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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

11 thoughts on “Meaningful First Days: 3 Ways to Build Community (No Icebreakers!)

  1. I love the idea of having the students say their names to you. I cannot believe this has never occurred to me before! It would definitely end the stifled giggles after a mispronunciation.

    1. I love this, too. I have them record their names and submit them in Google Classroom so that I can refer to them until I have all 90 of them down.

  2. Your four corners activity was the perfect way to set a thoughtful, reflective tone in my eighth grade English classes. That first day is so long and my students really needed the opportunity to move around. I think they also appreciated a break from the typical “favorite movie” ice breakers–thank you so much for the great idea!

  3. I LOVE your ideas but cannot open/access your Four Corner statements. Can you email them to me? Thanks and cheers to another new beginning 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing! I enjoy games and icebreakers, but I’m always looking for other ways to start off the year. I’m excited to use your strategies.

  5. Thank you so much for this! As a fellow introvert, I struggle a LOT with the first days of school, and having to meet 70 different students for the first time. Like you, I always hated traditional ice breakers, and so I’ve struggled with how to connect with my students. This was incredibly helpful. Thank you!!

  6. Could you share the list of questions you ask your students for the 4 corners activity? How do you teach your procedures and expectations? Thank you!!
    -First Year Teacher

  7. Hello There! Thank you so much for these wonderful ideas. Could you also share what sorts of questions you have asked during the four corners game? _Also First Year Teacher!

  8. Oh my goodness! This is exactly what I needed to read today! I’m a first year teacher who starts in a few days. I love all of your ideas!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *