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Icebreakers Volume 10: Back-to-School Activities

 

 

Most teachers use an icebreaker activity or two to get to know their students at the start of the school year. That's why, each year, Education World provides a forum for teachers to share their favorite ideas. Following are more than a dozen new teacher-tested icebreaker activities. Included: Links to more than 100 additional icebreakers!

So what are you doing to break the ice this year?

  • Will you take a close-up digital photo of each student, enlarge the images, and create a "classmate collage?"
  • Maybe you'll have students trace their (right!) shoe, cut out the shoe shape, and write a personal goal for the year on it. Students then can decorate their shoes in unique ways, and you can display them on the bulletin board under the headline Starting the Year on the Right Foot!
  • How about creating strips of paper with cliches or common expressions written on them? For example, one strip might say That's the way the -- cookie crumbles. Another might say Chew the -- fat. Cut each strip in an appropriate place (indicated by the --) and give each student half a strip. Students must find the classmate with the matching strip. They will have fun as they try to piece together the expressions. Some expressions that don't quite work -- such as Chew the cookie crumbles -- might bring a smile. When students find their partners, have them interview each other.
  • How about a fun sentence-writing activity? Arrange students in groups of five, and provide each group with a piece of paper and a pencil. (Only one pencil per group!) One student in the group starts a sentence by writing a word. The next student adds a word. The third student adds another word. Oh, there is one rule: Absolutely no talking is allowed during this activity! Which group writes the best sentence? Repeat the activity several times. Do sentences get better with each attempt?

MORE TEACHER-TESTED ICEBREAKERS!

Something's Not Right. On the first day of school, before students arrive, arrange five things in the room in an unusual way. The unusual arrangements can range from the very obvious to the very discrete. For example, you might put one desk upside down, put one of the alphabet cards above the blackboard in the wrong place, misspell a word on the bulletin board, and so on. Arrange students into pairs and challenge them to find the five things in the classroom that aren't right. This icebreaker is a good activity for teaching observation skills any day of the year.
       Cynthia Rivera, Adams Hill Elementary School, San Antonio, Texas

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

Adjective Activity. You might use this getting-to-know-you activity in language arts classes. Each student must think of an adjective that begins with the same letter as his or her name (first or last) and that also describes a positive quality he or she has; for example, musical Maddox. If a student is stumped, other students can offer suggestions. (It's amazing to see how well they know one another.) The activity reinforces -- in a way students remember -- that adjectives are words that describe.
       Vicki Maddox, Desoto Central Middle School, Southaven, Mississippi

Ugly Words Are Out! As you discuss classroom expectations, introduce the idea that "ugly words" have no place in your classroom. Ask students what they think you mean by "ugly words." Then have the class generate a list of words that might be found on an ugly-word list, and write the words on a piece of chart paper. (Explain to students that any word that is considered a swear word would definitely be on the ugly-word list, so there is no need to mention them. Point out that the same is true for such words as dummy, jerk, dork, geek, hate, or ugly.) You might start the list with the word "can't." What about the word quit? Go around the room and give each student an opportunity to add an ugly word to the list. When you are satisfied that the students' supply of ugly words has run dry, dramatically rip the chart paper off the pad, let it fall to the floor, and stomp all over it. Next, rip it up and crush it into a ball. Finally, get a shovel, take students outside, and ceremoniously bury the list of ugly words! This activity actually works! It has an impact; students remember the ugly words that will not be accepted in class.
       Becci Motes, Kelley-Smith Elementary School, Palatka, Florida

Mrs. Pizza. Arrange students into a circle. Ask Who did not eat breakfast this morning? Usually at least one student has not eaten. Then ask, Who wishes they hadn't eaten breakfast? That question usually encourages at least one student to begin the fun. Have that student say his or her name and tell the craziest thing s/he ever ate for breakfast. Continue around the circle; have each successive student tell what his or her craziest breakfast consisted of. In addition, each student must say the name of each previous student and tell what that person's craziest breakfast was. You go last; list every student by name and describe their most unusual breakfast. After that, for at least the first week of school, use students' "crazy breakfast" item to help their classmates remember their names. For example, Jenny ate cold salmon so you might refer to her as "Miss Jennifer Salmon." The kids love it, but beware -- they might call you Mrs. Pizza all year long!
       Gail Nagy, East Hills Middle School, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

T-shirt Day. This idea is a good one to introduce on the first day of class: Ask students to bring their favorite T-shirt to school on a particular day. On that day, hold a t-shirt parade, complete with marching music. When the parade is over, lead the way by explaining why your t-shirt is special to you. Then, have students tell about their shirt: where they got it, how long they've had it, and why it's their favorite. Students might bring in a t-shirts they wore as a baby, a t-shirt from a very special vacation, a t-shirts that was given as a gift, a t-shirt that was worn in a competition, and so on. The activity is a lot of fun and a quick and easy way to learn something about each student. You might extend the activity by having each student write an account of the occasion or event from the t-shirt's perspective. At open house, string several clotheslines across the room and hang the shirts and the students' stories on them. The display makes a quick and colorful room decoration, and introduces parents to their child's writing portfolio, which includes the t-shirt story as the first entry.
       Gail Nagy, East Hills Middle School, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Judith McMasters, Bishop Kelley High School, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Questionnaire Quilt. Provide each student with a questionnaire on which the questions elicit information about the students as individuals. Then have students use the information on the questionnaires to write a brief biographical paragraph about themselves. When the paragraphs are completed, provide each student with a different lightly- or brightly-colored square of construction paper or card stock, and ask them to decorate the square with symbols representing themselves. (Tell them to leave empty a 2-inch square space in the center of the square; they will mount their photo in that small square.) As students decorate their squares, wander around the room taking each student's picture. Glue the picture in the center of the student's square. Then glue all the squares together to create a "quilt." Add small black strips to make a border between the squares and a frame around the quilt. Type students' paragraphs and glue them around the frame. Display the quilt in the hallway. Or you might type students' paragraphs on white squares and make the quilt using alternate colored and white squares. In that case, be sure each student's quilt square is adjacent to his or her paragraph.
       Bonnie M. Ragas, Riverside Elementary School, Pearl River, Louisiana

A Year-long Quilt. Start this project on the first day of school and extend it throughout the school year. Begin by having students brainstorm their interests and hobbies and write them on a piece of paper. Then give each student a piece of white construction paper (For younger students, you might write their names in the middle of the sheet.) and have them make a quilt panel that displays memories of the summer, symbols of their favorite hobbies and interests, drawings of family members, and so on. Mount the student pages on colored construction paper and put them together to form a "quilt." Encourage students to add to their quilt panel as the year goes on. Making a yearlong class quilt is a great way to learn about your students' interests and it provides them with an opportunity to show off all year long.
       Rebeccah Hughes, Chapel District Elementary School, Cordova, Maryland

Passing Notes in Class. Arrange students into pairs. If a student doesn't have a partner, that student can partner with you. Explain to students that they are going to write notes to their partners. (Students love this idea; it is something they are seldom encouraged to do!) Inform them that this note-writing activity has a couple of rules. First, they are not allowed to ask any questions in their notes; the purpose of the activity is to learn as much as possible about the other student without asking questions. The other rule is that they cannot talk. That makes the activity harder, and students enjoy the challenge. Remind students that the best way to learn about someone else is to tell them things about yourself. Emphasize that it is easy to learn about others if you listen to what they say; in this case, students must "listen" to their partner's written words. Continue the activity for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on students' interest level and attention span. When the activity has run its course, stop the note writing and have each student introduce his or her partner to the class based on information learned from the note-writing. This activity usually results in lots of giggles; it's a great way to break the ice.
       Jennifer Muscillo, Roosevelt Elementary School, Eastpointe, Michigan

What's in a Name? This activity requires little preparation, but students really enjoy it! Write each student's name and the meaning of his or her name on a piece of paper, one piece per student. (You will need access to a Web site and/or a book that provides the meanings of people's names. Baby name books are great! Web sites such as Baby Names and Origins or Parenthood.com Baby Name Search also will be helpful.) When students arrive, pass out the prepared papers, and have each student write a page or so about whether or not the meaning of the name reflects his or her personality. For example, the name Megan means strong, able. If Megan is one of your students, she would write a brief essay explaining whether or not the definition of her name accurately describes her. Be sure to stress that students should give examples to support their positions. When students complete their essays, have them draw pictures to illustrate them. Students also might present their work to the class.
       Julie Kalil, Lifelong Learning Centre (High School), Cornwall, Ontario (Canada)

First "Homework Assignment." Giving students a writing assignment on the first day of school is a great way to quickly learn about your students' writing ability. To set up the activity, talk about homework and the important role it will play during the school year. Ask students to write a persuasive essay in which they tell you how much homework they think you should give them. Before they begin, provide some hints about ways to convince someone of something. (If you are looking for some ideas, you can find them on the Web page Writing Persuasive/Argumentative Essays.) Encourage students to be creative and persuasive in their arguments!
       Christine Warnick, St. Elizabeth Seton School, Rochester, New Hampshire

Instant Survey. This activity utilizes technology that most teachers might not have access to, but it can be adapted for use without technology. If you have the Classroom Performance System (available from eInstruction), you can set up a survey that can be tabulated immediately. (The system works similar to the Ask the Audience questions on the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Each student has a remote control. The teacher uses a computer screen projector, the software, and the Classroom Performance System.) Ask questions such as What kind of writer you think you are? Provide response choices -- for example, a very creative writer, a better than average writer, an average writer. Each student punches in his or her response and the system reveals the results. Teachers have immediate feedback about students' personal lives, their skills, or any other topic they might query. Of course this activity could be done without the technology, but the tool is an engaging one that can be used in class in many ways.
       Amy Heinsma, Windsor Middle School, Windsor, Colorado

Summer Memories. Instead of having students write about what they did during summer vacation, you might have them write a thank you letter to the person who was responsible for caring for them during the summer. That person might be a parent, a neighbor, a camp counselor
       Annamarie Doherty, Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire (England)

Puzzling Welcome. Prior to the first day of school, lay out as many pieces of white construction paper as you have students. Place them side-by-side on the floor in a large rectangle (25 students = a 5 by 5-sheet layout). Use a large black permanent marker to write "Success begins here!" and other encouraging quotes across the grid. (If you have a class motto, this might be a fun way to introduce it to students.) Write in large, bold outline or bubble letters. Make sure letters cross over onto adjacent squares so no child gets a complete letter. Shuffle the papers and hand each student one sheet of the grid. At this point, the students might not even know that the strange designs they see are parts of letters! Instruct students to completely fill in all areas of their paper with marker. Each space must be filled in in a different way; no space can be left white. When students are done, collect the sheets. You might laminate them overnight. The next day, challenge students to figure out how the sheets fit together to make a message. You might lay them all out in the hall and let students gather around them to find how patterns fit together. Eventually, they see that one sheet connects at some point with another, and sooner or later they get the paper puzzle assembled. Number the back of each sheet and re-assemble the message on the hallway wall as a bright and colorful message to the rest of the school.
       Suzi Furtwangler, St. Thomas the Apostle School, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Smell Me. To prepare for this activity, collect enough empty film canisters so you have one for every two students in the class and one for yourself. Gather a variety of liquid with identifiable scents -- lemon juice, vanilla extract, vinegar, lavender, rubbing alcohol, and so on. The day before the activity, place two cotton balls in each canister and add a few drops of scent -- a different scent in each canister. Put the lids on the canisters, stick a small piece of masking tape on the tops and bottoms, and mark each piece of tape with a letter on the top and a number on the bottom. Make a key showing the number/letter code and corresponding scent. The next day, arrange students into two groups. Give one group the canister lids and the other the canisters. Students must walk -- or sniff -- their way around the class room to find the odor that matches their own. When students think they have found a match, verify that they are correct. Can they correctly identify the scent? (Do not tell them yet whether they are right or wrong.) Then students sit down with their partners and ask questions to learn about one another. After students have had time to talk, each introduces his or her partner to the class. Finally, they reveal to the rest of the students the scent that brought them together; you reveal whether they are correct.
       Elie Nicewonger, Weeksville Elementary School, Elizabeth City, North Carolina

 

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