Engage Students in Discussion With the Right Questions

Asking questions happens to be one of my favorite things to do. I used to run a discussion club in Kazakhstan where students could just come and chat about some topic or another. It was my favorite thing to do, to get students up and talking. I know some teachers struggle with that. I see teachers on social media all the time asking about how to get students to speak in class, and engage in discussions. To me, asking the right questions is key.

So I thought I would share two things here: What DOES NOT work to get students thinking and talking. And then what DOES work.

Guess What’s in the Teacher’s Brain: Asking Better Questions in the Classroom

This post comes from a chapter in a book by Penny Ur or Tessa Woodward about asking questions in the classroom. It’s been a while since I read it, but the essence was that too often when teachers pose a question, they are asking students to read their minds. That is, we ask a question to students that may have many answers. But we already know the answer that we want to hear. We will refuse to accept any answer besides the one in our head. And there’s no way for students to know that “right” answer, since other answers are equally valid. So asking questions in the classroom becomes an exercise in reading the teacher’s mind, not a chance to engage with the material.

I fell down?

There’s actually a great example at the beginning of the Pixar movie Monsters, Inc. The movie opens with a job training for monsters who are going to jump out of closets and scare kids (but not hurt them-this is a Disney movie, after all). The first monster in the kid’s room simulator, Mr. Bile, trips over the toys and hilarity ensues:

A monster writhing in obvious comic  pain is bouncing on his head, dragging himself on his butt and so on.

Obviously this would not scare a child. Afterward, the instructor asks the trainee monsters, “What was Mr. Bile’s mistake?”

Mr. Bile says, “I fell down?” This turns out to be the wrong answer. In fact, the mistake was not closing the door. This would lead to a child entering the monster world which would create chaos! OK, the instructor has a valid point. But surely it’s natural for the class to be focused on the part where Mr. Bile fell down, then bounced around in comedic pain! The question wasn’t really a question at all. It was a way to tell the trainees to always close the door. “What was Mr. Bile’s mistake?” has many valid answers, but the teacher wanted only ONE correct answer! So asking questions in the classroom can be tricky!


Warmers for Online Classes

Community building is important in any classroom, but warmers for online class are particularly important as students feel physically distanced from each other. Many teachers who were forced online by the COVID-19 pandemic learned that right away. And I hope as you read this article, you are back to the in-person classroom if that’s where you feel safe. But some of us are still teaching online, or are back to online teaching after a brief respite. And some teachers teach online as a matter of course any way! So these icebreakers or warmers for online class can be useful.

In any case, starting a class off on the right foot with a good warmer or icebreaker is a great way to help students feel comfortable and safe (meaning safe to take risks and learn). So, I’d like to share some of my favorite warmers for online classes and ways of making students feel part of the community, whether you’re teaching through Zoom, Google Meet, or another distance learning platform.

The great thing about these activities is that they all derive from face-to-face activities that I’ve used in the classroom for years! So it’s easy to swap over to the in-person version if your situation changes.

Virtual Door

I can’t remember who posted this idea initially, but toward the beginning of the pandemic, someone suggested putting a picture of a door on the screen as students wait for the class to start. That way it feels a bit as if they are entering a real classroom. Some people may have a platform that actually allows students to click on the door to enter the class, furthering the illusion.

3-2-1 Introductions

This is an activity I learned from Shelly Terrell and it’s still one of my favorite getting-to-know-you activities. I like how easy it is to do and particularly how flexible it is. It can work very well in class, but I first did it online with Shelly during an EVO session so it works online. Students can share by just talking or creating a more elaborate graphic!

In this activity, students share:

  • 3 interesting facts about themselves
  • 2 hobbies
  • 1 thing they would be doing now if they weren’t in class

This is one that students can prepare for before class or give them some time to think at the beginning before sharing their answers.

Notice that you can vary the topics. Use your favorite getting-to-know-you questions, or adapt to the topic of the class. For a recent online class, we did 3 things you’d do if you weren’t quarantined, 2 tips for studying online, and 1 person who has helped you stay sane.

Or if your students are able to share screens or send each other attachments, you can have them create virtual posters. In this case, give students the questions in advance. Students can use a free photo editing site or app such as: Canva, Padlet, or Adobe Express. They can also do it in Google Slides or PowerPoint. Feel free to download the image below for them to use as a template.

Share this image and have students fill it out with a photo editor or slide show program. Or use Instagram Stories to add words, emojis, and gifs!

Students can create their virtual posters with their answers and share them online or send them to each other in advance of class. Alternatively, you could collect them and create a slide show or PDF to share with the class.

As students look at the posters, have them look for things they share with others. They can also generate one question for each person. This helps get students talking to each other and helps build community.

Ask the Teacher Online

I adapted this one from Jason Renshaw, who shared a similar activity in his wonderful English Raven blog (now defunct, sadly)

While we often focus on having students get to know each other, we sometimes forget that they also want to get to know us. What kind of person is the teacher? Are they nice? What do they expect from us? So this warmer for online classes helps satisfy that curiosity.

It also follows the Silent Way philosophy to some extent as students generate questions without prompts. That makes it a great way to evaluate their abilities and needs. Most importantly, it works equally well online or in person.

The activity is deceptively simple. Tell students that they have 10 minutes to ask you anything they want. In face-to-face classes, I’d write a question mark on the board. Online, you can just tell them what to do. Or you can use a virtual background like the one below.

Click the image to download the full-sized version. You can use this as custom background in your virtual classroom!

You’ll have to consider two things:

  1. Error correction and coaching: If you’re teaching lower-level students, you might need to guide them to use correct question form. One way to do this is to write question frames in the chat box, such as: What do you … ? Where are you from? What is your favorite ….? Do you like ….?

    Another is to wait until you’ve heard the same mistake multiple times. You can then stop class briefly and say, “A few of you are having trouble with … Remember the correct form is ….”

    Or simply keep a list of errors and deal with them in future classes. This activity is a great way to get an idea what topics your students are interested in.
  2. Cultural Appropriateness: Some students may ask rude questions inadvertently. This may be due to age but it may also be because the rules of what is polite vary from culture to culture. You’ll need to think of your personal preferences as well as the needs of your students to decide how to respond.

    In many places, asking a stranger their religion or ethnic background is completely appropriate as it helps form a complete picture of the person. Similarly asking why a single person isn’t married or why a childless person doesn’t have kids can be very normal. However, you may be uncomfortable with these questions and many American and British people would view them as rude. For students studying in the US or planning to go to the UK, you should probably let them know questions like that aren’t generally tolerated. In other contexts, you may choose to answer and leave it at that.

As a follow up, you can ask students the same questions they asked you, or have them interview each other.

Sharing Study Tips

I like starting classes off by having students share knowledge. I think it empowers the students and encourages them to view each other as resources. A quick and easy way to do this is a study tip share. The simplest way to do this is just have every student share one tip for learning English. It might be a memorization technique or a good habit. It might be an idea for practicing or even a time management tip.

You can also assign this ahead of time and give each student a different topic. One student might give a test review tip and another might give their tip for memorizing vocabulary, for example.

If your online teaching platform allows for breakout rooms, you can also divide students into groups, assign them a topic (or not) and have the group agree on their top study tips. I find it’s a good idea to have them choose a number of tips that is NOT equal to the number of students. Otherwise each student can contribute one thing and there’s no discussion or debate.

In a physical classroom, I like to share the tips as posters, but you can distribute the tips as a PDF, or even have students use Google Slides or Canva or Padlet to create a virtual poster.

Excited young businesswoman looking at her laptop with a wide eyed look of anticipation and amazement as she sits at a table in a modern office
Your students will definitely be this excited about learning online!

Syllabus Scavenger Hunt

There’s nothing worse than a first class of the term where the teacher or professor sits and reads the syllabus word-for-word, pausing only to say, “Got it?” periodically. On the other hand, having students ask the same question over and over, when it was on the syllabus the whole time is pretty awful as well.

So how do we review the syllabus (or course outline or rules) dynamically, but also thoroughly, particularly in online classes? Syllabus scavenger hunts where groups of students have to find information from the syllabus and present it to the class work very well. The online version isn’t much different.

Email or distribute the syllabus before the first class and give each student one or two questions to find the answers too. Make sure to cover the most important information such as how much the final exam is due or your late/absent policy. You probably don’t want to go into too much granular detail about each class session. However, you can have a student look for the page that lists what topics will be covered each session. for example.

On the first class, have the students present the syllabus to each other. You can even hand out a note page with blanks that students fill out as they listen!

One Minute Questions

This is an icebreaker for online classes by Alice Savage and Colin Ward that leverages the way online classes let students prepare in private. Send students some personal questions, or give the list of questions to them at the end of the previous class. They have choose one to answer and speak about it for one minute at the beginning of class. I like how this one lets them prepare in advance! Here are some possible questions, or you can write your own, or even have the students think of some:

  1. What activity makes you happy? Explain.
  2. What is your biggest fear?
  3. Who is the most interesting person in your life?
  4. Where do you take guests and visitors to your city?
  5. What is your favorite color, number, animal? Why?

With larger classes, you can model the activity and then put students in break out rooms to increase talk time.

Group Resume

Another one from Alice Savage and Colin Ward from the same post that I love, is a group resume. Put students in groups and have them create a resume that lists what they can accomplish as a team or what kind of business they could start. This is a chance for them to share their skills, talents, and areas of expertise as individuals, and see how they complement each other. It’s a nice way to build some positivity into the class! And it’s another one students can prepare for in advance!

Hope you enjoy these activities. Please share your go-to online activity ideas in the comments! And check out our post on modeling icebreakers as well as creating your own icebreakers and warmers.

The Art of Exams

There’s a lot of takeaways in Sharon Hartle’s new blog post, THE ART OF GATHERING… EVEN FOR EXAMS. I think assessment and examinations are a neglected topic in TESOL/EFL circles. Particularly in a world where examinations are necessary, there’s rarely much reflection on what exams mean and their purpose.

As Sharon writes, too often we think of exams as a form of assessment. The goal seems to be to judge. We take it for granted that some people will fail. We assume exams should be stressful and unpleasant. However, this (unconscious) attitude to examination does little to help our students pass those same exams.

Looking at exams as a form of objective ranking leads to more stress on the part of our students. I was shocked to read that Sharon had taken an exam in which the results were given publicly. Examiners were coming out of the oral examination room and telling candidates the results in front of the whole group. Very demoralizing to the student and to those who haven’t taken the exam yet!

However, we can change our attitude. We can think of exams as a gathering (See Sharon’s post to understand what she means by this term) and the purpose of exams as getting our students to do their best. Then, we might do more to help students not feel anxious. Perhaps the waiting area for the oral exams could be more comfortable and those who have finished the test could be separated from those who have not taken it yet.

Personally, I always appreciate teachers that acknowledge that a final exam can be stressful. It’s nice to have a chance to take a deep breath before the exam begins, or have the teacher crack a few jokes and lighten the mood a bit.

It’s worth checking out the original post to see all of Sharon’s thoughts, but feel free to share some of the ways you help students do well on exams in the comments.

If you enjoyed this post, check out Sharon’s book:

First Day of Class Advice for Teachers

The first day of class is always a mixed blessing. Going back to school is very exciting and meeting new students for the first time is always a pleasure. But it’s hard to plan for the unknown: What moods and personalities will your new students have? How will the class mesh? What needs and interests will they have? More concretely, there’s a lot of logistical uncertainty. Students are late or go to the wrong class, books and resources don’t arrive on time, copy machines break, printers or computers are being used by admin staff, and so on! There’s a lot to think about, a lot to do, and a lot can go wrong. So I’m sharing some of my first day of class advice for teachers.

I collected most of these ideas as I was working on my book 50 Activities for the First Day of School. Obviously, you should take them with a grain of salt. What works for one teacher in one classroom may not work elsewhere, so go with what works for you! My biggest tip for the first day of class for teachers is:

Don’t expect perfection!

I always love learning from others, so please do feel free to add your own first day and back to school advice for teachers in the comments!

First Day of Class Advice for Teachers

Setting the Tone

  • Be enthusiastic. Be happy to see your students and happy to get down to work. This can be easier said than done. There are some people who adopt a slightly ironic teacher persona. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of humor. But on day one, sarcasm can come off as surly or even mean.
  • On the same note, ignore the old teacher adage, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” Research shows that students study better when they like the teacher, and when they feel the teacher likes them. So don’t be afraid to smile and be kind. Set the tone of your classroom as a comfortable place to study.
  • On the other hand, don’t be a pushover. It’s much harder to enforce a rule later on that you were lax about at the beginning. Be firm and consistent, but not condescending.
  • Give students an overview of what they are going to be learning in your class. This might mean handing out a syllabus or letting them flip through the book. Focus on how they will grow in the end. This doesn’t mean you have to have every day or minute planned out or that you don’t make room for creativity. But students like to know that there’s a plan.
  • Be particularly strict about any shows of disrespect to other students. That helps make the students feel comfortable and safe. Be sure to be consistent on this point.
  • In particular, never let a student feel ashamed about their name, nationality, or native language. Sometimes we accidentally make disparaging remarks about how hard a name is to pronounce, or a weird fact we know about their country that might portray the country in a negative light.
  • Most students want to walk away from the first day feeling that they have learned something. They don’t want to feel the first day was just logistical stuff like learning rules and getting books. Nor do they necessarily want to just play games all day. Be sure to choose activities that have a purpose beyond fun. I’m a big fan of activities that build community and also give language practice such as those in my book, Classroom Community Builders. Thanks to the wise Penny Ur for this insight.
  • It’s easy to fit in a quick lesson on a new grammar point or vocabulary item. When students are speaking, pay attention to some of the common errors you hear, or places where they could use some new language skills. Then follow-up your icebreaker with a quick lesson that fits those needs.

Icebreakers and Warmers

  • Remember, icebreakers like Memory Chain have students revealing facts about themselves. Make sure no one is being made fun of for something they revealed to the class.
  • A lot of getting to know you activities ask students to produce an interesting fact about themselves. Model what you mean by an interesting fact.
  • In fact, getting to know you activities can have more than one function. You can build community, have students learn names, and practice language in one activity! Consider losing Two Truths and a Lie, and doing a classroom community builder instead.
  • Students are more likely to comply with rules if they feel they have had a say in the rule-setting process. Get them involved with an activity like Classroom Rules Negotiation (pg. 60) which also helps build community by getting students working together.
  • You can also cover rules and the syllabus in a way that is interactive and dynamic with a Syllabus Scavenger Hunt!
  • One of your goals should be to build rapport, not just between you and the students but between the students too. Here’s some more resources for great icebreakers and rapport builders!

Name Games

  • Write your name on the board, if it’s not on a syllabus or hand out. It’s hard for students to catch names when they go by fast!
  • Consider jotting down student names too. Fast-paced activities like Toss a Ball make it hard to catch people’s names and it’s shocking how often students don’t seem to really learn each others’ names.
  • Make sure you know what students like to be called. I know some teachers prefer to set a particular tone in their classroom, whether formal or casual. But not all students are comfortable with teachers using their nicknames.
  • Don’t tell students how hard their name is to pronounce, or force them to have nicknames, or accidentally disparage their names. People often take jokes or funny comments on personal things badly, regardless of intention.


  • Bring back-up for any technology. Don’t depend on the projector absolutely working, especially not on day one when the IT guy is busy doing his own first day tasks.
  • Stack up handouts or resources you will give to students neatly. Put them in the order you will use them in before class begins. That way you aren’t scrambling to find things in the middle of lessons.
  • Consider breaking up your first day activities. You can hold off on the icebreakers until day two and some teachers do apparently!
  • Forget Pinterest, especially if you’re a new teacher. Little is going to be picture-perfect on day one and in fact there’s reason to believe students learn better when things go a little awry. If nothing else, it lets you model what to do when things wrong for your class!

You can also download a beautiful abbreviated version of First Day of Class Advice for Teachers suitable for hanging in the staff room! Check out more back to school advice from our authors and share your own first day of class tips for teachers in the comments!

I Don’t Know an Interesting Fact About Myself

A while back, I did a workshop for teachers from the former Soviet Union. I wanted to do a warmer, so I pulled one of my favorite quick icebreakers out; say one interesting fact about themselves.

The first teacher said, “My name is Elena and my interesting fact is that I am from Karaganda, Kazakhstan.” Now this was not in fact an interesting fact in the way that I meant interesting. Everyone in the room was from Kazakhstan. Most of them were born in the same region of the country. Unless you were born somewhere far away or exotic, like Timbuktu, your place of birth is not that interesting. I hadn’t realized that icebreakers and warmers have their own assumptions. Sometimes we need to set expectations.

The problem was that after Elena spoke, the second teacher got up, said her name and told us where she was from too. And so it continued. One teacher tried to say something fun about himself. I believe he said he liked going for bike  rides. However, the crowd quickly corrected him: “We’re saying where we are from!”

This taught me two things.

The power of the first answer

First, the first answer has so much power. Students are listening to whoever goes first to figure out what they are supposed to say. And the more people that follow the model of that first answer, the more the momentum builds.

We tend to forget that we do icebreakers in situations where people don’t know each other. Many teachers are used to talking to a crowd and standing out! But a lot of people feel shy and awkward in new situations. They prefer to fit in, not stand out. So the social pressure to copy, is even stronger than usual.

That means you need to make sure the first answer is a model of what you want students to say.

What’s interesting in icebreakers?

Second, students don’t always know what an interesting fact is. It might be culture or personality or shyness or language problems or a bit of stage fright. Whatever the reason, a lot of my students struggle to come up with an interesting fact about themselves. Among other things, what’s interesting to other people may be hard to judge. Also the pressure to fit in may make students hesitant to share too much of their personality. (Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy has raised this point before, that it can be hard to expect students to let go in a new public setting) We certainly don’t want students to go beyond their comfort zone. But if the goal is to give the class a little bit of information, something they might use to strike up a conversation later, or find common ground with, we do need to go beyond things they all share in common!

Model an interesting fact

Based on my experience, you need to model your warmers and icebreakers for your students. Give them an example of what you want and take control of that all-powerful first answer. That means, if you are doing lots of classroom community builders or icebreakers, you’ll probably want to have a lot of interesting facts about yourself, ready-to-go off the top of your head. Be sure that they don’t just parrot your answer by giving them a few examples.

One of my funniest experiences was when I told students (during a Two Truths and a Lie icebreaker), “I can speak French and Russian.” Several students copied my model by telling the languages they spoke, which wasn’t too bad. But one clever (or lazy) student got up and said, “I can’t speak French and I can’t speak Russian,” as his interesting fact! So be sure to give them more than one example. At least if they copy you, they’ll have more to choose from.

Also be sure to grade your wording to the level of your students. I might say, “I lived on an island for a year,” with my beginners. With more advanced students I say, “I lived in Vanuatu, a small island country in the South Pacific Ocean.”

Tell them what not to say

Modeling what you don’t want can be as effective as modeling what you do want! I like to go over some less-than-interesting facts and why they aren’t great for icebreakers. That way they get an idea of the principle behind the expectations. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Explain the things students already know about you such as your name, your nationality, your job.
  • Discuss some things that are not particularly unique to you such as your hair color, your job, some of your hobbies, some of the places you have lived.
  • Share some facts that people usually don’t care about such as what you had for breakfast (unless it was rattlesnake eggs or something unique!)
  • Then compare and contrast: Take one of the boring things you just mentioned and compare it with a more interesting answer. I like to tell students, “OK, so I lived in Connecticut and I also lived in Vanuatu. Which one is more interesting to you?” Let them explain why Vanuatu is more interesting (at least if you’re teaching in Connecticut as I was at the time).

Summing Up

These explanations don’t have to be long. I can cover three interesting facts about myself in 30 seconds. It takes another 3 minutes to go over some boring facts and contrast them with the interesting facts. Then I take another 1-3 minutes to elicit some examples from students. 5-6 minutes might seem like a long time to introduce an introductory activity, but if you do it once at on the first day of school, it will pay off in all your icebreakers, rapport builders, and classroom community builders the whole year long!

If you’re looking for more help doing icebreakers or general back-to-school matters, you can check out some more back to school tips here. You can also get back-to-school advice from our authors, learn how to create your own icebreaker, or browse our teacher resource library for helpful books! We’ve even been working on some online warmer ideas!

And share your own advice for warmers here. 



How to Pronounce Your Students’ Names

pronounce your students' names with the my name my identity campaignYou’ll never be able to pronounce my name,” the student from Uzbekistan said.

Little did she know I had lived in Kazakhstan for several years and the two languages are very similar. Nor was her name really all that difficult, just long. “Is it Zulfizar Abduraimova (not her real name)?”I pronounced her name fairly well, I think.

She was floored. It was a small thing, pronouncing a student’s name correctly. It had extra impact because you don’t see a lot of Uzbek students in the US and it’s not a popular destination for Americans, either. Of all the English classes in the world, what were the odds she’d walk into mine?

But that little trick bought me a lot of good will and rapport with her. Contrast that with an all-too common scene in my experience, fictionalized below:

“You’ll never be able to pronounce my name. Call me Zul,” says the student. “Oh, Thank God,” thinks the teacher.

Then later in the staff room, the teacher tells the others, “Zul? Who told her that was a good English name?”

“Have you met Shih-Wei? But I told him to call him Stephen.”

“Oh, really? I thought Shih-Wei was Rose’s real name. Can you believe there’s a guy who calls himself Rose?”

The chain reaction of devaluation

See what can happen when students adopt a nickname because they feel their name doesn’t fit English or their teacher doesn’t care enough to try to pronounce their name? Students end up choosing nicknames that are still mocked. The only thing accomplished is that the student learns that their name is indeed not a proper English name.

How much easier it would be to learn pronounce your students’ names, rather than give them nicknames? Now I’m not talking about nicknames the student has chosen for fun. Or that their friends have given them. I’m talking about nicknames or shortenings of their name students take on specifically because they feel their name is “too hard” for English or “sounds funny to native speakers”. I’m talking about names given to hide or distort who they are.

Names are closely linked to identity. Respecting a student’s identity is the easiest way to build rapport. That’s why I applaud the My Name, My Identity Campaign. The campaign encourages teachers to learn to pronounce students’ names correctly. There are some great resources to help you pronounce your students’ names, including a great guide on International Naming Conventions and four websites to help you hear names and see them spelled phonetically.

I will add one caveat, which is that you may not be able to pronounce your student’s name as perfectly as a native speaker. We tell our students that a native accent is not a realistic goal for most language learners. They shouldn’t expect us to have perfect pronunciation, either. However, there’s no excuse not to make an effort. It really will go a long way to building rapport with your students.

I’m adding the link to the My Name My Identity Campaign to my Resources for Rapport and Classroom Community Builders page.

Check out all our BACK TO SCHOOL Resources
Cross-posted on Walton’s Blog, EnglishAdvantageblog.com

Creating a Classroom Community Builder Activity

I’m a big proponent of getting to know you activities, not only on the first day of class, but beyond. However, you should definitely do icebreakers or warmers mindfully. Getting to know you activities are really for building community in the classroom. Sometimes that means you have to tweak your planned icebreaker to turn it into a classroom community building activity. That’s why I love this article with a good set of questions for choosing and implementing classroom community builders or other icebreakers. Or if you’re like me, you love to create your own activities. In that case, this article is a great guide to creating a classroom community builder of your own. I’m adding the article to my list of resources for great icebreakers and warmers.

Questions to Consider

Among the things to consider when creating a classroom community builder, according to the author, is:

“What do you want to achieve with an icebreaker? Do you want to set the tone for the learning community or lead into course content in engaging ways?”

This is a really important thing to think about. A lot of times we deploy an activity on the first day of class expecting community without thinking it through. It feels like that South Park episode about the underwear gnomes

  • Step 1: Activity that looks fun/went well for us before/students enjoy
  • Step 2: ?????
  • Step 3: Classroom Community

Why Are We Doing This?

So it’s worth taking a second to sit and think about exactly what we want to do here! I’d add some other purposes for using community builders, such as building rapport among students, learning students’ interests and needs, and learning names. No one activity is going to do all these things. So it’s good to know why you are doing the activity you are. Sometimes I also find an activity that teaches me student interests can also help me learn names. Because each student has to go around and speak once or twice (for example), I ask them to say their name first. So thinking about purpose can help you adapt an activity and make it more useful or dare I say, purposeful?

I also love that the authors recommend explaining the purpose of the activity to students. I often forget to explain to students why we are doing the things we are doing. And some icebreakers may feel like empty fun if we forget to explain our purpose to our students. A fun activity done in the first few minutes of class can go wrong if students aren’t quite in classroom mode, as well.

Creating Your Own Community Builders

Creating a Classroom Community Builder In addition to the advice in this article, if you’re looking for a chart that can help you creating a classroom community builder or icebreaker of your own, I’ve created a DIY creating a classroom community builder chart that outlines the four major steps of an icebreaker activity. In writing 50 Activities for the First Day of School, and then Classroom Community Builders: Activities for the First Day and Beyond, I tried to identify some of the typical steps that go into an icebreaker. Although this doesn’t apply to every activity, here’s what I came up with.

  1. Students usually acquire information from each other or the classroom or teacher. From the other side of the coin, they are sharing or giving information
  2. Then they usually have to record that information somewhere, and usually as they record it, they are manipulating it, doing something with it.
  3. Then they share or distribute the information.
  4. Finally, they use that information in someway. This step can be as simple as reporting back to the class or as complex as writing a biographical essay about a partner.

Reverse-Engineer a Community Builder

For each step, the chart has a number of examples of how that could be done. You can also think back on your favorite icebreaker and reverse engineer it to see how it accomplishes each of these steps. For example,  Instant EFL Lesson Plans starts with an activity called “Circle of Life”. I’ve used it as grammar practice, but the author, Cristian Spiteri, uses it as an icebreaker. Let’s take a look at how it works:

In this activity you write some important information about yourself without telling students the meaning. Students have to guess what it means. I might write Victor1995, 20, Minecraft. Students ask questions or make guesses to figure out what those words and numbers mean. In this case, I have a good friend named Victor. I graduated university in 1995. I have been teaching for 20 years. I love to play Minecraft.

Circle of Life 

Does this fit the pattern?

  1. Students acquire information that you write on the board.
  2. They manipulate it by guessing the significance, which takes some logic and critical thinking skills. (They don’t really record it though, do they?)
  3. They share it by asking questions.
  4. And they use it to figure out what the words mean!

Check out my other Back to School Tips or share your own advice for icebreakers, warmers, or classroom community builders in the comments. You can also browse our Back to School titles in our catalog of Teacher Tools.

Technology in the ESL Classroom

I’ve just gotten back from the TESOL Convention and I learned quite a bit and met quite a few interesting people. One topic that kept coming up again and again was the question of technology in the ESL Classroom. Every year, it seems like there’s a new app or website for teaching English. And there’s always a new online tutoring company-the newest one this year had some kind of rabbit mascot that I only saw when they were filming promotional videos. In fact, with TESOL down and IATEFL still to go, there’s been quite a bit of chatter about how technology can change teacher conferences! Perhaps the conference of the future will be all online using chat and video phone and doc sharing sites.

Curbing the Techno Joy Instinct!

In my personal life, I’m a technophile. I love new gadgets and toys and I used to customize my WordPress themes through code. But in my teaching life, I feel the need to be a bit cautious and reflective. Before using some new tech in my classroom,  I ask myself:

  1. Will this help my students learn?
  2. What problem is the tech solving or what possibilities does it give me or my students?
  3. Are there other ways to get the same effect? What are the costs and benefits of each?
  4. How much time and effort will it take to get the tech working?
  5. What if the tech breaks? What’s the plan B?
  6. What else do I need to get this working?

I find these questions help me understand why I’m using this tech tool, keeping my “Look, Class! A Shiny Thing!” instincts at bay. Often it helps me use the tech more effectively because I can get at the heart of what I want to do, and why I want to do it. It’s important to always keep the most important thing in sight: teaching students.

Keeping the Learning in Sight

And that’s why I absolutely adore Sharon Hartle‘s book, Keeping the Essence in Sight, which contains reflections on a number of important questions English teachers ask themselves about teaching, learning, the nature of language, and assessing. The chapter on teaching with technology is particularly popular. It covers some of the most useful tools for teaching, as well as a plan for helping students get started learning online.

I was surprised that she found that students are not always prepared to learn through technology. They need to learn the classroom tools. They also need to adjust their online habits to facilitate learning better. I also really appreciated the list of bookmarking sites and some ideas on ways to use them. In fact, this chapter is so useful that I’ve decided to share it online. So check out what an experienced teacher has to say about  technology in the classroom.

Download Teaching with Technology in the ESL Classroom

And please share your own ideas for using tech in the classroom in the comments!

What Do They Know About You?

Why do I recommend a Get-to-Know-the-Teacher activity on the first day of class?

I remember the first time I was grilled by a new class. I was teaching middle-schoolers in a public school in Kazakhstan and many of them had never seen an American before. I started the class off with a little orientation speech about class expectations and so on. A hand went up. I called on the student who asked, “What’s your favorite NBA team?” I said I wasn’t a big basketball fan, and the class exploded.

“I thought you were American. All Americans love basketball.”

“We watch American NBA every week.”

“You must like the Bulls. Michael Jordan’s team.”

“I like the Lakers. From California.”

I found myself explaining that I wasn’t a big sports fan, but I followed baseball (“Baseball? Ptui! Not a real sport”) and hockey (“Kazakhstan is number one in hockey. Many Russian national team players are from East Kazakhstan.”). When asked what I did like to watch, I told them action movies and mysteries, and I liked to read. And we went from there, chatting away in English. Every time I tried to get the class back on track, another hand would shoot up with a question.

Some were sincere. Some were engineered to keep me talking and run down the clock. And some revealed a genuine curiosity about stereotypes, so it was nice to address those issues: Are all Americans fat? Do shoot-outs happen every day in big cities, like in the movies? Why don’t Americans know anything about Kazakhstan? Do they think we are all like Borat?

The Fishbowl Effect

As an American in a foreign country, I think this experience of getting the questions out was important and probably inevitable. In other classes, I haven’t allowed this kind of questioning, and that just meant the questions came out every day, bit by bit. I remember one student coming to class 20 minutes early to grill me about my life in the US!

But any teacher in any situation is a bit of a VIP, particularly a new teacher starting a new class in a new term. Students want to know about their teachers. Sometimes they are figuring out what kind of person you are. You can usually tell from chatting with someone whether they will be strict or not, how good their sense of humor is, and whether seem like an intelligent and knowledgeable person. And these are valid things to know about your teacher. In fact, most teachers manage to insert this information in their first day speeches, directly or indirectly.

When I teach young adults or professionals, a bit of small talk is expected because the students view themselves as my equal to some extent. It’s not uncommon for adults to engage in some small talk before engaging in professional activities.

And just as students are sussing you out, you can feel them out too. Some students will be showing off what they know or how well they speak. Others will be clearly testing your limits. And some will reveal their hobbies and interests-like clearly my middle-schoolers loved basketball!

So it really is helpful to let your students get to know you. And while chatting may work in some classrooms, I like to do an organized Get-to-Know-the-Teacher activity to ensure the class stays on track.

An Easy Get-to-Know-The Teacher Activity

Now, any icebreaker or get-to-know-you activity can be adapted into a get-to-know-the-teacher activity, often by just you participating as a student. But I still like to keep a few ideas in my back pocket that are particularly well-suited for helping students get to know you. One approach that a lot of school teachers take is the letter before class. It might seem childish but sending out a letter or email with some basic information about you, your family, hobbies, interests, and class expectations can really go a long way to making students feel that they know you.

And here’s another of my favorite get-to-know-the-teacher activities for the first day of class or school.

Ask The Teacher

Put a question mark up on the board and tell students that their job is to tell the class what they know or think they know about you. Set a very clear time-limit (5-7 minutes is usually enough).

This can take a couple of forms.

  • Students who know you already can contribute information, if any students have had you before.
  • Students can also make guesses based on what they think they’ve heard or their stereotypes of teachers. You can then confirm or deny any rumors or belief.
  • You can prompt them with questions and have them guess the answer, which is a good way to get out the information you want them to have, such as how long you have been teaching.
  • Students can also deduce facts about you based on what they can see. For example, they may say, “I see you are married because you are wearing a wedding ring.”
    Draw their attention to things you might want them to notice. I always organize my hand-outs before class into neat piles, so I sometimes ask students, “Do you think I am well-organized?”
    This variation is not for the thin-skinned. I’ve gotten comments such as, “You don’t like sports because you don’t look fit.” But then that’s an opportunity to talk about polite and impolite language!

This Get-to-Know-the-Teacher icebreaker always leaves you and the students laughing together, which is a definitely a good thing.

These activities came from our book: