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Cool Icebreakers to Start the School Year

Teacher and elementary students

Try these teacher-tested ideas for helping students and teacher get to know each other and their school.

Found in: Advice & Support, Icebreakers, Back to School

Gingerbread Orientation

Kathy Downing, Ohio Kindergarten Teacher

The first week of school, I give my students a gingerbread man nametag to wear. The nametag corresponds to the bulletin board outside my classroom door. This enables the students to easily find their room on the first day. I read The Gingerbread Man story to them and I bring a real gingerbread man to school for us to share at snack time. During recess he 'runs' away. Our class walks around the school to try to find him. As we look for the gingerbread man, we have an opportunity to meet other important people in our building such as the nurse, the principal, the secretary, etc. We finally return to our classroom and discover that he is waiting for us there. (I have a colleague secretly return him to our room while we are looking for him in other parts of the building.) When we return, we all enjoy our delicious gingerbread snack. The kindergartners really enjoy this activity and they become acquainted with the school building and staff at the same time.

Get Creative with Lining Up

Eileen Durgin-Clinchard, Nebraska retired teacher

I use creative ways to organize students in a line, and I like to use these teachable moments to discuss similarities and differences, and to illustrate that being different is fine.

For example, I might have students line up according to shades of hair from dark to light. I point out that differences exist even among those who think they are alike. And I ask questions:

  • Are differences good or bad or just differences?
  • Why do we like some things?
  • What similarities can you name?

Or, I might have the class line up according to birthdays and talk about seasons, teasing out a conversation about the value in seasons and weather. Students can also line up according to where they were born and use a map to figure out who was born closest to the school and who was the farthest away.

Getting Acquainted

Erma Morgan, fourth-grade teacher

Asian teacher and middle school students At the beginning of the year I have each student write down at least two things about themselves that others may not know. I then put one thing each has written into a grid and give a copy of the grid to everyone in the class. I ask the students to find the person who wrote each characteristic or experience and to have that person sign their box. I'm sure to model how to discover the owners of the ideas by asking a question. “Are you the person who owns the iguana?” or “Are you the person who puts ketchup on peanut butter sandwiches?” This teaches a way to begin a conversation and provides a way for students to get acquainted.

Getting to Know You – Without Words

Virginia Easterling, Alabama eighth-grade teacher

At the beginning of the school year I feel it is important to let the students know about me and to find out about them. I draw or find pictures to make a collage of things I am interested in or things that are important to me. Students have to try to discover through the picture as many things about me as they can. Then I ask them to make a collage about themselves. No words can be used. Only pictures. It is an interesting way for us to get to know each other and often I find out important and interesting things about the children.

Learning About Each Other

Carla Herbert, Kansas fourth-grade teacher

On the first day of school, I want to learn the children's names. At the first student's desk, I extend my hand, introduce myself and tell the class one of my favorite activities, sports, games, etc. The student must then tell me his/her name and an interesting personal fact. I then go on the next student and introduce myself again but give a new statement about myself. I repeat the statement and then go back and repeat the first student's name and statement. I continue this practice until I have learned all the student's names. By the end of the first day, they know everything about their teacher and all of us know something about each other.

Personalized Plates

Sue Schmitt, Illinois English teacher

The first assignment I give is to have my students describe themselves in eight or fewer letters and/or numbers. I give them a license plate template and tell them that they need to create a personal plate that best describes an important aspect of their character. They decorate their plates and explain why their choice of letters or numbers fits them. I post the plates around the room so they get to see what their classmates say about themselves. The license plates are always a big hit at parent open house.

Summer Snowball Fight

Anonymous high school teacher

crumpled up pieces of paper On the first day of school I pass out half sheets of paper to each student and have them answer three different “about me” questions (has to be something that they are willing to share with the class and is school appropriate). Once everyone is finished, I instruct them to crumple up their papers as if they were going to throw them away. Then I explain that on the count of three we are going to have a summer snowball fight (of course I have to give them a few rules about how to throw/not throw and where not to throw) that will last approximately 15 seconds.

Once they throw their “snowball,” as soon as they see one on the ground, they have to pick it up and continue throwing it until the time is up! Once the time is up, they grab the closest snowball to them, uncrumple it, and read it. Next, I give them about 5-10 minutes to “interview” each other and figure out who their snowball person is. When they have found their person and someone has found them, they are to sit in their seats so that I can gauge how much longer they may need.

When everyone is finished, a volunteer stands up and introduces their person by reading their snowball that they wrote about themselves. Then that person stands up and does the same for the next. They absolutely love it, and for high school kids who think they have “seen it all,” it really surprises them!

Teacher Test

Terri La Masa, Oregon fourth-grade teacher

On the first day of school, I pass out a teacher test. I ask them questions such as:

  • How long has Mrs. La Masa been teaching?
  • How many children does she have?
  • What is her favorite pet?
    Where does she like to go for a vacation?
  • What subject does she like to teach the most?

The kids write their guesses, then I orally provide the answers and the class learns a lot about me.

Top Ten Icebreaker

Tracee Orman, high school English teacher

I like to do a David Letterman-style top 10 list with my high school students. I prompt them to come up with “10 reasons why it’s great to be back in school.” They may groan at first, but they all come up with some pretty clever answers. I let them do variations of the prompt, like “10 reasons why it’s great to be a sophomore” or “10 reasons why our school is the best.” It helps set a positive tone for the year and the students love hearing their classmates’ answers.

Writing about Self

Richard Poole, Virginia language arts teacher

I like to tell my students something about me the first day of school. I make a list of 20 things about me including age, where I went to school, where I have lived, etc. This becomes my prewriting. I also bring in a picture of me when I was in sixth grade. I then ask them to write 30 facts about their lives. Their assignment is to go home and write a personal narrative with a picture for them to share with the class if they like. I read them all. This helps me to remember names and know something about my students. I post the essays and pictures for back to school night for parents to see their child's work.

Two Truths and a Lie

Elias Howe, fifth-grade teacher

My fifth-grade students always liked to start the year by playing a game in which each child would take a turn standing up and telling the class three things about him or herself.  The catch was that one of the things they told must be untrue. The class then tried to guess which of the three things was not true. Some of them told whoppers that were easy to guess, like “I have a pet hippopotamus”; but others would say things that were harder to figure out, like “my folks are from Kenya.”

The Maze Team Builder

Christine C., fifth-grade teacher

An activity I do during the first week of school is something I learned in a workshop from Quantum Learning, called The Maze. I begin by using masking tape to create two grids, or mazes, on the classroom floor. I use two grids, since I can have up to 35 students, and one grid makes the wait to get on it too long. I generally use a 5 X 5 grid, but it can be done using 4 X 4 or 6 X 6, depending on how much time you have for it, and the grade level you're working with.

Next, I divide students into two groups, except for two students, who receive directions and the solution to the Maze. These two students act as judges for the teams on each grid. Students take turns trying to find their way through the maze. Only one student can go at a time. There's no talking of any kind, or the person on the Maze has to step off and go back to the beginning. Students can make noise, as long as no words are spoken.

The judge beeps if someone steps on the wrong square or strays from the right path, and that person has to back up to the first square, exactly as they came forward through the maze, and then step off. Then the next person may begin. Students take turns until one person finds the ‘correct path.’ The object of the game is to get your whole team all the way through the Maze as fast as possible.

Smaller classes could use just one grid, and the teacher could be the judge, allowing all the kids to try the Maze.

It's a great game for building a community, and it forces students to pay attention to each other, so that they can remember the correct path and which squares are not on the path to success.