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.
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.
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 Spark. They can also do it in Google Slides or PowerPoint. Feel free to download the image below for them to use as a template.
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.
You’ll have to consider two things:
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- What activity makes you happy? Explain.
- What is your biggest fear?
- Who is the most interesting person in your life?
- Where do you take guests and visitors to your city?
- 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.
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!