguration of tables in an expanded Commons area have ensured the continuation of this tradition into the foreseeable future.

Given our interest in exploring the social relations of lunch at Bishop Seabury, we purposefully designed our study to include the views of students as well as adult staff through two primary data collection methods. First, we conducted semi-structured, individual interviews each lasting approximately one hour with eight staff members knowledgeable about the school's lunch practices. During these interviews, we asked exploratory questions to understand the intended goals of the approach, staff members' experiences with respect to its implementation, and any related effects they may have observed. Respondents represented the varied roles of staff at Seabury, including the Headmaster, administrative support staff, classroom teachers, and individuals who serve in dual capacities as classroom teachers and extra-curricular program leaders.

Second, we conducted five focus groups with students, four of which were organized according to students' grade levels (6th, 7-8th, 9-10th, 11-12th) and one by students' backgrounds as international students in an ESL class. Our rationale for grouping students in this manner was because we believed perspectives might differ by how long students had attended Seabury and thus participated in the mixed-grade, assigned lunch seating approach. We also wanted to be sensitive to the possibility that certain students 6th graders and international students, in particular--might be more comfortable sharing their experiences in more homogeneous groups. Each focus group lasted approximately 50 minutes and included general questions to gauge students' views on how Seabury...

To continue reading