Handcrafted Icebreakers

All, Teaching Tips

Creating community should be your first priority as a teacher — especially as a writing teacher. No one who works with me should have any doubts about the importance of community to my pedagogy whether I am working with young writers or experienced professional educators. That is why I have written so many blog posts about community. I also believe in the power of carefully selected icebreaker writing prompts. Thanks to my #NWP experience I have a large inventory of these and also thanks to my #PLN I can easily find inspiration for even more. However, if you really want to build community not just any icebreaker will do – you should carefully handcraft your icebreaker to your specific teaching context (content and students) to maximize the benefits. As I consider how I will kick off my fall writing classes, which will focus on American Literacy, I am carefully considering my icebreaker options and I have come up with three benefits to handcrafting your icebreakers. In face, these are really rules or guidelines that I can use to select the icebreaker activities for my first class.

Handcrafted icebreakers build true community

What is true community? We all belong to a wide range of communities that surround various aspects of our lives. We belong to physical neighborhoods where we live and we belong to work communities. If we have children then we belong to school, sports, and club activities. If we have special interests of our own then those involve communities. However, not all communities are created equal. Some communities are built on very superficial relationships or simple proximity. However, interacting beyond that superficial level, engaging in the real lives and real emotions of those in our communities helps us build deeper and more lasting bonds. Often class communities are superficial connections because there is only superficial interaction created by proximity, so I strive to use my icebreakers to help us find common ground and create touchstones that can help us really get to know each other and carry us through the sometimes difficult and uncomfortable work we need to do together. One of the ways that I have decided to do that is to begin by creating table tents as a twist on the commonly used heart maps. I adore the concept of heart maps and regularly use them, but I feel that table tents are more practical for a college classroom as they can easily be stored in a notebook between classes and they make our names clearly visible (which let’s be honest helps me a lot too). The choices that we make about what to include on our table tents will inform each of the members of our new community about who we are and who we aspire to be. We will mix and mingle around the classroom to share our tents before we sit back down.

Handcrafted icebreakers set the tone

There is nothing I abhor more than disposable activities and assignments. I only have so much time with my students and they only have so much attention to give. If I squander either then I have both lost a valuable opportunity to learn and grow together and I have lost their trust in me as an educator. I am loathe to lose that trust – even more so because I like to venture far afield from traditional pedagogy. I am inspired by Anne Curzan’s reflection that “the first day sets the tone for the semester” and have redoubled my efforts to begin as I mean to go on. This means that we will spend our first day learning and reflecting, writing and discussing, just as we will for almost every class this semester. Much of that reflection will take place through writing and much of that discussion will take place in small groups orchestrated by the instructor just as it will be for much of the semester. From our very first class students will witness, experience, my belief that learning takes place in a community, writers are fostered through supported practice, and education is experiential. I could put that creed on a Powerpoint slide as I go over the syllabus and course calendar or I could show them.

Handcrafted icebreakers jumpstart the work

As I noted I really really really hate disposable activities and assignments. I don’t want to waste my students’ time or trust, but I am also very impatient by nature. I love my work and I am excited by the themes I choose to explore in my class and I cannot wait to discover what my students have to add to that journey. So why not jump right into the work? When my class theme is games that means that we spend the first class playing games and when my class theme is American literacy that means we spend the first class exploring our values. I believe that if we are going to write about American Creed then we need to know our own creed so that is where we will begin (with our table tents). During the first week of my game-themed class we also explored the question “what is a game” and in the first week of my American-themed class we will also explore our country’s foundational documents to better understand the values at America’s core and answer the question “what is America.” This work will directly support each of the four assignments my students will deliver this semester. Again, I could tell my students on my introductory Powerpoint that every assignment supports the work, but they might actually believe it if I show them during our first week together.

Recently my social media feed has included several calls from new teachers and their mentors to offer advice for those just beginning their journey as a teacher. My advice to teachers both new and established is always to build community because community is so key to the work of learning, especially learning to write, and makes learning so much more fun. However, the reason I decided to write this blog post is because the process of building that community should be personal and purposeful. How do you personally and purposefully build community in your classroom?

Artwork via Geograph – copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

6 comments

  • Love the table tents idea and am thinking how great they’d be for promoting great books for peers to read. I know your purpose may be very different, but shared reading builds community, too. Thanks for this!

    • Absolutely it does – and if that is the work of your class then it is a great community building activity according to my “rules.” I often do such sharing later in the semester as we set up other tasks. I think you could also use something like StoryCorps Interviews to give people a chance to connect over books they love or explore themes. That would be so much fun!

  • I would have never thought to use table tents. My inexperience would have told me that they’re too elementary. Thank you

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