Breaking the Ice

Breaking the Ice

Icebreakers are standard practice in many college classrooms, especially on the first day of a new semester. In class after class students tell others a variety of pieces of information about themselves: their name, major, year, or something else – something unique, we often hope. Sometimes we deploy an icebreaker because we want to pair faces with names. Sometimes we genuinely want to disrupt the awkward silence of a first class. At our best moments, we’re looking to start the long work of creating a learning community out of a disparate group of individuals who may or may not know each other already.

Yet icebreakers can be tricky. As Josh Eyler, director of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, put it, “When I was a student I hated icebreakers on the 1st day of class w/a passion I cannot fully describe. Am I alone in this?” (Responses suggested he was not.) “I liked getting to know other people but was intensely private myself. Ice breakers sometimes felt like a violation to that privacy,” he tweeted. Charles Knight of Edge Hill University in the UK wrote, “There is a whole other conversation here about the limitations of assuming that the classroom is one where people want to share.”

“I think if you want [the classroom] to be a space for sharing,” I replied, ”you have to explicitly build trust to equalize the playing field.”

A long line of students shaking hands with other students
Pumphandle at Knox College

These are big goals. Community. Trust. Sharing. Respecting privacy. Yet too often I fall back on some uninspired approaches to that first round of conversation in my class. For example, I sometimes ask students why they’re taking my course. I am genuinely interested, but that question doesn’t do much by way of bringing students together to form an incipient community. I do gain useful information by asking a student’s year or major, but it’s information I can glean from other places – my online class list usually has all of this. Yet I don’t want to dump the icebreaker altogether – I think there’s genuinely something valuable about everyone in the room getting to know one another better and talking to one another from the outset. And I know I can do better than “why this class?” because I’ve done better before.

So what’s worked? Here are three of my favorite icebreakers and the reasons why I think they work well. I hope they’re useful to others; I know they’ve been useful to me.

  1. The Name Game

Have everyone share a story about part (or all) of their name, as they choose. Names are wonderful things in and of themselves – they often carry family history, or are statements about a caregiver’s hope for their child. Sometimes there are incredibly funny stories attached; sometimes it’s as simple as “I was named after my aunt’s favorite singer.” What’s key is that every story is going to be as unique as the name of a student.

Why does this work? Because it emphasizes that names are important, and students can assess how much information they want to divulge. I always model a story first – and since my last name (Denial) comes from a child left on the steps of a parish church in England in the 1740s whom everyone in the village denied was their child, I get to share something unusual and demonstrate the kind of trust I hope they’ll emulate. Still, the game still works if they share very little – they share something that makes them unique, but without risking a lot.

  1. Stepping forward (or raising a hand)

Come to class with a prepared set of statements that may or may not be true for your class. “I was born in the Midwest,” is a great start. “I don’t eat breakfast,” could be another. For the stepping version of this game, have everyone stand in a circle and read the statements, asking students for whom the statement is true to step into the middle. (You can also do the same thing by asking people to sit in a circle and raise their hand.) Participate yourself – make this an equal exchange of information. Make some statements fun, some informational, and others more weighty – you can judge what you want to do for each different class.

Why does this work? Because there’s some kind of movement involved and a shared sense of low-level risk – often this game elicits laughter and groans and gives everyone a sense of being in something together. It asks people not to hide behind a laptop or a book or a desk, but to pay attention to each other, and to find commonalities where they might not have believed any existed.

  1. Hopes and Fears

Distribute blank notecards to everyone in the room, and colored markers if you have them. (I have students sit in a circle for this exercise, but you could it in rows if your room doesn’t have movable furniture.) Stress that no one should write their name on their notecard, but instead write ‘hopes’ on one side and ‘fears’ on the other. They should then take a few moments to write down no more than three hopes for the class on one side of the card, and no more than three fears on the other. Collect in the cards, shuffle them, and redistribute to the class, asking people to return the card if they get their own.

Go around the class and have everyone read the fears on the card they’re holding. Follow that by having everyone read the hopes.

Why does this work? Because students realize that they are not the only one to worry about grades or reading or research or sitting for long periods of time. They also learn what they each hope they can get out of the course, and those hopes are often tremendously inspiring. The cards are anonymous – no one is reading their own set of hopes and fears – so no one is personally admitting to any of the statements. It’s a great exercise for creating community.

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