Have you ever read something that challenged your teaching approach? I hope so! And it’s an important enough type of learning moment–one we hope students will embrace, and one we should welcome ourselves–that I wanted to share what my latest experience with this looked like.
Last week, I published a post with some of my favorite icebreaker games. I’d played and enjoyed each of those games myself before with students and other adults, and had almost always found them to be positive, bonding experiences (most recently on a COPE course with about 30 other adults last month).
But then today, Pernille Ripp, a teacher and blogger whose work I have followed and admired, published “3 Non-Ice Breaker Things to Do the First Week of School.” I loved her ideas, like having students pick picture books to express themselves or drawing lines to show common interests. But as I read, I realized her low-key, calm activities stood quite in contrast with my loud, crazy, and silly ones. And so the self-reflection began:
Should beginning of year games be more quiet and reflective?
Have my games been embarrassing for my students?
How can I better help my students settle into their new environment the first week of school?
To be honest, the questions were not comfortable. There were moments when I even wanted to just delete the email notification with the blog post and move on.
But as I persevered in pondering these and other questions, I noticed something. Though I’ve never met her in person, based on what I’ve come to know of her through her work, Pernille’s suggestions seemed to me to reflect her personality–the quiet, the reflection, the picture books. 🙂 On the other hand, I noticed that I could see myself reflected in my ideas; some of my favorite moments while teaching fifth grade were playing capture-the-flag at recess or trying silly role-play activities. And I came to an important conclusion:
The best way to break the ice with students is to be ourselves.
Trying to be someone we’re not is a surefire way to get everyone seized up in discomfort and mistrust. Students have an uncanny ability to sense inauthenticity. So if our back-to-school plans involve activities that we would personally loathe, but that we think we’re arbitrarily obligated to do, it’s time for some planbook revising.
My reflection also reminded me that it’s important to be mindful of all our students’ personalities and needs; we should be sure to include a variety of ways to get to know them and to gently invite them to our learning communities. I feel certain that when I return to teaching in a few years, my first week of school will certainly benefit by taking time “for the quiet, for the reflection, for the conversation.”
Icebreakers aren’t just fun–they can play an essential role in helping your students become comfortable with each other at the beginning of and throughout the school year. They also have serious potential for team-building, bonding, and concentration! This is a tried-and-true list of beloved games, especially suitable for upper elementary and older grades.
Description: This icebreaker is sure to help everyone get comfortable with each other and have fun as they play with sound effects.
Everyone stands in a circle facing each other.
Pick a person for the first turn. He or she can pass the turn by doing one of the following actions/sounds:
Saying, “Whiz,” while turning with hands extended as if passing an object to the person on the right or left only.
Saying, “Sha-na-na-na-na-na-na,” while waving arms like tentacles across the circle to someone else (make eye contact so they know who you are passing the turn to!) Note: The person across the circle has to receive the turn by saying “Sha-na-na-na-na-na-na” back at the passer before passing the turn to someone else!
Yelling, “Ahhhh!” while putting palms together and pointing at a new person. Note: The person across the circle has to receive the turn by yelling “Ahhh” back at the passer while putting their palms together above their head before passing the turn to someone else.
If someone tries to pass “Whiz” to you, you can also deflect it by putting your palms out and saying, “Boink!” Then that person has to pass the turn the other direction (“Boink” only allowed with “Whiz.”)
After a couple of practice rounds, you can try elimination, where people get out if they forget to receive the “Sha-na-na’s” or yells properly, or otherwise mess up.
The last two people standing win!
Description: Another great icebreaker that allows everyone to just be silly and have fun together as they train with their “samurai sword” hands, drilling, “Hoi!” at each other.
Everyone stands in a circle facing each other.
Everyone puts their hands together as if in samurai training and bows to each other chanting, “Hoi, hoi, hoi, hoi, hoi.”
Then the first person puts their palms together with arms extended, and while pointing them at someone says, “Hoi!”
The person who was pointed at has to respond by putting his/her hands above his/her head with palms together while saying, “Hoi!”
The two people standing on either side of the person pointed at also put their palms together and slash at that person’s torso (without actual contact), saying, “Hoi!”
After their neighbors slash and say hoi, the person with their hands above the head then drops them in front, pointing at a new person, and saying, “Hoi!”
After a couple of practice rounds, you can try elimination, where people are out if they say “hoi” out of turn, lose the beat, or motion their hands in the wrong way.
When you get to the last two people, the leader can have them stand back to back, walk 5 paces, and then turn and “hoi” at each other–the first to say it & point wins!
Description: This game takes serious observations skills as everyone pretends to be diplomats at an international conference, mingling among an assassin!
Everyone stands in a circle facing out (no peeking!)
The leader is in the center and walks among them, talking about random topics to serve as a distraction as to who they choose as the assassin. The leader taps one person on the shoulder twice, designating him or her as the assassin, and continues to walk and talk a bit to keep anyone from knowing the assassin’s identity.
The leader tells everyone to turn and then mingle as if they’re at an international conference. They should shake hands while saying hello in another language (Variations: leader can tell everyone to greet each other as an animal, or in an accent, etc.).
The assassin mingles, too, and intermittently kills people as they shake hands by squeezing someone’s hand twice.
Once their hand has been squeezed twice, a person should fall to the ground and faint or die as dramatically as possible.
As people begin to notice a pattern, someone can raise their hand and shout, “I have an accusation to make!” Someone else has to say, “I second the accusation” for the person to make the accusation–if no one seconds it, they die. If someone seconds it, the leader counts to three, and then the two people have to point at the accused assassin. They must point at the same person! If they disagree, they both die.
If they both point at the same person, and that person is the assassin, they win. If they both point at the same person, and it’s not the assassin, they both die.
Description: This is a variation of the popular game, “Fruit basket.” Only instead of calling out fruits, the person in the middle calls out get-to-know-you descriptions!
Everyone stands in a circle facing in on a place marker (or sitting on their chairs).
The person who starts out as “it” stands in the middle without a place marker, and calls out “Carriwitchet if you have [person shares something about themselves or something they’ve done]!”
Everyone who has also done that thing or who shares the description has to find a new place marker. When switching, you must find a place at least 2 place markers away.
The person in the middle runs to a place marker, and the last person without a place marker is the new “it” in the middle.
Description: This is a great clap/chant game to help get everyone in rhythm and unified! It’s also fun to see how many words for each topic the group can come up with. It is a trickier game to get used to, though, so make sure you have plenty of time for everyone to practice the beat!
Everyone sits in a circle facing in.
The leader starts everyone off in the clap/snap/chant pattern as follows:
Opening Verse spoken by all:
Subject-choosing verse spoken by leader while everyone continues the hand rhythm
Description: This is a silly version of Simon Says that gets everyone scrambling to follow the captain’s orders!
The leader is the captain, and is in charge of calling out actions and refereeing
Actions to be called out:
“Captain’s Coming!” (1-person command): Everyone stands at attention with their hand in salute, and they can’t move until the captain says, “At Ease!” If the captain calls other actions before saying, “at ease,” and people move to do them, they are out!
“Man Overboard!” (2-person command): One person drops to one knee the other stands behind them, puts a hand on their shoulder. Both put their hands above their eyes to look for the man overboard.
“Crow’s Nest!” (3-person command): Three players stand with their backs toward each other and link elbows, forming a crow’s nest.
“Mess Table!” (4-person command): Four players huddle around a make-believe table and pretend to eat savagely, making sounds like, “NOM-NOM-NOM-NOM!!”
“Walk the Plank!” (5-person command): Five people stand in a single file row hands on the shoulders of person in front of them. The captain comes and counts out five, starting with the person at the front, but people can keep trying to shuffle into the front of a line of 5 to get included in the plank until the captain starts counting.
“Mermaid!” (optional 1-person command to get everyone cracking up): Players each thrust out the right hips, puts the right hand on that hip, and makes an exaggerated tail wave with the left hand, yelling, “Howdy, sailor!”
The captain should revisit “captain’s coming” from time to time to see if everyone is paying attention with “at ease.”
Everyone has to get in groups, doing the correct actions within a few seconds, or the captain declares them out!
Description: This is a great rainy-day indoor game that gets everyone moving and having fun.
The leader sets up a rectangular perimeter with markers.
Everyone loosens their shoelaces or shoe straps and then gets into a crabwalk position on all fours.
When the leader says, “Go,” everyone crabwalks around trying to knock off each other’s shoes.
Last one wearing a shoe wins. 🙂
Two Truths & a Lie
Description: This game is a great way to learn about each other–not only the things that people have done, but how good they are at being sneaky. 🙂
Everyone thinks of two true things they have done and one thing they have NOT done. (for younger students, you might even have them write down their ideas. You may also want to teach them about what makes it fun; saying, “I have 1 brother, I have 2 brothers, I have 2 uncles,” isn’t a particularly interesting one for anyone to guess, which is partly why we emphasize telling them to share things they’ve done).
Other players take a few turns guessing which is the lie, before the person reveals it!
The person who correctly guesses the lie gets the next turn!
Never Have I Ever
Description: This is another classic get-to-know-you game that my students always enjoyed playing in the hallways while waiting for the next activity!
Everyone puts 5 fingers in the air.
The person whose turn it is says, “Never have I ever ___(something they have honestly never done that they think other people have done)___.”
Anyone who HAS done it must put down one finger.
The person who still has at least one finger up wins!
I didn’t think the teacher/parent table would turn on me that fast. After all, not only I had just paused my teaching career in June–I was only back for a few weeks in September to mentor a student teacher–my own kids weren’t even in school yet.
As I sat in the teacher’s lounge listening to all the usual back-to-school lunchtime chatter, I overheard some kindergarten teachers anticipating their new batch of 5 year-olds. One exclaimed how many students failed to identify lower-cased letters of the alphabet in the initial assessments.
I froze. Normally, I’d commiserate a bit, perhaps reciprocating with how many students I had on behavior contracts. But it hit me: MY 4-year old didn’t know her lower-cased letters. And she showed no signs of wanting to, either, despite the fact that she’d be starting kindergarten the following fall.
It was my first realization that in the school system, I was officially on the parent side of the table.
I finished mentoring and went back to my extended parental leave at home. Over the course of a month or so, the stress in preschool-ing my stubborn four-year old grew. Frustrations mounted each time she refused to sing her ABC’s or explore some carefully-crafted science station. Those fears finally came to light one evening when I realized that I had been subconsciously–yet intensely–internalizing the conversation from the teacher’s lounge all that time. I remember actually saying out loud,
“What if she becomes the subject of her kindergarten teacher’s complaining in the faculty lounge next year?”
Once spoken aloud, I realized how silly the words sounded. However, as I began to conduct research to make preschool a more positive process, I also realized that I was far from alone when it comes to fearful parents.
“Preparation” on Steroids?
Wanting to give their children the best advantages, some parents have taken to “redshirting” their kindergarteners. That is, they delay school a year in the hopes that their children will gain a “competitive learning edge.”
Other parents obsess over the school their child attends. One article describes how parents went so far as to move to new neighborhoods, create spreadsheets, and attend Kindergarten 101–a prep class for parents. But these preparations aren’t discussed as excessive, but as possibly helpful, citing a Harvard study that found that academic performance in kindergarten correlates to future earnings.
Kindergarten prep is indeed all the rage these days, especially for those who believe the Common Core standards mandate five year olds to read. But parents and teachers alike would do well to step away from the frenzy and examine what is truly developmentally appropriate for their children. Below are tips for both to help them regain calm and clarity in learning with their preschoolers and kindergartners.
Correlation does not equal causation. Remember that there are always a lot of possible causes for any given outcome. Studies that find correlations for later successes are likely just picking up on the simple benefits of involved, loving parents.
Consider the effects of rushing your child. The author of The Hurried Child, Dr. David Elkind, shares research that “students are more likely to have academic success if they are not hurried through their early childhood by parents who overestimate their competence and overexpose them to academic pressures.”
Step away from the workbooks. That’s not to say that if your child demonstrates genuine interest in more academic concepts, you should deny them. But it’s essential to understand that play is absolutely critical for developing the most basic skills for kindergarten readiness and beyond–including problem solving, passion, experimentation, and more. As Richard Lewis, founder and director of The Touchstone Center in New York City, explains:
See each new student. Don’t allow your initial benchmarks or any other number to define your opinions of any child. Instead, make it your priority to discover their interests, strengths, quirks, etc.
Step away from the workbooks. (see parent tip above).
Evaluate what the Common Core State Standards are really outlining.If you are among those stressing about the perceived advanced standards for early elementary, remember that the political agendas and loud voices of a few have skewed interpretations of the standards for some. In our most recent post on the Common Core, we shared J. Richard Gentry’s example of what easily misinterpreted standards really look like:
For example, one contested language arts standard reads, “Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” Gentry explains that this refers to memory reading in which, “The emergent-reader text is first modeled by the teacher for the students, then joyfully read over and over with the students until eventually the easy book is independently read by the students with great joy and confidence.” (We highly recommend his article, “An Ode to Common Core Kindergarten Standards.”)
One of the best kindergarten readiness lists I’ve ever encountered was on a university’s laboratory preschool blog, prefaced by the following:
“Don’t be overly concerned with academics right now…You read to your children, you go on family outings, you model a love for learning, but most of all you are very involved in the lives of your children. This will make kindergarten a wonderful time for your child, and start him/her on the road to a good education.”
When you set up your classroom, is democracy a mindful priority?
I’ve never forgotten the story of how one of my favorite college professors was begged out of retirement to teach 2nd grade–the evening before school started. When she walked into her classroom on the first day of school, it was to bare walls, stacked desks, and puzzled students.
They sat down on the floor together. Eventually, a 7 year-old timidly shared that things felt a little off, to which the others agreed. When my professor asked them what a classroom should consist of, one girl raised her hand and said, “Well, last year, we had chairs.” They set to work arranging the furniture, and then regrouped. Then, another boy offered, “We also normally have pencils.” Together, they procured a supply. And so it went for the first part of the school year.
I’ve always remembered the ending to her story: that those students owned that classroom as none of her students had before or since. And with a wink, she added that she didn’t necessarily recommend having zero preparation before the school year started–at least for the sake of school administrators’ sanity.
The Set Up
The idea of incorporating classroom jobs centers around ownership. This is more than about classroom management or clean-up–it’s about empowering students with the understanding that the feel of their learning environment is in their hands.
Hold a class meeting early in the school year to discuss the shared nature of your classroom’s physical, emotional, and academic space. Brainstorm tasks you all feel are necessary for smooth maintenance, safety, and support. You may opt to show students your list from the previous year, and then allow them to help you modify it based on their unique needs. Or you may choose to go the way of my professor, and allow your students to start from scratch!
Pass out a job application so students can list their top choices and reasons they believe they would qualify for the job.
Additional options to consider:
Interview each student before assigning jobs. I’ve had groups that enjoyed dressing up for a more formal and “official” experience.
Set aside “job time” at the end or beginning of the day for those students whose jobs require some time; you may choose to have the other students read, journal, etc., during that time.
List of Job Ideas
Whatever your approach, below are jobs that have all been tried by my fifth graders (with the exception of a “social media manager,” which I plan on trying out as soon as I resume teaching)! The number to the side is how many students I’ve typically had doing the job, but be sure to base things on your class needs and size! Also note that some are combos based on how much time some jobs took. Feel free to share these with your students to help them get inspired!
Paper Passers/Absentee Buddies:
Description: Passes out any appropriate papers daily and picks up papers from groups. During job time, they get materials gathered for any students that are absent, write down assignments for the day, and leaves them neatly on their desks. (2)
Description: Files all graded papers and handouts into each student’s file of papers that are to go home. (2)
Qualities: Memory skills, FAST
Description: Carries lunch basket daily. Also gets the room ready for projector use when needed by quickly pulling down the projector screen, turning off the lights, closing the blinds, and turning on the projector. During job time, they check all the walls for repairs & remind tables to clean up desks/floors. Takes care of all other classroom maintenance as called upon. (2)
Qualities: Strong, lines up quickly at beginning of line, tall, takes initiative
Description: Checks all planners at the end of the day during job time. They also check for completion of the homework journal/project each Friday morning, and reports and missing work to the teacher in the morning.
Qualities: Responsible, thorough, organized. (1)
Description: Makes birthday cards for each student on their birthday/half birthday, and then get signatures from everyone in the class.
Qualities: Good handwriting, artistic, thoughtful, AMAZING memory! (1)
Question of the Week Keeper
Description: Comes up with brainteaser questions and answers for the Question of the Week and lets the payroll know who gets bonuses for getting it right. (1)
Qualities: Good handwriting, likes puzzles, organized. (1)
Description: Updates the daily schedule and keeps the monthly calendar correct.
Qualities: Tall, memory skills, VERY neat handwriting (1)
Assistant Event Manager
Description: Assists the event manager with anything he/she needs help with.
Description: This person will need to erase the board after each recess and whenever else it is needed. Thoroughly cleans the board during job time. (1)
Qualities: Tall, strong, pays attention, neat
Description: Reminds all students to add their paychecks to their check registers every payday. They also check with students who have bonuses each day during job time to make sure they’ve recorded in their check registers. (1)
Qualities: listener, math money skills, honest
Description: During job time each day, they check with any students who have fines to make sure they’ve recorded them in their check registers. (1)
Qualities: organized, listener, math money skills
Description: Handles money during the class store by helping students write checks and subtract from their check registers. Assigns prices to class store items. Also stands and leads the pledge every morning. (1)
Qualities: honest, math money skills, organized, memory skills
Behavior Recorder/Assistant Room Manager
Description: Writes down daily fines and bonuses and then records them on the board during job time. Also assists the room manager with filling in for absent students. (1)
Qualities: responsible, great memory, honest
Description: Makes sure that everyone is doing their job daily. Also fills in for any job if a student is absent. (Must know responsibilities of all jobs) Takes care of all other leadership/management tasks as called upon. (1)
Qualities: Organized, attentive, fast Learner, leadership
Description: Leads the line daily. Learns assigned places to stop & keeps the class straight and quiet by giving firm reminders to students that need to stop talking or walk single file. (1)
Qualities: listener, respectful
Description: Ends the line daily to all destinations and turns off the light as class leaves. If any student has to return to the classroom to retrieve a forgotten item, the line ender is required to go with them. Keeps the class straight and quiet by giving firm reminders to students that need to stop talking or walk single file.
Qualities: Fast, good listener great memory, respectful
Class Journal Keeper
Description: Updates the class journal each day during job time with a description/illustration of the day’s events. (1)
Qualities: Artistic, neat handwriting
Description: This person must have access to a digital camera that he/she can bring to school on a regular basis. They are in charge to taking pictures of exciting experiments, debates, parties, and anything else; they then need to email pictures from home to me occasionally. (1)
Qualities: Takes initiative, very responsible, photography/technology skills
Description: Runs any notes or errands throughout building throughout the day. Collects Mrs. Wade’s mailbox items from the front office every job time. (1)
Qualities: Knows school and different teachers, communicator, fast walker, polite, honest
Description: Also, each morning makes sure all students have moved lunch magnets and then counts/writes down how many for each option. Moves the magnets back at the end of the day. (1)
Qualities: organized, memory skills, fast
Description: Using disinfectant wipes, cleans all desks, tables, (and if time), chairs at the end of each day during job time. Cleans other surfaces as needed. (2)
Qualities: Attention to detail, helpful, respectful to others’ belongings
Description: Helps keep the entire class organized; organizes the guided reading desk/teacher area as needed, helps other students with organizing their desks, organizes other things around the class when it gets cluttered. (1)
Qualities: Um, organized. 🙂 Also, takes initiative, meaning they don’t need to be asked to notice & jump in to help.
Class Medic/End of Day Caller
Description: Keeps band-aids in their desk and distributes to students. Also makes sure everyone takes home their lunch boxes/coats/backpacks.(1)
Qualities: Fast, memory skills, reliable
Description: Straightens up the clubhouse and sorts the books during job time every day. Checks for any damages to books and fixes them or reports them to the teacher as needed. Maintains all other clubhouse materials to keep things looking nice. (1)
Qualities: Organized, respectful to books
Scribe/Word Wall Attendant
Description: On Monday Meetings, this person will write down all the items of business discussed and report at the end. This person also maintains the word wall chart during job time by neatly writing great words we encounter as a class. This person will also take notes whenever we go over important things, remind the teacher of things, and advance PowerPoint presentations during lessons. (1)
Have access to computers, but short on the 31 protractors you’ll need for today’s lesson? Or looking for more ways to inspire hands-on math exploration? Look no further than our list of top digital math manipulatives, teacher tested to be student-friendly and relevant!
This is literally a one-stop bank of easy-to-use manipulatives. Geoboards, number cubes, pattern blocks–the works! It also has all sorts of bells and whistles to construct inquiry-based environments including various workmat or game backgrounds, tools like a stopwatch, compass, and ruler, and even a print screen button so students can turn in their math thinking! This is definitely a must-bookmark link for math teachers!
Solve Me Mobiles takes the abstract nature of algebra and turns it into something students can concretely tinker with. Through trial-and-error, students balance the mobile by entering the values of hanging shapes. This is a perfect precursor to algebraic equations.
This is another library of manipulatives, with the additional feature wherein most of the manipulatives are gamified–there are tasks and “check the answer” components in most. Manipulatives include pattern blocks, transformations, circle graphs, measuring angles, prime factorization, and more!
This resource likely includes every type of math manipulative you could fathom, and then at least a few more. Just make sure you have Java downloaded and that students use it on a browser other than Chrome (since Chrome and Java do not mix at the moment). Alternatively, they now offer a computer app for purchase to bypass the Java issues.
Speaking of apps, ABCya.com has put out a free app with some of their top virtual manipulatives for fractions, decimals, and percents. Students will love camera feature, allowing them to project math concepts onto everyday objects.
Has your young student’s reading level exceeded their grade level? Having trouble finding texts that are challenging but still age-appropriate? We’re here to help you find that “just right” book. Below are 23 texts with upper grade difficulty, but lower grade interest and appropriateness. (Fountas-Pinnell Levels Q-U, interest grades 1-3).