#Engchat Reflection: Icebreakers vs. Foundations

One of the things I both love and hate about Engchat is how quickly it flies by! At the end of a session my brain is stuffed with ideas. Here are my thoughts on today’s chat, sorted out:

It goes without saying that the first days of class set the tone for the year. Whatever you value most comes through loud and clear.

Of course, the first days are *also* full of some superficial-but-necessary administrative tasks. There are schedules to confirm, and policies and procedures to introduce, and forms that need to be signed, plus a lot of names to learn.

Once wise piece of advice I’ve gotten at SLA is to never let the administrative stuff crowd out the soul of your first day(s). One way to avoid this is to make space for a purely creative activity, be it visual, verbal, or kinetic.

These days, I’m also thinking about how to turn those administrative tasks into something that also impart deeper meaning, or provide an opportunity to build community. Here are some upgrades I have made in the last few years, and what I hope they communicate:

  • To learn names, I ask students to “tell the story behind your name.” You get great biographical details as well as some hooks to remember the name. I want their whole story, not just the surface details. I’ve done this in a private survey, but it could also be a group activity, or something that gets drawn on a name card.
  • To review policies and procedures, I give kids time to read it, and then have them pair off for a “pop quiz” where I ask them theoretical questions about their conduct in the class — things like “What happens if…” or “If I forget my homework…” At the end, I reveal that this quiz was NOT for credit. Why? Because I care about the learning, not the grades. Sometimes we ceremoniously rip up the little papers.
  • I try to put off any tasks are just plain grunt work, like setting up Google Docs or other online accounts. The boring stuff gets bottom billing.

Here are some new (to me) things I am thinking about for this year:

  • Via @sriii2000 – Sharing some of my own academic hardships and failures, before asking them to share and reflect on their own. Failure should be embraced so we can learn from it.
  • Asking students to brainstorm what a successful classroom looks like — we already have school-wide guidelines, but examples of what they know should happen. Students don’t have to be told what makes a classroom work.

The last piece is making sure that these points of emphasis continue on through the school year. My one gripe with “icebreakers” is that they can be fluff when you could have substance. Or worse yet, they are substantive, but then nothing fun or community-building like that happens again, ever. I try to make sure every activity is something that could be repeated for a cumulative effect, or collects info that can be revisited by me. It’s not so much the icebreaker as it is the underwater foundations for our class structure.

This post was inspired in part by John T. Spencer’s post on “Hidden curriculum.” Looking forward to composing my own list soon.


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