This post explores how to design meaningful icebreakers that meet gifted and talented students’ academic and social-emotional needs.
Remember being 10, 12, 15 years old? Your teacher just asked you to do some sort of icebreaker to get to know the kids around you. Ugh.
It’s not that you don’t have things to say. It’s not that you hate people. (Well, maybe sometimes you do.) It’s the fear of what other kids might say as you bare some part of your self that freezes you now. Will you get called a dork or a freak? And why are we doing this frivolous, weird stuff anyway?
Icebreakers that lack connection to advanced curriculum, to gifted students’ interests, and to regular classroom practice can sometimes be a big part of the problem.
How can we break the ice in ways that really let the classroom warm up–while also engaging gifted students’ academic interests? Share your ideas below.
Randomness is the Issue
Many of us love Two Truths and a Lie or Adjectives About You (pick one adjective for every letter of your name, beginning with that letter). The problem we run into is when ALL of our icebreakers are get-to-know-yous that go nowhere. What do you really know about someone after the Adjective exercise? It is a safe launching pad, and no wrong done, but consider that if that’s the only icebreaker you do, then we haven’t really broken any ice.
Icebreakers All Year
One get-to-know-you activity is barely enough to make a friend, and considering a group of gifted students will spend a semester or year together, there’s reason to make regular time to build connections. As one wise guidance counselor once told me: “Invest penny time now and save dollar time later!” By dollar, she meant the hours and days spent mediating fights and outbursts that can result from kids being strangers working alongside each other.
Academic is Invitational
If we connect icebreakers to our academic goals–to our driving questions, concepts, and content and skills–then we are getting to know kids on a deeper level, and for gifted youth, in a way that helps us better understand their interests and readiness in this subject area.
“The concepts fundamental to the human condition are also fundamental to human learning…We cannot function effectively in society without understanding concepts such as justice, authority, responsibility, and honor.” — Linda D. Avery and Catherine A. Little, Content Based-Curriculum for High-Ability Learners.
What Avery and Little said! When a gifted kid walks out of the hallway into our classroom, they’re carrying Love and Fear, Good and Evil, Systems and Patterns, and every other element of the human condition with them. Let’s call those elements concepts. Concepts are abstract, neutral nouns that invite everyone into a conversation. They inherently are both personal and academic. If you’re familiar with Avery, Little, and Joyce VanTassel-Baska’s work, you know that good curriculum is concept-driven. You know from Understanding by Design theory and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s work how important Essential Questions and Essential Understandings are. Concepts are spurs to Essential Questions and the root words of the Essential Understandings students should develop by the end of a lesson or unit. If Change or Function or Justice is a conceptual foundation of a lesson, why not see what kids already know about that concept–and what they want to know?
In Avery and Little’s sample lesson on the concept of Change, students begin class by generating examples of change that originate from their experience and knowledge of the world.
- What words come to mind when you think about change?
- What kinds of things change?
- How do you know when something has changed? (Avery and Little 130)
Check out the William and Mary curriculum for more concept-based goodness. We’re ratcheting up the rigor and the challenge for our students when we differentiate something as simple as a discussion question meant to break the ice.
For some kids, knowing that the icebreaker is a way to help them orient toward curricular concepts might warm them up to it. The academic orientation makes for safer sharing–it’s not so immediately personal that someone has to get into the weeds of their life–and the conversation grounds things in “we’re all going to have to be in this together, so might as well share.”
A Socratic seminar on a short poem or an article that is something important but not wildly controversial (animal rescue, or whether competition is healthy or harmful) can be a great way to get to know students’ attitudes and thoughts (while teaching academic skills of reasoning, etc.). You’ll find a series elsewhere in this blog on the art of discussion and Socratic seminars.
Why Not Soft Skills?
The art of the meaningful compliment is no small thing. How many adults do you know who give sincere and specific compliments on the regular? If it’s true that it takes 99 nice things to make up for one nasty thing said, then cultivating the art of saying nice (and real, not fake) things in your classroom can be a great purpose for an icebreaker.
If an icebreaker can be a chance not only to share something personal but also a chance to share back to peers what they do well, then this skill building can change the temperature of the room from frosty to warm. After any of the activities I share below, the feedback portion was key: be sure to say something very specific that you liked, and why. Then ask a question. Because the other behavior–more than a soft skill, but a life orientation–is key to survival and happiness in this world. Be curious. Ask questions.
It’s not just about a warmer community. We’re forming key habits of mind needed for other intellectual enterprises.
The Name Game
Teaching tenth grade English, you sometimes got kids who’d “seen it all.” They felt they already knew their classmates. Not true. We broke the ice by asking each person to do a one-minute visual presentation over a series of three weeks. They created a collage that celebrated their name (or shared the name they wish they had) or anything else they wanted to say about it. Every day, for the first few weeks of school, we had presentations. People could ask questions or share compliments. It was a great way to get to know people, and oh, the artistic impulses! Students were so, so creative. And the great thing was, you could spend the first 15 minutes of class and still have time for another meaningful activity.
Some questions students had to consider was, What does my name mean? What does my name sound like? Remind me of? This activity is a great precursor to a poetry unit or any literary analysis that emphasizes denotation and connotation. I’d also pair this activity with teaching The House on Mango Street.
For the full list of questions, check out the What’s Your Name? activity in the book I coauthored, The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons that Nurture Wisdom and Empathy.
I’m an Expert At…
One of my greatest mentors, educator Roma Hammel, shared a project that I adapted for my class: “I’m an Expert At…” Students had 5-15 minutes to teach the class something they were great at–reeling out a yo-yo, baking cupcakes, babysitting, you name it. Students had to prepare by listing details of the “how to” and then providing a demonstration. These were the best moments in class. One way to use this activity is as an interest-based assessment. If I know that this student is obsessed with skateboarding, then how might I connect her passion to teaching physics in my class? To teaching math? This student is a painter and makes necklaces on the weekends. How can I connect the arts to my curriculum and find a way to spark his interest? Making the personal connection to the curriculum later in the year could be extremely powerful.
I teach Digital Media Production to University Sophomores. It’s a very technical skill but also a class about storytelling. My class size and school size is very small, and yet I find that the students who I assumed knew each other didn’t know each other at all.
I’m toying with the idea of having the students first assignment be a story they tell people as a way of introduction.
I ask them to think about a story they tell often. We all have our go to story about ourselves or our friends. I ask them to think about what situation, and what audience they tell this story in. I ask them why this story is important to them. Is it a story that says something about who they are, about how they want to be seen? Then I ask them to tell this story to the class.
This is super connected to the idea of the importance of storytelling. It also helps emphasis why storytelling is an important part of who we are. It also might show how storytelling manipulates and audience into feeling a certain way. Hopefully the ice breaker will also make them think about audience, presentation and what makes a good story. It also helps me know more about the students.
Lyn Fairchild Hawks says
Alyson, so much great stuff here, but first, our assumption as teachers that students already know each other is always a tempting misconception that you do well to point out. It’s key to ensure ways for students to gradually get to know each other via collaborations, discussions, and other interactions. Your idea is exciting because that story we tell often about ourselves can be a great emblem of who we are. The follow-up questions are good ones as well. Do any of your students struggle with this or do they jump right to it? I’m thinking there are many stories I know I’d think of, but I’m also comfortable with public speaking. How do your introverts handle this task? (Of course, I always assumed public speaking was par for the course, you can’t get out of it, but just curious how you handle any reticence.)
The students are Comm Arts students and therefore should be able to speak publicly about themselves but I think it’s surprisingly difficult for many of them.
I haven’t tried out this assignment yet. I think when I do I will tell one of my stories as an example. I’ve found giving the students time to think about their story gives them a better opportunity to get up the courage to tell their stories.
In other classes I’ve had the students tell their favorite sports moments or experiences and I’ve had them write the story down. This is a problem because sometimes they rely too much on reading off of a paper and not practicing in the mirror. With some students I’ve had resistance even on telling non personal stories.
I think the key is being specific with them. Sometimes their resistance is more about needing guidance through the whole process. They want to know how to come up with a story, how to go about telling that story and how to practice telling that story. At first I thought I was giving them too much, but when I help them with the process the results are so much better. This is true in all assignments. Sometimes I worry I’m telling them how to think and come up with ideas when they should be doing it on their own…
Brian Cooper says
Thanks for sharing your ideas and some of the challenges you’ve faced. I wanted to jump in here because one of your statements really resonated with me: “At first I thought I was giving them too much, but when I help them with the process the results are so much better. This is true in all assignments.” You point out such an important tension that we have to wrestle with, and I know when I first started teaching, I tended to err on the side of giving too little structure or too little needed instruction, thinking (erroneously) that my AP English students already knew (or should have known) how to do some things or that they were smart enough to figure out what I was going for with a less-structured-than-necessary prompt. I learned pretty quickly that there was nothing wrong (or soft or easy) about teaching them skills and academic behaviors that they didn’t know, and I also learned that the quality and specificity of the assignment prompt I provided was directly related to the quality of the student products I received in return. In fact, this will likely be the topic for an blog post here in the near future.
But, as you say, we can err on the other side too, providing too much guidance, such that our students aren’t challenged to be creative, to wrestle with a problem, and to generate their own ideas.
Thanks again for sharing!
Monica Miller says
My go-to icebreaker for years has been, what is something you would recommend?–it can be a restaurant, a place on campus, a habit, a book, a tv show…the wide parameters often allow for some interesting insights into students.
However, as I’m prepping for a new semester today, I’m going to try the “I’m an expert at” icebreaker, at least in my professional writing classes. That seems to tie in nicely to the course theme. Thanks for the idea!
Lyn Fairchild Hawks says
Monica, that’s a great, efficient delivery of expertise. You get someone’s recommendation on something they like and have experienced (expertise) while getting to know the person’s interests. Let us know how the I’m an Expert icebreaker goes!