First day of class: Breaking the ice

Since classes begin in less than a week, for the benefit of both experienced and new faculty, we thought it would be useful to have a few posts regarding things we deal with on the first day(s) of the semester. We hope to tackle some of the regular issues instructors deal with and provide examples of varied tips, techniques and activities that might be useful in the early semester classroom.

On the first day of class, I walk in ten to fifteen minutes early, carrying my backpack and wearing something casual, such as a t-shirt and shorts (fall) or a casual shirt and jeans (spring). I pick a seat somewhere near the back of the class, ensuring that I will be behind most of the students (which is easy to do unless the seats are in a circle or rectangle).

Then I wait and observe, watching the students as they enter, pick seats, talk among themselves, and wait for the instructor to show up (since they assume, due to my location, that I’m a student too). If I’m there well ahead of time, I may pull out the syllabus and/or one of our books and look at it. Sometimes, friendlier students introduce themselves to me, or someone asks to look at my syllabus/book, or a student asks for information or says something funny that I respond to, so I might be talking to some of them for a bit.

I usually give it a couple of minutes past the time class is supposed to start, to give late students a chance to arrive, and to get a sense of who the impatient and/or fidgety students are. Then I stand up and say something like, “Well, I might as well get us started.” As people turn to stare, I add, “Hello. I’m the guy who has been emailing you and will be inflicting myself on you for the rest of the semester. Welcome to [insert name here].” And the students start laughing and talking as I walk over to the front of the class, sometimes pausing to say something to a student I overheard, such as, “Since you were wondering—yes, I am male. And I’ll tell you how to pronounce my name in just a minute.”

If I’m really lucky, as has happened a few times, I’ll be reaching the desk when someone runs in, sees me nearby, and blurts out, “Hey, man! Is the teacher here?” At which point I get to put my things on the desk and say, “Well—I am now!” which usually causes the rest of the class to utterly lose it.

Background: It’s been a long while, but I believe I started doing the above in my third or fourth year of teaching, because I’d heard a couple of colleagues say they’d love to do something like that but had never dared try it, and it seemed like a good idea to me. It has worked so well that I’ve done it ever since whenever I could (rarely, timing or circumstances get in the way) and will do so again in a week’s time. The receding hairline and lines on the face are making it harder to pull off, but being a short, weedy guy in shorts does make up somewhat for it, plus most students assume that if you’re sitting among them you must simply be an older student.

Benefits: The reasons I begin the semester this way are manifold. As the title of this post indicates, this approach utterly breaks the ice, which is my intent. Students are instantly rendered alert, active and in good humor, which is a combination I try to maintain throughout the semester. I also use this opening as a teaching moment, mentioning to students in the first few minutes afterward that this should be an indication of something my course will do—ask them to think critically about their unexamined assumptions. I have consistently received positive feedback from students about this approach, personally and in end-of-semester evaluations, which indicates that it provides the effects that I want, which is why I continue using it.

Negatives: Like virtually all such exercises, this one would not work for all instructors, and I have heard multiple teachers consider this a horrible idea (admittedly none of whom had tried it). The primary negative to this approach would be that it (even if temporarily) removes the barriers between teacher and student, which many would not be comfortable with. It is certainly easier to begin the semester by emphasizing the distance between instructor and student and then diminish it over time to the degree that one is comfortable with, rather than taking the approach I described. On a related note, there is the possibility of authority issues, with students having too casual or informal an attitude to the instructor. Hence, if you have any concerns about such issues, I would recommend not trying such a tactic. I should note, however, that I virtually never encounter authority issues in the classroom despite beginning the semester this way (and doing many things to maintain a similar atmosphere, blending comfort, informality and professionalism). In my estimation, students are far too acutely aware of the teacher’s position for such an approach to erode it.

Other options: Rather than taking such a radical approach to breaking the ice on the first day of class, there are a large number of other methods one can utilize. A simple one is to simply go around the classroom and have students share a little about themselves, which I also do on the first day of class. I usually begin by introducing and sharing some information about myself and then go around the classroom, asking students to tell everyone their names, what they would like to be called in class, why they are at MSU, and one interesting thing about each of them. Another small thing I usually do is have students take a sheet of paper, fold it in half, write what they’d like to be called on one side) and hang it off the front of the desk. It’s a minor activity, but students seem to find it amusing, it makes it easier for me to learn the names (I have them do this for the first couple of weeks), and it raises the chances of students addressing each other by name, which is something I want. These and other first-week activities, for me, serve to emphasize the idea of the classroom as a community, one where students should be comfortable and which they will be eager to attend (wishful thinking, perhaps!), within which they will be expected to be alert and engaged, both mentally and physically.

Hopefully, the above provides a useful (or, if not that, at least amusing) example of what is possible on the first day of class. Please share any comments or questions about it. I’m also interested to hear what first-day activities you may have tried (or plan to) and to what end.

8 thoughts on “First day of class: Breaking the ice

  1. This really sounds like a fun and unique ice-breaking activity! I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off, but I’d love to hear if anyone else tries it out or perhaps already has his/her own version.

    I have used an ice-breaking activity several times that always works quite nicely. It puts a little spin on Shil’s suggestion to go around the room and have students introduce themselves to the class. In this version, I break the class into pairs (deliberately not pairing together students who it is obvious already know each other) and have them interview one another (taking notes) and then introduce their partner to the rest of the class. I give them around 5-8 minutes for the interviews and ask them, in their interviews, to gather some basic information about their partner: name, major, where they’re from, and then one or two fun facts. (Pet turtles, dance competition prizes, being a triplet–these are just a few fun facts from my summer classes).

    I find that pairing up students and having them casually interview then introduce one another provides a great opportunity for them to get to know one another (and for me to get to know them!), and it also eases some of the pressure for those students who aren’t comfortable talking about themselves on the first day. It seems that introducing someone else can feel a little “safer” for the shy students, and overall, this activity seems a bit more energetic and entertaining than self-introductions. Indeed, the fun facts are the best part–students really share some interesting stuff and there are always lots of laughs–not to mention connections made across the classroom as individual students learn that he or she isn’t the only one who’s interested in science, or dancing, or writing poetry; that there are three other students who also live in (and detest) Bohn Hall….

    My role in all of this is to keep the students within the 5-8 minutes and then simply to go around the room asking each pair to introduce their partner. As the pairs introduce each other to the class, I might briefly respond by asking a student to tell us a little bit more about some personal fun fact, and I always periodically ask the whole class to name the students that have already been introduced. (This keeps the whole class on their toes during the introductions, and helps us all–myself included–learn the students’ names early on.) When I have an odd number of students in the class, I pair up with one (students always get a kick out of this). When there’s not an odd number, I usually just briefly introduce myself at the end. When all introductions are complete, I wrap up by drawing some connections that might not have been made already and/or by commenting on the diversity of interests or backgrounds in the classroom, by pointing out (specifically) how the variety of experiences and perspectives can open up our work for the course in fascinating and productive ways as we move through the course topics, etc. For me, playing the role of both participant and moderator/responder is representative of (and thus helps establish on the first day) my teaching style: a combination of approachable, friendly, and able to have fun in the classroom with goal-oriented, focused, and taking advantage of all teachable moments.

    Overall, in my experience, this is a short and sweet bonding activity for students on the first day of a semester. The main reason I find it successful is that (besides the fact that I’ve never had a bad experience with it), it helps sets the tone for a course that thrives on student participation and on the classroom as a community space, for a course that is discussion-based and built on small and large group work. The more comfortable students feel with one another, the more willing and able they are to share their writing, to productively critique each others’ writing, to accept and consider feedback from one another, etc. This activity also enables me to segue smoothly into the subsequent activity, which has the students continue to work with one another (in pairs or small groups) on their essay drafts. Now that the ice has been broken, we get to the “real” work of the class…

    Best of luck with the new semester!

    • I really like the paired introductions thing, Tatum. I especially like the benefits you listed in your last paragraph, where you make it work not just for the individual class but for the semester as a whole. I did try it a couple of times a number of years ago and I seem to recall it working well, for all the reasons you mentioned, so I wonder (and totally can’t remember) why I stopped using it. Maybe I’ll revisit it this semester.

  2. When I read aloud in Live Lit once I sat in front of a couple of students who were saying how much they hated coming to “things like this;” it was boring and they thought they shouldn’t be forced to come, and so on. The students seemed a little embarrassed when they realized I was reading that day, and made a point of coming up to me afterward and telling me they had enjoyed it. I think creating a situation with my students, where they were not aware that I was listening to their private thoughts, would not be comfortable for me. I can see how something as audacious as this might get the students’ attention and formalize the informality which you want to establish in your class and don’t mean to imply criticism. It’s something along the lines of a practical joke, and many, perhaps most, people enjoy those. This particular one creates a hard act to follow.

    I have found that the best thing to do on the first day of class is to get right to work. They may have social fears, but their main fear is about the academic work, and I want them to feel more secure about that first essay by the time we finish. During the semester, they are paired up frequently, usually with a different person each time, and working together is an excellent way to establish rapport. We have conferences and do exercises in groups. We play word games in teams, etc. I believe the camaraderie should come out of the work.

    All of that said, I have read the remarks written about the “10 best professors” on Rateyourprofessor, and the ones who are so funny that you “literally laugh your ass off” are rated highest. Students, people in general, love to laugh and to play, to be caught off guard, and to have fun. That is obviously one way to establish the atmosphere in your classroom. But my approach is more intellectual and academic. At the end of the class, I want them to be able to write better and try to make every activity, fun or otherwise, directly related to improving their writing. That is the measure of class activity, in my opinion.

    Besides, I am older than you, and as a result of that, probably more intimidating than a young professor would be. Students might think I was crazy rather than fun. Their grandmothers usually don’t do such things.

  3. My own personal spin on these getting-to-know-you activities is to ask the students to come up with a “memory of writing.” (I learned this from Ellen Kolba and Sheila Crowell, who developed the Writers’ Room program in the Montclair public schools.) I give the students 5-10 minutes to recall a writing experience they’ve had — it could be from third grade or senior year in high school, a positive experience or a searingly negative one. It could have involved an academic assignment or a personal letter or a poem. Whatever comes to mind. We then go around the large circle we’ve made, each student introduces himself and reads or recaps his memory of writing. (In a spirit of fun, I also have each student begin by naming all those who’ve gone before.)

    This activity allows me to keep the focus on writing — its challenges, pleasures, frustrations, etc. I respond or ask follow-up questions that draw out a point I want to make about the writing process. For example, to the student who says she treasured writing letters to her boyfriend on duty in Iraq but hates writing school essays, I note that she might find it useful to imagine a specific audience for her essays, someone she respects and admires but who doesn’t know much about her subject. I note that essay-writing, like letter-writing, is entering into an ongoing conversation. Or, to the student who felt stung by a poor grade, I ask if he had a chance to revise that assignment, then launch into a disquisition on the glories (and necessity) of revision. I say we’ll return to these ideas during the course of the semester.

    I usually do this activity on the second day of class, however, since it takes a while and doesn’t leave me time enough to open discussion of the summer reading or how the students might revise their first drafts of the placement assignment. But I find it establishes a warm, lively and empathetic atmosphere in which everyone feels engaged in the same difficult but rewarding struggle to become a better writer.

  4. I’ve been meaning to respond to the comments above, but thought I’d wait till the first day of classes and trying this out one more time. I’m happy to report that the “breaking the ice” activity went as well as usual, but I’m clearly going to have to shelve it someday. After I got up and introduced myself, somebody in one class said he was suspicious because I had too much 5-o’clock shadow, while someone in the second evidently thought my voice was too deep for a freshman. It was also a little different than usual since both classes had very friendly students, so I had to field a lot of questions about my major, whether I commute, etc. That ended, in one class, with a student showing me the syllabus and asking me, “How do you think we should say his name?”, which allowed to me to say, “You can just call me Shil,” and stand up. She looked utterly mortified for the moment and then, along with everyone else, started laughing, followed up with her interacting a fair bit during the class (esp. when I referenced some of the things we were chatting about, during my introduction and when filling students in about the class). So far so good.

    Ann – Agreed. This approach is a tough one to follow, which is one reason I don’t recommend it unless someone thinks it would really fit their pedagogical approach and attitude in the classroom. Your point about humor and fun is a good one and, in many ways, quite unfortunate. I use humor in the classroom because I use it in my life outside the classroom, but I certainly don’t think it’s a prerequisite for a successful class, and do find it unfortunate (as I point out to them) when students complain about some teacher being too serious for them. I do think that humor, fun and a comfortable classroom atmosphere in no way compromise an intellectual and academic atmosphere, and the latter always gets priority for me. I’d say that the ideal ice-breaker, for me, is one which sets students up to expect the combination of the above elements that will prevail in the given classroom for the majority of the semester. That’s also why I think there is no single ideal ice-breaker for all instructors and everyone needs to find their own perfect one(s). Lastly, I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit/slack (?) on the age front and such odd activities. Doesn’t everyone have one crazy grandmother they love?

    Joanmarie – I really like the “memory of writing” activity. When I was reading your post, after the first paragraph I was already thinking of ways in which I could build on what the students read out, and some of the things I considered dovetailed nicely with what you’ve experienced, so I might have to steal that one for later use in this semester. I tend to draw on the individual things that students bring up to connect to a larger conversation about the writing and critical thinking we do in the class, and this activity seems perfect for it. And anything which allows for a timely “disquisition on the glories (and necessity) of revision” is worth its weight in gold. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: Engendering Authority in the Classroom | Deep Down in the Classroom

  6. I’ve tried many of these techniques; here’s one I find fun and useful. I used it this semester with positive results.
    I call it “Two Truths and a Lie.” Each student writes three statements about herself on an index card. As the title of the exercise implies, two of the statements must be accurate, but one has to be false. After collecting and shuffling the cards, I read each one aloud.
    The class as a group, including the teacher, tries to analyze the veracity of the three statements. Ultimately, we vote and decide what the group thinks. Then we find out from each individual if we were right. By that time, we all have learned a lot about each of us (yes, I participate as well) and taken a first step toward changing a group of strangers into a more comfortable, welcoming unit, which is, after all, the purpose of “breaking the ice.”

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