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).
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.