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Down with classroom icebreakers: Can we all just start teaching instead?  

Teachers waste an incredible amount of instruction time every year on these awkward and pointless exercises


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Dan Greenstone
September 6, 2016 6:56PM (UTC)

If you’re reading this it’s probably too late. There’s a good chance the teacher of a child you love has already squandered a non-trivial amount of instruction time by prodding a roomful of reluctant kids through a series of awkward icebreakers and/or delivering a soul-crushingly dull and dour recitation of required supplies, class rules, and tardy policies.

I tend to view other teachers as competitors as much as colleagues — you’re kidding yourself if you think students don’t play favorites — so it’s with some reluctance that I reveal an important trade secret. But watching my own children complain, year after year, about “doing nothing” for the first week or more of school has finally pushed me over the brink. So, teachers, meet me at camera three: The best way to start your class during those crucial, first days of school is to dive right into your subject of expertise. Immediately.

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But don’t the kids need to know about your rules and regs before they can learn anything? Jordan Catapano, writing at Teacherhub.com, certainly thinks so. “Like any individual in any new environment,” Catapano writes, “students are thirsty for information regarding how they are to behave and what expectations to live up to.

So, I’ve got two main problems with this nonsense (aside from all that bold print, which was in the original). First, students are not in a “new environment.” They’re in a classroom, a setting they’ve spent much of their waking life in. Which is why kids from age seven to seventeen already know the essential rules:

  1. Don’t talk out of turn.

  2. Keep your hands to yourself.

  3. Be present and punctual.

  4. Have your supplies and materials.

  5. Turn in your work on time.

Any policies beyond these basics can and should be introduced organically, as needed. Droning on at length about our personal organizational fetishes makes us sound narrow and sour, as though the main reason we went into teaching is we enjoy controlling others.

Secondly, if you think middle or high school kids, who can have as many as eight different teachers, are going to remember your rules just because you read them aloud, then you don’t get how learning works.

And while we’re at it, can we please ditch the all-too common first-day practice of previewing our curriculum in minute detail. My kid’s middle school Spanish teacher, for example, spent five full class periods going over their syllabus (in English) before ever uttering a single word in Spanish.

Just as absurd is the suggestion from Maryellen Weimer, a retired education professor, writing on the Faculty Focus website, that (high school!) teachers “distribute the syllabus and give students five minutes to review it. Then put them into groups…  to answer 10 questions about the syllabus. The first group to answer all the questions correctly wins stickers that say ‘We’re #1,’ high fives from the teacher, applause from the class.”

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Stickers? Applause? High-fives?

Puke.

So what about icebreakers? We’ve all been told that we should start slow, that kids learn better when they feel comfortable, that we can’t teach kids unless we really know them. Kim Haynes, for example, writing on Teacherhub.com, put it this way, “if you’re teaching kindergarteners (or high school freshmen, who often seem like kindergarteners), you may need to spend the first day – or the first several days — getting everyone comfortable.”

So, okay, first of all, I’m not really sure where the idea that icebreakers make people comfortable comes from. Could it be the name? I, for one, am not fooled. Nor is Jennifer Gonzalez, who points out on her excellent blog, Cult of Pedagogy, that any icebreaker that might get students “to share something interesting and different about themselves,” typically runs aground because, for adolescents, “being different is the worst thing you can be.” And so, ironically, as Gonzalez astutely notes, what, “many students ultimately do is share something safe and boring, something like ‘I like soccer.’”

And when icebreakers aren’t personal, they tend to be anodyne, dorky and awkward. Teachers, understandably, want to learn the name of everyone in the class as quickly as possible, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that our students share that same pressing desire. So, please, for God’s sake, can we agree to bury that dumbest of all icebreakers, the Name Game. Nobody cares (or knows) what fruit shares a first initial with Valerie.

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Look, the impulse to get to know your students is noble, and we’ve all heard the old saw that the best way to get to know someone is by doing something with them. But that adage leaves out a small but crucial detail — if you want to get to know someone, that thing you do with them has to be meaningful.

So if teachers shouldn’t do icebreakers, or read the syllabus and rules, what should we do? How do we as, Kim Haynes puts it, “face the big day with enthusiasm,” when we “dread the inevitable challenge: what to do on the first day of school.”

Dread not, fellow teachers. We hold a secret weapon in our grasp. Namely, we’ve devoted our working lives to the pursuit and mastery of a subject that we are wildly passionate about. Mine is history; maybe yours is music, Spanish, chemistry or calculus. No matter. Because when we convey to our students, right from the jump, that we love what we do, they’ve already learned nearly everything they need to know about us. And when we interact with them in a stimulating, meaningful activity related to our passion, we’ll begin to learn about them as well.

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For example, in my American History classes, on the first day, right after the first bell, I have students analyze and compare the manifests of two ships, one headed to Massachusetts in 1635, the other bound for Virginia that same year.  From these deceptively simple documents, students are able to deduce key differences between the individualistic, fortune-hunting society of Virginia and theocratic, communal, Puritan Massachusetts. And we’re off.

There is one thing Jordan Catapano wrote that I agree with: “the first days of school (and first day of school activities) offer you the opportunity to show students who you are and where you stand as a teacher.” Which is exactly why the oceanfront real estate of the first day shouldn’t be frittered away with a tedious dissemination of rules and regulations, or pointless icebreakers. Instead, teachers, let’s use these opening moments to shine a light on our contagious passion for what we teach.


Dan Greenstone

Dan Greenstone teaches history at the Francis W. Parker school in Chicago. He is the author of the novel "A Theory of Great Men."

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