Create classroom community while students read, write, and converse with each other.
When I was a first-year English teacher, I made a typical rookie mistake with my ninth-graders.
Namely, I didn’t put enough thought into my opening-day icebreaker, thinking we would each just share a book we had enjoyed over the summer.
For some students, this was fine. But others admitted that they hadn’t read a word all summer long. When I heard this, I quickly amended the go-round to include movies and video games, but, to some extent, the damage was done. The class had already divided itself into “the readers” and “the non-readers.” Not exactly what I was going for when hoping to cultivate a classroom that nurtured and celebrated reading.
While teachers are generally excellent at learning from their mistakes, we’re often not as good at forgiving ourselves and moving on. So, in honor of my 22-year-old self, here are some ELA icebreakers I wish I had back at the beginning of my career. Use these to welcome your students to your classroom, and help them feel seen, heard, and excited for what’s to come.
1. Get-to-Know-You Bingo
Everyone loves bingo, right? This version of the game will get students talking about what, when, and who they read with.
Print this bingo card and give one to each student. Instruct them to walk around the classroom, introduce themselves, and find a peer who meets the criteria of one square on the card. They can mark that square off, help that student mark one of their squares off, and proceed to another student. Emphasize that they can’t use the same person to mark off multiple squares. After ten minutes, see how many students have bingo or, better yet, have filled their cards entirely.
Once the game is complete, ask students to sit in a circle, look at their cards, and choose a piece of information from the card to share about themselves. This part of the activity is important because it gives each student space to speak and lets the class start to get to know each other.
Note: I used to ask students to share something they learned about another student, but I quickly learned that some students didn’t mind sharing personal information with one student but didn’t want to share it in front of the whole class. Letting students choose what to share about themselves gives them control and increases their sense of belonging.
2. Mix and Mingle
Here’s an excellent activity that lets students practice low-stakes writing and gives them a choice over discussion topics, something older students in particular appreciate.
Give each student an index card and have them write a school-appropriate question to ask their peers. Encourage them to write silly, non-judgmental, and open-ended questions like, "What would you name your pet snake?" or "If you were directing a horror movie, what would the monster look like?" Next, have students get up and walk around the room while you play music (I usually played the theme from Jeopardy!).
When the music stops, students freeze and ask the person closest to them the question on their card. They, in turn, answer the question on the other student’s card. Encourage students to converse for one minute and not just answer each other’s questions with a few words. Repeat the game until most students have interacted with each other.
Lastly, have students sit in a circle and read and answer the question on their own cards. Ask brief follow-up questions to get to know your students better.
3. The Write Stuff
There’s nothing wrong with more traditional icebreakers that ask students to respond to a writing prompt as long as you use their words to begin to build community.
I have found that the key to success here is to provide choice because different prompts appeal to different students. I also suggest keeping your prompts light since most students don’t want to spill their guts on the first day of school when they’re already feeling nervous and awkward. I had good luck with the prompts below. Adjust them based on the age of your students.
Once students have written for ten minutes, break them up into groups based on the prompt they responded to and let them have a conversation about their answers. If one group finishes before another, you can ask them to discuss the other questions even though they did not write about them.
Learn More About How Adolescent Brains Work
I still cringe a little when I think about how I inadvertently divided the room on my first day of teaching because I didn’t have a low-stress, unifying icebreaker planned. We recovered and built a working community of readers and writers, but it took some doing.
When it comes to motivating high school students, understanding how the adolescent brain functions can give you a huge leg up. Download our free guide to learn little-known facts about the teenage brain, dos and dont’s for teaching adolescents, and other tips on how to structure lessons that are appropriate to your students’ stage of cognitive development.
Happy back-to-school to you. You’re gonna do great!
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author