Starting The Year Off Write

All, Teaching

How do you start things off with your students? I used to dive into the horribly, tedious syllabus review session on the first day. Big mistake! Not only is it boring for everyone, but it also makes a terrible first impression. I don’t want my students to think my class is all about rules (especially since my institution makes us put lots of CYA statements, policies, and rules in our syllabi). I want my students to create and invent, learn and grow, and for that type of class to succeed we need to be a community – so that is where I now begin. I give them a quick overview – usually creating some sort of highlights list or more recently an infographic just to satisfy their most burning questions and then tell them where they can find the more detailed syllabus. Then we dive into community building.

Many instructors like to include some icebreakers in their first classes. Some of my favorites include six-word stories and asking people to share their superpowers and kryptonite. These are easy writing exercises that have inspired some wonderful conversations. They serve the dual purposes of helping us get to know each other while also demonstrating that word play can be fun. Plus, I like to introduce six-word stories early as I use them throughout the semester.

However, I don’t stop with just a simple ice breaker, because I want to know more about students than their name…and I want them to know each other just as well. For a long time (inspired by my Morehead Writing Project mentors), I had my students create me museums. Last year, inspired by the 2014 CLMOOC, we created “How To” pieces for our introductions. These assignments serve multiple purposes. They help us get to know each other and serve as a foundation for future work (one of my first assignments is usually a literacy narrative and these often transform into service learning projects at the end of the semester). As I strongly encourage (and sometimes require) students to use some form of technology other than Powerpoint, this assignment also helps students experiment with a variety of tools and I learn a lot about their willingness to do so. As you can see, I really hate disposable assignments. I believe in working smart not hard and like for every assignment to serve more than one purpose.

So you can imagine my reaction to a recent decree that First Year Seminar classes should include a critical thinking activity in the early days of the semester. The approved activities included things like the marshmallow challenge and building a newspaper tent. It is not that these activities are bad – I just didn’t see how they could contribute to my literacy focused class. I couldn’t think of a way to use that experience to jumpstart our work in the class. Then I saw Dave Stuart’s idea for an icebreaker that also introduces argumentation and I thought “boom!” This is an idea that can easily blend critical thinking with icebreakers I already use. So I simply tweaked the original plan to include steps for applying our Morehead State critical thinking model (Monitor assumptions, Scrutinize evidence, and Uncover conclusions). I have now submitted my idea to the FYS leaders and hope they approve it. I really don’t want to build a spaghetti tower…

How do you break the ice with your students? How do you build community and start the year off write? How do you use those icebreakers throughout the class?

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