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icebreakerIcebreakers Volume 4: Activities for the First Day of School

Are you looking for the perfect way to get to know your students and help them get to know one another? You'll find it here! Education World offers more than 15 creative icebreakers from our readers.

Every year, creative teachers share with Ed World readers their favorite first-day-of-school activities. Enjoy these 19 teacher-tested ideas for getting to know your new students!

'LAY DOWN THE LAW' AND THEN...

Like many teachers, Suzanne Meyer feels compelled to use part of the first day of classes to "lay down the law." She shares her plans for the year ahead as well as class rules and expectations. A few years ago, however, Meyer, the K-12 instructional technology coordinator in the Hilton (New York) Central School District, decided to turn the tables.

"After doing my 'routine,' I asked students for their expectations of me," Meyer told Education World. "For three years in a row, I have found that this approach builds powerful bridges to understanding between me and my students.

Still looking for more ideas? Don't forget our archive of more than 150 icebreaker activities

"Because adolescents are in 'take in' mode early in the school year, you will have their undivided attention as they try to size you up," suggested Meyer. "Tell them you're interested in their opinions and you're asking them these questions as a way of finding out about their learning styles and preferences. Ask them to write, using as much detail as possible, their responses to questions, such as:

  • Now that I've told you my expectations of a good student, what are your expectations of a good teacher?
  • Tell me about the best teacher you've ever had. What made that person such a good teacher?
  • Now that I've told you some of my ideas about how we will go about learning this year's material, tell me about how you learn best. Give me an example of a project or unit where you learned a lot. Describe the project in detail.

"I passed this idea on to other friends and have gotten very good feedback about how it sets up a positive dynamic right from the beginning of the school year," added Meyer. "The students' writing will also surprise and amuse you, and you can use responses as a follow-up the next day when you launch into the work and fun of learning with a new group of students."

TIME CAPSULES: A TIME-PROVEN YEAR OPENER

Annette Bright teaches fourth grade at Our Lady of Unity School in Kansas City, Kansas. Like many other teachers, she starts her year with a time capsule activity. "I give each student a sheet with questions such as

  • What's your favorite TV show?
  • What's your favorite song?
  • What's your favorite book? on it.

There's a space for students to answer the questions at the beginning of the year and another space for them to answer the same questions at the end of the year.

"After students put their answers in the first blank, I tie all the sheets together and put them in my file cabinet," Bright told Education World. "It's always funny at the end of the year to hear them laughing and screeching over their answers from the beginning of the year. They always change their minds by the end of the year!"

Beginning-of-the-year time capsules can include many other items too. In addition to students' question sheets, their individual time capsules might also include a hand tracing, yarn cut to measure their heights, and writing samples. Seal the items in envelopes, and open them at the end of the school year. Students will surely be amazed at their growth -- physically and academically!

For that time capsule writing sample, you might use another of Bright's favorite beginning-of-school activities. "I have students interview each other like newspaper reporters sometime during the first week of school," Bright explained. "They have to ask a partner five questions and use those answers to write a paragraph about their partner. Then they introduce their partner to the class by reading the interviews."

Those interviews also make a great Introducing the Fourth Grade bulletin board, added Bright.

THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS

Inviting students to share a few of their favorite things is a great way to break the ice!

Judith Bessenoff, a teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Edison, New Jersey, introduces an overhead transparency on which she has drawn all kinds of pictures that "describe" herself. There's a plane, lots of books, a hill, and more. She invites her students to guess from the drawings what her favorite outside interests might be. (Did you guess traveling, reading, and hiking?)

"Then I give students drawing paper and ask them to tell me about themselves -- using only pictures," said Bessenoff. "We break into small cooperative groups, and each group tries to tell about the people in the group. Of course, I walk around and interact with each group, so I get to know them too."

Each September, Charilyn Damigo makes a large chart titled Getting to Know You. She laminates the chart and hangs it on a wall in her classroom at Liberty Baptist School in San Jose, California. "The chart has sections for students' name and interesting facts, such as how many people are in their families, how many pets they have, their favorite colors, favorite school subjects, favorite sports, and so on," Damigo told Education World. "Everyone 'signs in' sometime during the first day of school. "I leave the chart up for several weeks," added Damigo. "The kids love to wander over to it when they have free time. They keep learning new things about one another."

Like many of her students, teacher Debra Adams will probably wear a nice new outfit on the first day of the new school year. Unlike most of the other teachers at Cordova (Alaska) Junior/Senior High School, Adams chooses to accessorize with her favorite hiking boots!

She gets some odd looks -- as you can well imagine!

"I tell my students that my hiking boots -- which I call my 'happy shoes' -- are one of my most sentimental objects," said Adams. "They tell a lot about me, I say. Then I invite the students to ask questions and take notes about my hiking boots in order to get to know me better. Usually students come up with such questions as

  • Where have you been in your boots?
  • Why do you call them 'happy shoes'?
  • How long have you had them?

What I want the class to discover is that I am passionate about traveling and that I have trekked all over the world in my 'happy shoes.'

"After the question session," Adams continued, "I ask the students to write brief paragraphs that tell what they learned about me that they would not have otherwise known. Then I give the assignment for the next day; each student is to bring in a sentimental object of his or her own. No one has to get up in front of the room to share it -- ninth graders are afraid of this kind of exposure! -- but I will visit each person's desk and ask the student to show me the object he or she brought. I admire and fuss over each object and ask several questions about it. Then I ask each student to write a paragraph that describes his or her object and explains what it tells me about the student that I would not known if we'd simply gone over classroom rules the first day.

"Students have brought in beautiful objects -- a girl's baby quilt made by her mother, fly tying equipment, keys to dirt bikes, stuffed animals, woven scarves, rings, photo albums of friends, you name it!" said Adams. "Students appreciate the personal, yet non-threatening, interest I take in their objects."

This activity could be easily adapted for use with younger students, added Adams. "Sixth graders would probably be jazzed about introducing their objects to the class!"

Trina Baxter works in the computer lab at Hampton (Georgia) Elementary School. She works with many teachers at the school. One of her favorite activities is the All About Me Bag.

"On the first day of school, a teacher fills a small brown lunch bag with items that best 'describe' him or her," said Baxter. "She or he pulls out each item and tells the children a short story about it. The bag might include things such as baby pictures, pictures of pets, an object from a collection, a food he or she does not like, and so on. Then students are given brown bags to decorate. For homework that night, the students must fill their bags with items that tell about themselves. Those bags are shared throughout the first week of school in community circle."

This activity gives the teacher a great understanding of each student right from the beginning of the new school year, added Baxter.

MORE GETTING TO KNOW YOU ACTIVITIES!

Avis Breding puts a little action into her opening-day activities at Jeannette Myhre School in Bismarck, North Dakota. She's adapted an activity from Skills for Adolescence for use with her fifth and sixth graders. "I use little beanbags, and we go outside if the weather cooperates. Students stand in a circle at tossing distance. For the first round, when someone tosses the beanbag to a student, the person has to tell his or her name. The second round is favorite food, the third round, their favorite sport."

"You can add whatever you want to the list of information they share," added Breding. "I quit the game when the tossing gets a little wild!"

If tossing action is part of your opening-day game plan, you might try another activity that I saw posted to a middle-school listserv. The teacher who posted the idea says she's done this activity with all ages -- including adults. She calls the activity the "snowball activity." She wrote: "Students write on a piece of paper three things about themselves. Then they crumple the paper up into a 'snowball' and have a one-minute snowball fight. At the end of the minute, everyone grabs the closest snowball and has to try to find the person who wrote it. They then introduce that person to the rest of the group, sharing the three facts."

Another active getting to know you idea comes from Brigitte Dennett, a teacher at Skyview High School in Vancouver, Washington. It's an idea that might be used with success at any grade level.

"You begin by setting up chairs in a circle," Dennett told Education World, "but set up one less chair than the number of participants."

Then it's time to explain the rules. The teacher can start the game by being the person in the middle without a chair. "Each person in the circle starts by introducing themselves to their two circle neighbors on either side," explained Dennett. "The teacher then introduces herself or himself to a member of the circle and asks that person who his or her neighbors are. After the student responds, the teacher invites the student to ask a yes or no question of the whole group. That question must relate something true about the student. For example, a student who surfs might ask the group if anyone has ever been surfing. Members of the class who have surfed respond yes not by talking but by getting out of their seats and finding a new seat at least two chairs away."

Then the cycle starts again. Students introduce themselves to their neighbors, the person left standing introduces himself or herself to a new person, and the game continues.

On the first day of school, teacher Sandra Doughman serves up a delicious little activity that makes a great bulletin board too! Doughman starts by handing a paper plate to each student in her class. "I ask each student to draw on the plate something that he or she feels is special about himself or herself," Doughman told Education World. "That might be a special hobby, an interest, an activity, anything!"

The students also draw or write their names on their plates in big letters, added Doughman. "Then all the students sit around a table covered with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. They share with the group their picture plates and explain to the group the significance of what they drew."

This is a nice way for students and the teacher to get to know one another, but the activity also results in a fun bulletin board! "When the sharing time is over, I put the cloth up as a background on a bulletin board and then place the paper plates on the board!"

While we're talking about food, Linda Vaughn, a teacher at Muskingum Perry Career Center in Zanesville, Ohio, starts the year with an appeal to the sweet tooth in her students!

"I pass around a basket of candy, and I tell the students to take as much of the candy as they want," said Vaughn. "They are usually pretty shy and take only a few pieces. Then I explain that they must tell one thing about themselves for each piece of candy they took!"

Pity the child who took a whopping handful!

Note: Before preparing or distributing any food in the classroom, make sure you are aware of children's allergies or dietary restrictions and caution children about choking hazards.

Brenda Buck, a grade three teacher at Kingston (Oklahoma) Elementary School, invites her students to get to know each other with a quick, little game she calls the "observation game."

"Line up your students in two lines facing each other," Buck explained, adding, "If I have an odd number of students, then I play with the unmatched student."

Buck gives the students exactly 30 seconds to look at the person with whom they're paired and to study everything about that person. Then the students in one line turn around and close their eyes while the students in the other line change something about themselves. For example, says Buck, one person may take off an earring, switch shoes, or put their hair behind an ear. Then the kids in the other line turn around and try to name what has changed. Switch roles and play the game again.

"The kids love this!" said Buck. "And some kids are very sneaky!"

I recently caught one more getting to know you idea that I really like liked on the T2T Listserv! Teacher Shiela Fernandez shared the idea she uses with the students in her class at Chula Vista (California) Middle School. Fernandez hands each pair of students a blank Venn Diagram form. The students work together to complete the activity.

"One student writes his or her name at the top of one of the circles, and the other student writes his or her name at the top of the other one," explained Fernandez. "In the overlapping portion of the circles, the partners must list five things that they have in common. In the parts of the circles with their names, the students must each list five things that are unique about themselves."

LANGUAGE FUN!

Some teachers start the year with introductory activities that combine getting acquainted with language fun. One of those teachers is Kim Tupponce, who teaches at Acquinton Elementary School in King William County, Virginia. On the first day of school, Tupponce does a take-off on the popular Mad-Lib game. "I write a generic story on an overhead transparency about 'The First Day of School in Mrs. Tupponce's Class,'" she explained. "Of course, I include in the story some strategically placed blanks. Without telling students what we are doing, I ask for nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other missing words, which I use to fill in the blanks as we go. I try to encourage students to use descriptive, exciting words.

"The students wonder what's going on when I start giggling, as I invariably do, because these are always funny," added Tupponce. "Then I turn on the overhead to reveal our Mad-Lib, and I ask a volunteer to read it aloud.

"The kids will always beg to do it again, so it's a good idea to write the story in permanent ink and fill in the blanks with water-based ink. You can just wipe it off with a wet paper towel and start over," suggested Tupponce.

She offered one more suggestion: Do the activity on the last day of school with a story recapping the school year.

Students in Gloria Lenhart's class at Hamilton (New York) Central School form a circle for introductions and a little fun with alliteration. "Students introduce themselves with their names and something that they like that starts with the same letter as their names," said Lenhart. "The person who starts the game states the alliteration; then it's the next person's turn. That person repeats what the first person said, then adds his or her name and alliteration and so forth around the circle."

For example, Lenhart might start by saying, "My name is Gloria and I love green grapes!" The next person in the circle says, "Her name is Gloria and she loves green grapes. I am Susan and I love silly stories."

And so it goes. See how many of the alliterations the last person in the circle can remember!

Ken Virgil uses a language activity on day one at Foster Village Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas. "This is not exactly a getting to know you activity," said Virgil, "but it's fun and makes the kids think on the first day."

Virgil writes on the board this simple direction: "List as many nouns as you can that are white and food."

Students might remain engaged in this activity for as long as 30 minutes, said Virgil. "We have come up with as many as 30 items in past years," he added. "The kids get really creative with it, listing things such as the inside of an apple, parts of okra, and so on."

Karen Koester teaches middle-school-level students at St. Marguerite Catholic School in Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada. Before she began teaching, Koester created an idea that she used in her youth ministry work; it's an idea that might work in any middle school classroom. The teacher saves junk mail from home as well as old magazines and newspapers. Cut out (or have students cut out) all kinds of words, phrases, and advertising slogans that are catchy and that your students might use to describe themselves. On the first day of school, display those scraps on a long table. "Students choose the ones that best describe themselves and glue those words or expressions onto their nametags," said Koester. "When they are called on to introduce themselves, they also tell why they chose those particular scraps from the pile.

"This is a fun way to get to know all the students' names and a little more," added Koester.

PLAN FOR NEXT YEAR!

Are you a planner? You might consider an activity for next year's opening day that requires a little bit of pre-planning.

At the start of each summer, the grade-four teachers at Rye (New Hampshire) Elementary School mail letters to the students who will enter their classes in September. "That letter informs the students that they are now on a scavenger hunt," said Melissa Bunton, one of the teachers. "They try to collect the items on the scavenger hunt list and bring them with them on the first day of school."

Among the items Bunton and her team members might ask students to collect are

  • something from nature that you found interesting
  • a picture of you doing anything
  • a brochure from someplace you went over the summer
  • a flower or vegetable from your garden
  • a list of books you read over the summer
  • a printed napkin
  • a postcard from somewhere you went over the summer
  • your favorite recipe
  • something from the beach
  • a symbol of New Hampshire (be creative!).

"I tell the students to find a box in which to store the items," explained Bunton. "On the first day of school, each student shares his or her scavenger hunt collection with a partner. Then two groups match up and each student shares four items. Then two of those groups are matched and each of the eight students shares three items. Eventually we'll be one big group, and each student will share one item.

"The kids love searching for their scavenger hunt items and are excited to share the items on the first day!" said Bunton, adding, "Everybody gets to know one another and learn something about other people's interests."

One of the best parts is that the scavenger hunt collections can be used to create activities that go beyond the first day of school. "We continue to use them for the next two weeks," said Bunton. The items can be used to prompt writing and for many other activities.

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