classrooms · teaching

Ice breakers

Some friends were asking around on Facebook last week: what sorts of ice breakers do you use on the first day of class? Ice breakers, of course, are those get-to-know-you exercises that classroom leaders, workshop coordinators, event runners and others in charge of large groups of strangers employ to, well, thaw the polite distance that keeps strangers isolated from each other, even when they’re sitting right next to one another.

Ice breakers not only help students relax a little, and get to know each other’s names, but also break up the terrible tedium of The Reading of The Syllabus and the Laying Out of All the Rules and the Sorting Out if You Are Registered that is most of the business of the first class. The first class never really seems to reflect what the other 23 meetings are going to be like: there’s a lot more lecturing and reading along, and no one laughs at my jokes, hardly, and everyone seems nervous and bored at the same time.

My ice breakers vary depending on several factors: smaller classes or larger classes, survey course versus specialized seminar, undergrads versus grads, etc. Sometimes I put students in pairs, get them to introduce themselves to each other, then make pairs of pairs where students now introduce each other to each other. Sometimes I go around the room, asking students to tell me what program they’re in, and what their research interests for the course are. Sometimes I ask each student to just say their name, and one weird thing about themselves that I probably won’t forget, and then I try to see how many names I can get right at the end. Sometimes I do show-of-hand polls like, “How many of you were born in this city?” and “How many of you speak another language at home?” and “How many of you are left-handed?” and other silly questions and then we laugh at our commonalities and our differences.

Often, the ice breakers are for my benefit. I’m really, really terrible at learning people’s names. Like, really terrible. Once, when my husband and I had been dating for over a month and I was deep in the honeymoon stage of infatuation, he came unexpectedly to my postdoc office to take me out for lunch. “Hey!” he said, leaning in the door, “I came to surprise you with lunch!” You know how I responded? “Oh! Hi … dude!” Because I forgot his name, being deeply engrossed in some fact-checking.

Anyhow, the ice breaker I use with my first year Digital Lives class is one of those ones that’s mostly for me. On the first day I assign them the following homework: “Use the email utility of the courseware management system, and write me 200 words of who you are, where you’re from, and why you’re here. Attach a photo of yourself, with your name somewhere visible.” This is a great exercise, because it immediately ensures that everyone can access the course website, and their university email. It is also great for learning names, because what I do is take all the photos, and make a screen saver slideshow out of them: it’s like names-and-faces flashcards for me, and it really really helps me learn their names.

But you know what else is great? It helps me connect with my students as human beings. The students I meet in emails are nothing like those scared / bored / nervous / skeptical poker-faced lumps that often populate the first-day-of-class classroom. They’re funny, accomplished, unique, cosmopolitan, pedantic, curious, naive, serious, driven, aimless people. They come from all over the world, including the neighbourhood where I live. They have cats, and friends, and weird hobbies. They take wild selfies. They screen grab their imgur posts. They create fake Instagram accounts to make me laugh.

I answer every email with a little tidbit of my own, a kind of reciprocal humanity. I will share some of their stories in class, in the aggregate, to help them get to know each other. But for a couple of days, my inbox is a marvel of little Hello World statements and pictures, 40 new people–young people!–that I am privileged to get to know.

4 thoughts on “Ice breakers

  1. Totally I'm stealing this idea. I mean, almost word for word.

    And the “forget the future spouse's name” thing was embarrassingly familiar, if we're in confess-the-character-flaw mode.


  2. In large classes, I do a survey (optional) where students tell me what they are watching/reading right now outside of class, what their hobbies are, and what their superpower would be. If the class is under 25, I just go around the room and have everyone answer the questions in class. I have found some interesting trends having done this for years – it used to be flying was the #1 superpower by a substantial margin, but the last two years, it's been some version of manipulating space/time (pausing, going back, etc.) or teleportation.


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