A while back, I did a workshop for teachers from the former Soviet Union and as a very quick icebreaker, I just asked everyone to 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.” After that, the second teacher got up, said her name and told us where she was from. And so it continued. One teacher tried to say something fun about himself. I believe he said he liked going riding. 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. So, as a teacher, you need to make sure the first answer is a model of what you want students to say.
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, but a lot of my students struggle with coming up with an interesting fact about themselves. If their teachers can’t necessarily stray from something as bland as where they are from, we can’t expect the students to do it either.
Model an interesting fact
Based on my experience, and probably yours, you need to model 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 (and you should be), 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 one answer by giving them a few examples. One of my funniest experiences was when I told students, “I can speak French and Russian.” Several students copied my model by telling the languages they spoke, which wasn’t too bad. But one poor 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. Be sure to grade your wording to the level of your students. I might say, “I once lived on an island near Australia 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
I also like to go over some less than interesting facts. There are a few ways to this:
- Go over 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
- 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.
These explanations don’t have to be long. I can cover three interesting facts about myself in 3 minutes. 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. 10 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!
Do you have other tips? Let me know in the comments!