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Real community emerges over time, and is about developing relationships. Icebreakers are fun, but it’s also important to help students develop more substantive relationships with each other.
Image credit AWeith - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
I think often people either love icebreakers, or they hate icebreakers. I tend toward the latter camp. As a participant, I almost always would rather get to business, and this is reflected in my choice of “icebreaker” that I describe below. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great reasons - especially this semester! - to consider how to create community in our classes. Whether you opt for one of the fun icebreakers or stick to something more practical or content-oriented, here are a few caveats:
Don’t require students to reveal their location - geographic or within their home. There are a lot of reasons why students might not want everyone to know where they are. So questions about where they are, pictures of their “home study space,” requiring students to turn on their video…these can all be problematic.
Don’t require students to share a picture of themselves. A picture is different than being face-to-face in person, and not everyone is comfortable with putting their picture out there. Let them use an avatar or some other representation instead.
Don’t put students on the spot - in fact, consider sending out the icebreaker topic or questions in advance, so that students can prepare.
Prepare for students who can’t turn their video on during class. Is there an alternate way for them to participate? Can they share a file, or use the chat box?
In the end, real community emerges over the semester, and is about developing relationships. It’s great to start the class with some fun engagement, but it’s also important to think about how to help students develop more substantive relationships with each other and with you.
Practical, Content Focused Icebreakers
Speed dating: Use breakout rooms to get students into pairs or small groups, and switch up the rooms a few times so that everyone meets several other students. You can let them chat about the class, or give them a more specific task, such as sharing concerns, finding something specific online or in the course LMS site, or reacting to a reading.
Q&A Breakouts: In a variation on the above that works well with larger classes, put students in break out rooms and have each group come up with one urgent question (about the course material, the syllabus, how class will work, etc.) to share back with the class - and then answer those questions!
My Icebreaker: Time Management! Okay, mine is very practical and not very fun. But there’s really good reasons why I stick with this activity to get each class started. One of the most challenging part of being a student - both for students who are new to college and aren’t used to the freedom of setting their own schedule as well as for students with many competing obligations that make their schedule very full - is figuring out when to do their work. For several years now I’ve started my classes with a time management activity that asks students to draft a very detailed, hour-by-hour, weekly schedule. I’ve just revised my template document and recorded a new video (10 minutes) to reflect how different fall 2020 will be for our students. (Click the picture to access the template I share with students.)
In a normal semester, I do this in class as a “first day” activity - we have some independent time to sketch out a rough schedule, and then share either something important to us that we really need to make time for, or a worry we have about our schedule. I find this strikes a nice balance between getting to know each other but not asking students to divulge anything they aren’t comfortable sharing. It also honors and normalizes the reality that we are all dealing with competing responsibilities. Rather than pretending these challenges don’t exist, starting with this activity helps students to be honest with themselves about what they will need to do to be successful. This semester I’ll be asking students to watch the video below, create their own schedule, and then share in a discussion board.
Fun, Community-Focused Icebreakers
My favorite _______: Pick a theme (snack food, musical artist, poem, photo…) and have each student share what their favorite thing from that category is, and what it says about them. They can describe it, or share a picture either by submitting one in advance or by screenshare.
Wanderlust: Ask each student to post an image of a place to which they would like to visit/have visited/is significant to them, with a brief explanation. Because you aren’t asking them to share where they are, this one allows students to maintain their privacy and doesn’t single out anyone who isn’t comfortable with others knowing where they are now or where they are from.
Shared Google Slides presentation: Have each student create one slide to represent themselves to the class - they can choose to use a picture or avatar, and only share what they’re comfortable with the class knowing. If they do this in advance, you can collect all the slides into one presentation and share with the class, or let each student spend 30 seconds explaining their slide.
For more ideas:
5 Essential Icebreaker Activities for Any Online Course - I am intrigued with the idea of students creating a group resumé about what they want to get out of the course (instructions here).
A couple more lists of ideas for fun icebreakers: 21 Social Distance-Friendly and Virtual Icebreakers Students Will Actually Have Fun With and a collection of remote icebreakers in this Google spreadsheet.