"Your favorite show is Dancing with the Stars? Um. Wow, okay, next?"
August 26, 2012 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Wise ones: I am having trouble coming up with a ice break activity thing for my required lit class

The venue: A jc in a pretty downtrodden neighborhood. Last year I tried to solicit opinions about movies/TV shows so I could be "and then look at THIS short story THAT HAS JUST AS MUCH AWESOMENESS" and the students either watched reality TV or had no time to watch anything at all so then we just stared at each other for a while. Anybody got some spiffy tricks they want to share so I can spare this new class a similar trauma?
posted by angrycat to Education (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Desert Island is always good.

"If you were going to a desert island, what three things would be on your iPod?"
posted by nickrussell at 9:03 AM on August 26, 2012

40 free ice breakers
posted by livinglearning at 9:09 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

From livinglearning's link (which, thanks, awesome)

Toilet Paper Game
•Pass around a roll of toilet paper to the group and ask them to take what they need. No further
•When done. Tell the group that as they go around the room, each person must tell a fact or something
about themselves for each square of TP they took.

The weirdness of this one, I think, will compel me to try it out.
posted by angrycat at 9:23 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd actually caution against that one -- my mother just had to do it at a work meeting and reported that, even among co-workers who all knew each other well, most people found it either awkward and uncomfortable or just stupid.
posted by jeudi at 9:32 AM on August 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

The silent interview: Divide into pairs. Then each person in each pair must tell the other person 3 things about themselves without speaking -- charades-style. Then everyone comes back into the big group and each person introduces their partner to the larger group and describes the 3 things they think they learned about the other person. It's silly and it gets people out of their chairs, good things for icebreaking.
posted by macadamiaranch at 9:43 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Favorite flavor of ice cream? Pretty much everyone has one, so there shouldn't be awkward silences, and it's innocuous enough that people shouldn't be embarrassed to share it. Plus it's quick, and as a student I always wanted to get those things over with as soon as possible.

In terms of linking it to your subject you could take one of the more complex flavors, like Rocky Road, and say that the class will be like talking about Rocky Road, you'll be exploring all of the hidden good things that make up a well written story.
posted by slmorri at 9:43 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm actually going to pipe up with another opinion, too. As an undergrad (and even grad student), some sort of get to know other people would have helped me, because I never talked to class neighbors on my own. But, the first day of a class also set the tone for how I felt about the class. This TP activity (and many of the other ones) would have given me a bad taste because 1) I would not have wanted 40 eyeballs on me for something random (too much discomfort on the first day), and no ice breaker would been better and 2) I really was in class for the specified purpose, to learn X, not to learn or sit through random factoids or everyone elses names.

So when I taught my own courses, I kept all these experiences in my head. So here is an ice breaker that worked well for my class (I can't give an exact one for you, because "required Lit" doesn't tell me what you will read, do, and how much flexibility that you will have with what you teach, etc, but you could revise accordingly.)

Anyway, I had my students work in small groups of ~4 people and told them to pick a topic that they wanted to learn about that fit with the class topic. After a few minutes, each group gave their idea and they voted on their favorite topic, which went onto the syllabus for the end of the semester. It really helped me ....know what things my students were really interested in, what their anxieties were (a few commented on interest in X but they were afraid of a science class), and I felt that everyone's comfort level was met. Plus it still remained on topic. YMMV.
posted by Wolfster at 9:47 AM on August 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

I would drop your class at once if you did the toilet paper thing
posted by thelonius at 9:50 AM on August 26, 2012

Have you considered skipping the ice breaker? If your students are anything like me, they will find it annoying and a waste of time.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:56 AM on August 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

Right, no toiletpaper ones.

I hate wasting time too, but we get scolded if we break class early on the first day. Hence the ice breaker. Hence also my desire to link it to short stories/poetry/drama. But something that takes up time without irritating/angering people is good too.
posted by angrycat at 9:59 AM on August 26, 2012

This has nothing to do with stories or poetry or anything but it's quick, easy, and puts everyone in a good mood: the rock-paper scissors tournament. Pair up with somebody next to you and then it's single-elimination. But there's a catch: you have to cheer for whoever beats you, and then whoever beats them. Switching allegiances on a dime and cheering for whoever wins is novel and fun since, in the end, well, everybody wins.

Also, just to note, there is a LOT of storytelling in reality TV. Also, there's lots of storytelling in pop songs. Or, have them actually watch a short show and then get them thinking about it.
posted by ropeladder at 10:12 AM on August 26, 2012

Personally, I don't like ice breakers because of my anxiety and because I also think they are annoying and a waste of time.

I think a lot of people tend to feel this way as they get older. But, I have enjoyed certain ice breakers more than others. For instance, I really like the ice breakers where you just stand up and say something short rather than working with someone and then presenting information about them.

An ice breaker like this might work more effectively than the TP game:

Finish the Sentence Game
•Write the start of a question on the board (i.e. My Favorite job was, My Hobby is.) and go around the room with each person finishing the sentence. When the group is finished, post another question and start again.

You could have everyone finish the exact same sentence which would be an introduction sentence in the following format:
Hi, my name is _____. I am ____ years old. I am a _____ major.

After everyone has done this first part, you could go around the class again except this time you would use several different sentences (depending on the class size/group size) and have 3-5 people finish the same sentence so that there's more of a variety.

-I enrolled in this class because ______________
-I enjoy short stories (poetry or drama) the most
-I am ___________
-My favourite artist is ____________


But, my favourite ice breaker of all time involved each person standing up one by one and saying their name and nothing else.

The class then came up with adjectives to describe each person simply based on this one action.

The professor collected these pieces of paper that various names and adjectives were written on and typed all of the information out. Then, for the following class she gave us each a piece of paper with our names (and only our names!) along with the adjectives that people used to describe us.
posted by livinglearning at 10:24 AM on August 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

One of the most useful icebreakers I've done was on my first day of my first improv class. Everyone introduced themselves with an alliterative adjective and their first name, with a gesture to go with. So I was "Luminous Lyn" with a sort of hand-flutter around my face to indicate my luminosity.

Remembering everyone's names was tons easier - even if we did tend to address each other with the gestures for a while - and the adjective warm-up was helpful for getting creative juices flowing. I'm sure at least a few of your students' adjectives would be useful jumping-off points for literature.

It can also come up handy if you need to differentiate a Dancing David from a Drowsy David.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:33 AM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

What about having them work together in teams to problem-solve something? We did it a lot in science classes in high school, and I liked it because it required movement, wasn't a completely obvious time waster, required a modicum of actual thought, required people to learn names, and was just a little bit competitive to whet people's appetites. It's been a long time since I participated in one, but I'll write out the directions to my favorite as best I can remember. The materials may be hard to grab on short notice, but here's hoping:

-1 empty coffee can
-1 empty smaller soup can
-A tape-outlined large circle in the middle of the room (6+ feet diameter)
-A tape-outlined small circle in the middle of the large one (probably about 2 feet in diameter -- I am terrible with measurement; this may be all wrong)
-A few handfuls of beans
-A timer (optional)
-A bag of materials for each group of students that contains the following (or one class set of materials that they can use one at a time):
*2 deflated bike tires (or something with equivalent rubbery stretchiness -- you can probably call up a local bike shop and ask if they have any old or ruined ones they'll donate to you)
*A few pieces of string of varying lengths
*Whatever other mcguffin materials you want to put in (duct tape, glue, paper, etc.) that aren't necessary to solve the puzzle.

Place the coffee can and soup can in the small circle in the middle of the room. Put all the beans inside the soup can. Divide students into groups of about 4-8 people each. The students are now nuclear physicists attempting to stop a power plant from imminent meltdown (this worked well for science classes -- maybe you can easily come up with a different story for your class based on a story they'll have to read?). To stop the power plant from melting, they have to transfer the radioactive beans from the smaller can (where they're overheating) into the larger can so they can cool down.

However, these beans are highly radioactive: they cannot leave the small circle in any way or the power plant immediately melts down and the team loses. If a single bean drops to the floor, the power plant immediately melts down and the team loses. If any human steps even a toe or finger inside the larger circle they are exposed to a fatal dose of radiation and they immediately die (and can no longer help their team). Using the materials on hand, each team needs to devise a solution to transfer the beans from one container to the other.

Teams get 5-10 mins to devise their plan, and then take turns attempting to complete the activity. Because this is an icebreaker, students also need to always refer to each other by name and be polite -- so they can't just say "move a little to the left," but rather "John, would you move a few inches to the left please?" The team that prevents the plant from melting down in the shortest amount of time wins a candy or homework exemption or extra credit or whatever you want to give out.

(Generally, the most effective way to solve the puzzle is to have 2 people stand on opposite sides of the circle and stretch one of the bike tires around the soup can, so they can then lift and tilt the soup can so the beans fall into the coffee can -- so the larger circle cannot be large enough that the bike tire won't stretch across. As the teacher you watch to make sure nobody goes over the line, and be really really strict about it to play up the suspense. You can also randomly declare that a team member stepped over the line if you need to move things along -- they won't notice if you're clever about it.)

Other problem solving games I've seen do something like constructing a way to get a marble from one place to another using toilet paper and paper towel rolls. I like problem solving activities a lot more than generic ice breaker games because students worked in groups (so nobody was singled out to talk in front everyone), and it got people a lot more animated than filling out questionnaires or interviewing one another. Since everyone had to call each other by name (or be disqualified) they also had to take the time to learn others' name well enough to remember it in a moderate-stress situation. If you can really play up the silliness angle as a teacher it also makes it more fun than "go around the circle and answer question X" icebreakers. These activities are also really flexible on time -- use a smaller or larger number of groups, add a time limit they have to beat before the meltdown, more/less prep time, etc. -- so you can stretch or limit them as necessary so you don't let them out early.

I'm wondering if you could do a short discussion afterwards about linking the suspense to the narrative structure of most fiction (to vaguely tie it into content material). The exposition was the rules and set up, the first few groups that tried and failed were the rising action, the most suspenseful moment of the activity when the first group was about to succeed was the climax, and every subsequent group was the falling action and resolution. Just something that's vaguely related to the class themes/content/goals to get them thinking.
posted by lilac girl at 11:04 AM on August 26, 2012

I think, the more cutesy you get, the more the icebreaker is likely to annoy me -- so that's a problem with the toilet paper scenario, in addition to whatever is just slightly weird and uncomfortable about it being done with toilet paper.

You could, if you need to use the whole class, go into something that doesn't require them to have done a homework assignment -- say, watch and discuss a relevant movie clip. But if you want to go with icebreakers, for me personally, I'd rather it be something simple and straightforward like Lyn Never or livinglearning's ideas and/or some kind of group breakout session like Wolfster describes.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:10 AM on August 26, 2012

Hi my name is ___________; if I were a character from literature, I would be _____________.
If you want it to take up more time (but maybe more annoying), you can have each successive person name all the previous students' lit characters as well as adding their own.

We did this in a college lit class I took. I still remember Queequeg (though I don't remember his real name!).
posted by bluefly at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2012

I use icebreaker activities more for me to get to know names than for the students to meet each other, and my favorite thing to do in a class with a required text is bibliomancy. Have each student open the text at random and read a sentence. Ask them how they can interpret that to apply to themselves, their lives, this class. Some will be jokey, some will be serious, some will be reluctant, but it's very low-stakes and low-pressure.
posted by MsMacbeth at 11:29 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tell them you were going to do terrible ice breakers but instead will show them YouTube videos of baby elephants IF they all tell three things about themselves -- name, hometown, something something something.
posted by samofidelis at 11:40 AM on August 26, 2012

Will your class be ONLY college-aged kids, or are there likely to be some mature/non-traditional students in the room? If the latter (and, actually, even if not) I'd be strongly tempted to veer as far away from traditional drama-class-type ice-breakers (where the main purpose is to learn names, and loosen people up physically and creatively) as possible, and find something that was much more relevant to the subject matter of your class.
I did my BA as a mature student, and was paying for every minute of it on my own (as many of your students probably are), and I know that if I suspected my TA or Prof were simply trying to fill/waste time during class by making us spout inane facts about ourselves, I would have dropped the class immediately and found a TA/Prof who was more respectful of my time, money, and desire to LEARN. Your students don't need to be entertained or distracted, and they won't be easily fooled by blatant attempts to simply fill time. Start the year off right by encouraging useful discussion about your subject matter and your plans for the class. Ask students what they are interested in learning while in your class. Ask them what they have no interest in. Assure them that while you can't ignore/change the curriculum, you CAN make it as relevant and interesting as possible, but you need their help to do so. All of this is true, and (if asked sincerely) can fill all the time an ice-breaker would without any of the awkwardness or pandering.
(I hope that doesn't sound harsh/rude, but I know that I personally react REALLY viscerally and negatively to people wasting my time unnecessarily, which is how I've always perceived ice-breakers. Just trying to be honest/helpful).
If discussing learning outcomes doesn't get their opinionated juices flowing, try this: Ask for someone's favourite song (any current or semi-current pop/rap/rock song will do, so long as it has lyrics). Quickly google the lyrics (one of the students will likely have a smartphone, if you don't. If all else fails, you could come with a song pre-selected). Copy the first verse (or the chorus, or any chunk of 10-14 lines or so) onto the board. Walk the students through a close reading of the text you've copied, encouraging them not to talk about what the text "means" or what the "message" of the song is, but rather HOW it means and how the language is working. Encourage contrasting opinions and multiple readings. Once they get going, you'll easily fill the time you need to fill, and they will (hopefully) be energized about the possibilities of langage.
I am particularly fond of this exercise on the first day of class for several reasons: 1) It puts everyone on fairly equal footing (chances are no one in the room, including you as the "teacher", has ever done a really close reading of that particular text), which can help encourage participation and empower the students to take their own thoughts seriously; 2) It introduces the idea that "literature" is an incredibly broad and malleable category; 3) Because you use a popular/familiar piece of text, it helps dispel the intimidation factor of "LITERATURE"; 4) It gets the students accustomed to how rewarding (and demanding) close reading can be.
I've had success with this in the past, and honestly feel like it set a really good tone for the class throughout the semester.
Good luck!
posted by Dorinda at 11:41 AM on August 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Here's an ice breaker game I've used successfully in the past... Prior to class you print a bunch of names on small pieces of paper. The names can be TV characters, literary characters, actors, inventors, politicians, whatever. Put the papers in a large bowl and have every student draw one without looking and hand it to you. You then attach the paper to his back with a piece of Scotch tape or whatever. Then the students have to mingle and talk among themselves to find out who they are. They have to ask fellow students yes or no questions: "Am I alive? Am I famous for being on TV? Am I a male?" Then you can award token prizes to those first few who figure out who they are.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:02 PM on August 26, 2012

Right after The Avengers came out, I went to a volunteer event where the icebreaker was "What's your favorite superhero movie?". I was surprised that just about all of us (variety of ages, backgrounds) had a different answer. You could expand this to cartoons, comics, etc, or just ask who their favorite hero or heroine is from any media.
posted by sarahnade at 12:35 PM on August 26, 2012

I like the one where you divide students into pairs, give them 5 minutes or so, then each person has to introduce the other to the class.

That way, you at least learn the name of one student in the class.

(you could even suggest that one thing to mention is why the person is taking the class. )

(I'm not quite clear, though, why there's no content you need/want to cover in the first day. I always start lecturing on day one after I've finished discussing classroom logistics. Could you do some close-reading of a short poem? Or read a short story having each student read a sentence or something? I'm sure you've already considered and rejected this sort of thing, since presumably you know how to run your own class, but I'm very confused about the context you need the exercise for. )
posted by leahwrenn at 12:43 PM on August 26, 2012

Thanks, everybody, these are lots of good suggestions. I think I can come up with a question that will sort of illustrate the critical thinking that I'm expecting: Asking people to name their favorite anything, as long as it involves a narrative of some sort, and provide three reasons why.

I totally get why icebreakers could be annoying (they annoyed me as a student); but, I do see their utility as the class will be reading each other's work, I need to set a conversational tone (as opposed to lecture) because I want to promote discussion; moreover, there's going to be a certain % who will have zero interest in the material from the outset, and, prior to their doing any reading, I need to try to stimulate their desire to engage with the material.

I was sort of overly flippant in terms of describing a need to fill time, and it's good to be called out on that one. I guess I'm in the headspace of pre-semester stress, which can kind of eclipse good pedagogical intentions.
posted by angrycat at 12:58 PM on August 26, 2012

The only clever "ice-breaker" I've liked both as the instructor and the victim is the introduce another student to the class one.

BUT, to work, you have to make it pretty structured. Do a five-minute presentation first on "how to introduce someone on stage." Give them a template. Your introduction should look like this:

Hi, I'm ___. I'd like to introduce to you [Person].
[One sentence about Person's background, previous schools, etc.]
[One sentence about why Person is taking this class and what they expect to learn]
[One thing about Person that is unusual]
So, everyone help me welcome Person to the class.
[everyone clap. Person walks up to the podium/front of class and takes a bow.]

Give them a short time to interview their neighbor. Not too long or half of them get bored and awkward. Not too short, because some of them will want to talk for a few minutes. I like a six minute time limit. (Six sounds more precise than five. For some reason, people think five minutes means "about five minutes, as much time as you need" but six minutes means "only six minutes, hurry up."

Gimmicky games like the toilet paper thing drive me nuts.
posted by ctmf at 12:59 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have them each describe their favorite movie in 5 words, without using any names, titles, or things like that. Ask them for things such as mood, feel, twists, etc. They will tell it to the class, and everyone has to try to guess which movie is described. For example, if I chose Alien, I might say

Dark, slimy, space, alone, chest

It makes it a game, since people will try to be creative, and as the answers are revealed, everyone will get a little insight into the person who wrote about the film. You can then give prizes for the best descriptions (or funniest, or whatever).

There's no stress, no one has to be embarrassed about anything, and it's a fun simple game that doesn't take too long.
posted by markblasco at 1:14 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My favorite ice breaker ever was the professor coming in and saying "I'm not doing any of that first day crap. Everyone get a pen and start taking notes."

After class we grouped up somehow and from then on we were bonded by the simple fact that our professor was a pain in the ass for actually having a real class on the first day.
posted by theichibun at 2:32 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know you're doing an icebreaker because you want to get to know your class (I'm a teacher too, I get it) but maybe try to make your icebreaker less about personal sharing (which IMHO really is the one thing people hate the most about icebreakers - talking about themselves) and make the activity more like a team-building kind of activity where they can get to know each other better through their interactions in the activity, not necessarily what they choose to share.

Put students in teams and give them a situation they have to solve. Survival ones are always good. There are tons of others out there if you google "team building". I'm sure you could tailor something like that for your class: Give each group a list of books, but there is only room for 5 in the time capsule, have them narrow lists in small groups and then as a class. You can just sit back and observe the students. If you use a topic in your curriculum, you will get the added bonus of finding out what their prior knowledge is and that will definitely help you plan your lessons.

If you still want to do another getting to know you activity, they might be more open to it after doing a team building one.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:04 PM on August 26, 2012

I didn't see 2 Truths and a Lie, which is really popular in K12 as well as college. This is one you usually do in small groups, like 2-3-4 people, so it's not whole-group traumatic. Have people count off and get in groups. Tell each person to take a card or paper and write down 2 true things about themselves and 1 thing that isn't true. Then, taking turns, your teammates have to read and guess which of your statements is false. It helps if your true items are a little odd, and your false one is really mundane, or is basically true, but with an incorrect detail (like "I have a red truck" when your truck is blue).

Icebreakers are a teambuilding activity that help build common ground and get people to trust each other, which is incredibly valuable if you want them to read each others' work and be comfortable peer-critiquing.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:12 PM on August 26, 2012

Total vote for problem solving type ice breakers. It gets you involved with the class & on a team-like sense with the people around you. Makes you more engaged & less feeling like you're in an interview hot seat, which I think most people cringe & begrudgingly do it, then disconnect while their nerves calm down, while listening to the other speakers. At least that's what I do.

It feels fun too, most people like to play games (school can seem such a chore most of the time). Engage people in having fun & they'll be more responsive & happy overall. Even the shy ones :)
posted by readygo at 3:46 PM on August 26, 2012

Also be careful to consider the cultural diversity of your students. Anything where you supply a list (books on the island, famous people on your back) you run the risk of embarrassing the student who doesn't know the reference. Similarly, there may be people who in your class who don't know much pop culture (either by preference, family value or because they consume culture in another language or just plain new to the US).
posted by metahawk at 4:07 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

What if you give a little lecture on the types of things you are going to be studying (plot devices, alliteration, man vs. nature type of conflicts, poetic language, whatever) and then have them group up or pair up to give an example of how their favorite reality shows use one or more of those devices.
posted by CathyG at 8:47 PM on August 26, 2012

"Demographics" tasks activity. This activity is 'real life' based and is a good way to introduce (no lose, fun) teamwork with new people. It also yields some interesting ideas that can be used in later classes regarding human interactions, values, diversity, etc. It requires LOTS of mingling and noise. Encourage laughter - it is not a graded activity.

The Activity:

- Prepare questionnaire handouts ahead of time (4-5 handouts - different ones for each of the four groups; 4-6 questions per group; see 'groups' below for questions)
- Have big sheets of paper and drawing pens ready for visuals

- Divide class into four random groups (I do this by counting off, so they are not sticking only with friends)

- Groups are to gather information from the class (they organize how they will do this, but they must survey every person in the class for the results):
1. Favorites group (food, movies, etc. - 4-5 questions)
2. Statistical group (gather info on ages, family background, birthplace, height, birthday, etc.
3. Values/opionons group (death penalty, contraception, race, GBLT, etc.)
4. Assumptions group (this group does not ask questions, but observes the others and makes assumptions about 'Who would be funniest at a party? Who is going to get an A in the class? Who will be the richest? Who would you most trust? etc.)

The groups must 1.) Gather their information and then 2.) Create ONE big visual for the class to understand the information -- it can be a graph, stick figures, etc.

End the class with people viewing/discussing the visuals. If you have time, have each team explain the visuals.
posted by Surfurrus at 8:46 AM on August 27, 2012

whoops -- one more thing; the students need a roster of all the names so they can keep track of their information
posted by Surfurrus at 8:48 AM on August 27, 2012

Hey guys, thanks again. I used Derinda's excellent answer. In my other class, a prereq to this other one, I asked people to describe what they love/hate and why. One student said that she hated cats; they made her angry. I laughed like a horse and they found that somewhat charming, or something.
posted by angrycat at 5:43 PM on August 27, 2012

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