The Depth Behind Icebreakers

By Shawna Parkinson

Beginning school again after a year of teaching during a pandemic may leave school buildings and teachers looking for intentional moves that will unite and inspire students and staff in the first week.

One approach could be to focus on building relationships through the implementation of icebreaker activities that teachers, from all grade levels and classes, will utilize as they meet and connect with students in their classrooms. In the first seven days of school, the learners at our high school will experience relationship building activities within their classrooms that encourage a wide variety of the Habits of Mind and classroom experiences. This visioning process led by Dr. Robyn Jordan ensures that learners will engage in large group interactions, small group interactions, personal reflection and/or networking activities within their beginning days, as a focus on growing relationships is implemented building-wide.

Why Icebreakers Matter

Icebreakers enable students to begin to form relationships in the classroom with their fellow students and their teachers. This promotes feelings of belonging which Dunlea defines as the feeling in which “all students feel welcomed, comfortable and part of the school family.” Connecting a learner’s sense of belonging to the school family implies that, first, students will feel connected and supported by others when facing even more rigorous tasks down the road, and students will, second, feel a more profound sense of school pride as they are more and more connected to their fellow peers, teachers, and school community.

Zerwin, in Pointless, advocates for whole class icebreakers by sharing that we must work towards class cohesion by building a classroom energy “intentionally,” and reminds us, in sharing one of her teaching and grading realizations, that “we teach students, not content.” This correlates with moments when the teacher and student come “together as a team to tackle a specific learning challenge” as shared by Hammond in Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain.

These icebreakers provide an opportunity to lay the groundwork for building relationships and, at the same time, identify the Habits of Mind that are critical behaviors for building the quality of those relationships. For instance, in a “talking walls” activity, students are encouraged to find a meaningful quote and share why this quote is important to them. Then, the students’ voices are recorded for a listening activity that will take place during a gallery walk. This gallery walk will encourage students to listen to each other’s explanations and hear the sound of each other’s voices as stories are shared.

In the icebreaker example above, students are encouraged to learn more about each other by listening with understanding and empathy. Beyond this, a rich sharing of diverse experiences supports the community-building experience. Every icebreaker can be an opportunity to identify and practice a habit of mind. Icebreakers begin to support the formation of relationships and prepare students for the academic challenges that are ahead.

The Details

During our design process, we researched activities for icebreakers and wrote a few of our own. Then, we categorized the icebreakers to signal the wide range of activities being suggested. The categories arranged included:

  • Conversation and Sharing
  • Group Movement
  • Stories, Skits and Journals
  • Best Outdoors
  • Art, Craft and Lego Activities
  • School Spirit
  • Class Support Network

These categories were loaded into both a Google Website and a Google Doc. within the website, so that teachers could scroll all activities to view them collectively or by category within the web page. Each icebreaker description also included corresponding Habits of Mind for teachers to include as they described the activity and/or encouraged moments of reflection within their lessons.

In addition, a sample week of lesson planning was included with an activity objective, a procedure, material descriptions and notes, alongside sample handouts, when needed, to support teachers in their planning.

How Icebreakers Transform

As teachers implement these icebreakers, the activities will also set the stage for icebreakers to be transformed into practices of academic skill with related Habit(s) of Mind. For instance, a speed dating activity can easily be transformed into an activity that is relevant to a unit’s goals. In a history or government class, students can support a claim by being asked to supply a different type of evidence in each rotation. In this instance, the act of speed dating and rotating chairs becomes a practice of extemporaneous debate and also focuses on the Habit of Mind of thinking and communicating with clarity and precision.

These types of learning experiences not only grow relationships through student to student interaction, but learners’ voices are maximized through classroom activities that involve both active engagement and creative choice. With these transformations, students will continue to have the opportunity to practice the Habits of Mind in a context that helps them grow socially and intellectually as they share their thinking.

Shawna Parkinson is a Learning Experience Designer at Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio. You may follow Shawna through Twitter: @ParkinsonLearns.

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