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Icebreakers: Broken or Cool?

Stay frosty!
Image by Ethan Sykes on Stocksnap

I’m reaching the end of the first week of the fall semester at my institution; you might be just getting ready to start or maybe you’ve been holding classes for a couple weeks. So of course you’re probably thinking about those awkward first classes yourself, like I am.

Like most people who have been teaching for a while, I have some favorite icebreakers, which I’ll list below, but the main question of this post isn’t which icebreaker to use, but whether icebreakers are even useful, so we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Superhero Alter-Egos: Have students interview another student, asking basic "get to know you" questions. Be sure to have them ask for something unexpected! Then, have the students write a profile about the person they interviewed, and in the profile they give them a new superhero identity, with a name and superpowers, based on what they learned about the person in the interview. Then, have the writer/interviewer introduce the OTHER student to the class, using the following formula: "This is [NAME], [major and year]. By day s/he [insert activity], but secretly s/he is actually [SUPERHERO NAME], who fights [kind of crime] by [superpower].

Appellates: Like Superhero Alter-Egos, in this scenario students interview each other in order to introduce another student to the class. But this time, they give them a fancy appellate like they're a historical figure. The formula this time looks more like "This is Jamie the Rescuer, because he likes to volunteer at an animal shelter" or "This is Ellen the Computer, because she likes to do math."

Scavenger Hunt/Bingo: In this one, students must interview multiple students, because they're looking to find certain criteria. The criteria might be "Find a student who has a pet" or "Find a student who speaks a language other than English." Again, the goal is to get them interviewing each other.

I Am a Writer Because: in this activity, students write "I am a writer because" and finish the sentence. Then they share that with the class when they introduce themselves to the class. Not as interactive, but it has value in a writing classroom!

Survey Says: Students decide in small groups (no more than 4!) on a question they want to know about their peers and then they go around and survey the class to find out the answer to their question. They then report this to the class, making a conclusion based on their data.

I’m sure that I’ve used others successfully, but you can probably tell that the theme here is I want to get them doing original research, even if it’s more journalistic in style, from the start–or I want them thinking about their relationship to the course topic (in my case, usually writing–other courses could revise this to “I am a scientist because” for instance).

I’m an introvert, though, and I loathe ice breakers when I’m forced to do them. The worst of all, though, are icebreakers that don’t have an obvious connection to the class. So of course the rule of all these is that you have to show the class why you chose that ice breaker for the themes of the course.

But this semester I tried doing without a real icebreaker. I asked them instead to chat with each other about their experiences with previous English classes and what they already know about the course topic, and told them they also should introduce themselves properly in the conversation. THEN I asked them by show of hands a few “icebreaker” questions: “How many people met someone who is from the same town as them?” “How many people met someone who is from outside our state?” etc. And then, as I would do with an icebreaker, I demonstrated how even these simple, common questions become rhetorical moments and are therefore tied to the course material.

Did it work well? I don’t know, honestly. It’s so hard to tell the character of a class from just one meeting, so we will see if I succeeded in building community later. But is it definitely an option to omit icebreakers altogether? Absolutely. But I do think it’s a good idea to include at least a little group chat time on the first day!

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