I really dislike icebreakers. They make me cringe. When I became a teacher, I swore I would spare my students the torture of icebreakers.
That being said, I also realize how important it is to build a classroom culture in those first few days of school. It’s taken me a few years to figure out what works best in my classes, but I’ve hit on three key ways to build community that have a lasting impact.
- The students give me their names the first time I take attendance, not the other way around. The pronunciation of names matters so much–that’s a student’s identity. I hand every student an index card and ask them to write the following: their first and last names with a pronunciation key for both, their e-mail address, a topic or skill in which they consider themselves an expert, what they do outside of school (extracurriculars, work, etc.), and one thing they’d like me to know that I wouldn’t learn about them in a typical classroom setting. On the reverse side, they write their first/preferred name (now I can cold call on them!). We whip around the room by table groups, and the students say their name for everyone to hear while I check them off on my printed roster. I collect their cards in order, which also creates my initial seating chart. Now I’ve heard them pronounce their own names and I have a written pronunciation key. I can take attendance with the cards and start putting those names with faces.
- I share who I am, and I ask them to do the same. I have a short slideshow with pictures of my family and my hometown (I’m a city transplant from a mountain town). I tell them that I’m an introvert, so sometimes I can seem a little distant, especially if I’m surrounded by lots of people who need my attention that moment. I share a few of my passions. I tell them what I value as a teacher and as a person. They walk away knowing that I care about creativity, honesty, passion, kindness, curiosity, and integrity. They understand that if they work for it, I will meet them wherever they are. Then I ask them to tell me about themselves. I leave it open: they can write, draw, or do some combination of the two. They must include information about themselves as a student and as a person, and they need to tell me some of their likes and dislikes. I keep these papers all year long, and if I have trouble reaching a student, this is the first place I turn.
- We get up and move, and I watch for trends. I love the four corners discussion format, so I worked it into my first day routine. I mark each of the corners in my room with a sign: strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, disagree. I stand on a chair behind my desk and read statements, and the students move to the corner that best represents their reaction. I look for trends in the class’s movements that I may need to address in the first weeks. For example, nearly all of my students disagreed/strongly disagreed with the statement, “I have effective time management skills.” We’ll be working on that! I also like to have students talk with their table groups about what they observed.
Here’s a link to the statements I used in my AP Lang classes today: Four Corners-Student Expectations
It is totally possible to build a responsive classroom without typical icebreakers–you just have to be intentional about what tasks you ask students to complete and mindful of how they inform your teaching and help students build rapport with each other. I’d love to hear your ideas for the first days of school!