The Ultimate First Day of Class Icebreaker Activity
Picture your yet-to-start class as a ball sitting completely still on a surface. When the very first student walks in the door, the ball starts moving in a certain direction based on what they see, hear, and especially feel (emotionally). By the end of the first day, the ball has a velocity and direction that’s extremely difficult to change!
Since you only get a reset once every year or semester, try this simple first day of class icebreaker activity to establish a positive direction from day one.
What do Students Really Need on the First Day?
When students leave the first day, they’ll be thinking about how your class made them feel and decide whether they are excited, bummed, anxious, or indifferent about feeling the exact same way every day for the rest of the semester or year. The biggest influence to their feeling will be you.
Students need to know how you will treat them every day. Often, we do tell students how they will be treated. However, students make the determination based on how they are actually treated the first day, not how they are told they will be treated. For example, if you stand in front of the room and have a one-way conversation, students will leave the first day feeling their input is not important, you are the authority, and they don’t need to engage—even if you are explaining the exact opposite while you are talking! On day two, you’ll try to start up a discussion and receive silence because the ball was already set in motion.
Often, the first day is filled with assignment descriptions, classroom rules, seating assignments, a lengthy syllabus, or icebreakers with their classmates. As necessary as these things are, they should come after an first day icebreaker between you and the students.
Before the Icebreaker
Directions for this first day icebreaker activity are going to assume you want to establish a strong sense of immediacy with your students and create a positive, active, engaging environment where students are respectful and respected.
First, plan a good first impression by being in the right place. In the hall helping students find their way, at the door greeting them, or moving around room talking, smiling, and laughing are good choices. Standing behind your desk or lectern or staring at papers will show don’t want to interact.
When students enter they are anxious about being in the right place, what to do, and where to sit. Have that information displayed or give it at the door when you greet them. If, in the future, you want students to start class as soon as they enter the room, establish that pattern now and have something easy and non-intimidating laid out. For example, hand out student information sheets at the door and ask them to fill it out until class begins.
The Question Bucket (or box, or bag, or can)
This first day icebreaker is extremely simple, but it only works if you pay attention to the details. When it’s time for class to start, move to the front of the room and welcome everyone. Keep it short, be relaxed, and smile. Tell them who you are, where they are, and that you’re excited to see them. You are trying to ease some of their anxiety towards you and establish a positive relationship.
Now, say something like this to start the icebreaker:
“I’ve got lots to tell you about myself and this class, but I first want to make sure your questions are answered. I know everybody’s a little shy the first day, so here’s what I want you to do: Rip a strip of paper out of your notebook and take out something to write with.”
Wait until everybody’s ready. Likely one student will take out one sheet and rip it into pieces for classmates around them.
“Now, think about one question to ask me. You’ll write it on the paper, fold it up, and I’ll collect them in this bucket. Don’t write down your name, just the question. I don’t want to know who wrote them.”
Plan what you say next and your delivery very carefully. It will determine the questions you receive, and subsequently your answers, student perceptions of those answers, and student feelings about you and your class. A mix between the obvious class details, personal information about you, anxieties, and humor seems to work well. Say, for example:
“Your question could be about class, about me, about what you’ve heard about class or me, what you’re worried about, what’s the meaning of life, or if you can go to the bathroom. Just so I don’t get all the same questions, I’m ___ years old, my first name is ______, and I am/am not married! Take a minute or two to think so you can give me some good questions. I promise I will answer all of them…as long as they are appropriate.”
A statement like this delivered with some emotion will yield a good mix of questions. There will be plenty of fun and interesting questions to punctuate the more boring questions about class details. If the tone you want to set is more formal, then simply change your statement and delivery.
What you’ve established so far to students is that you are approachable, open to questions, sensitive to their anxieties, and want their input. It also shows they are expected to think and participate.
How you answer their questions will determine how students feel about you and the class. Steer your answers in the direction you want them to feel. If you want students to have fun in class, be fun in your answers. If they need to be serious and focused, give serious and focused answers.
Whichever direction you choose, do not say anything that will discourage students from approaching you and asking questions in the future. Putting their anonymous questions in a bucket represents a safe way to test you. They will take how you respond to these questions as how you will respond to their future concerns face-to-face.
If you expect students to participate in discussions, establish that expectation while answering questions. Ask the class what they predict you will answer or how they feel about your answer. After answering personal questions, turn them back on the students so they can share about themselves. Have a mini-conversation with students who respond to demonstrate how you will interact with them and that you are interested in their lives. For example, you might answer a question by saying you don’t have pets, but always wanted a German Shepherd. Ask if anybody in class has one and what they like best about them.
Spare all the details when you read questions about class. Instead, use the question to get students excited, ease their worries, or show how you will support them. For example, students commonly ask about the number of tests. When you answer, share how you’ll help them prepare, give opportunities for corrections, or how well past classes have done. Turn it around on the students and ask what makes them feel more comfortable with tests.
You can also use the activity to demonstrate in real-time your behavior expectations. College professors can ask students to put away their phones or jot down notes. Primary and secondary teachers can ask students to raise their hands or not speak over another student.
How you move on after the Question Bucket depends on your class and age of students. For any class that has a syllabus or similar document with class information, you can easily transition to learning the details about class. A good active learning strategy is setting aside questions that have answers found in the syllabus. Write those questions on the board or projector. Provide students with the syllabus and have them form groups to create detailed answers to each question using the syllabus. This is a much better strategy than you reading over the syllabus because it demonstrates how students should look there for answers.
Younger students can transition to a similar activity or an icebreaker with their classmates. If you would like to focus on behavior expectations, save certain questions, like “What are the class rules?” that can help you transition to discussing the rules or procedures. A classmate icebreaker could involve everybody writing a question they might ask a classmate to put in the bucket. You could pull out one question at a time and have small groups give their answers to each other, followed up by sharing one unique answer from their group.
The first day of class is the most important day because it’s the one truly fresh start you have to establish how students feel. Their future success, participation, behavior, and learning will all be influenced these initial feelings. Make sure to start things off right by planning a first day of class icebreaker that breaks barriers and creates positive feelings between you and the students. The Question Bucket icebreaker is extremely simple and well-received by students, and provides every opportunity to make students excited about coming back by simply letting you demonstrate the positive qualities of your class and yourself.
Let us know how this activity worked in your class and any suggestions for improvements!