Or should I say “best icebreaker activity for high school students who HATE icebreakers!”
School is starting soon! I know you are busy getting your rooms ready and mentally preparing for the year ahead, so here is one less thing you have to worry about. What do you do on the first day of school when you and your students do not know each other? I struggled for a number of years with how to handle that first day of school. Go through the syllabus? Rules? Books? Hand out goggles? Safety? Yes, all necessary but it still felt like a wasted day and I wanted to get to know my students better. I kept re-inventing it because what I tried wasn’t quite working and it was always awkward. Until I came up with my Icebreaker activity. I did this with students with such success that I have used it every semester, every year since.
Bring some science to the first day of class
This Icebreaker is really a combination of two activities that I have used over the years. I like to get students thinking about science on the first day of class. It’s science class, it should feel like science class right away! So I created a mini version of my Mystery box lab. In that lab students attempt to identify a mystery item in a sealed box. This activity is a very abbreviated version of that. I used old film canisters that we happened to have at school but you can use any little containers that you have lying around. Check at your local Walmart or other film developing place because I hear that they give them away. They also sell new film canisters on Amazon relatively inexpensively. Those little plastic Easter eggs would probably work as well. Just make sure that your container is not see-through! Inside the canisters I put assorted things that are found in any classroom. Paper clips, pennies, beads, beans, toothpicks, sand, soap, etc. Whatever you have lying around and that fits into your container will work. This is my pile of canisters. They aren’t pretty (they are well-used) but they sure get the job done!
1. Easily Groups students
The first thing that this Icebreaker does is give you a easy, random way to group students or create your first seating chart. I have students pick a canister out of a basket and they walk around the room shaking and listening to their canisters in order to find other students with the same things in their canisters. Make sure you tell them ahead of time not to open the containers. *CAUTION – this is not a quiet activity!* For grouping, you have to first choose the size of your group. My lab tables sat 4 students so I chose 4. I then put the SAME items in 4 of the canisters. I repeated this for ~36 canisters. The number of canisters will vary according to your typical class sizes. I often began the year with as many as 32 students on my roster and since I think it’s easier to create “extras” now so that when a couple inevitably go missing, 36 was my magic number. Instruct students to find the other students that have the same items in their canisters and pick a table to sit down. At the end you will have a couple stragglers that say they can’t find their partners, that’s OK. It really doesn’t matter, it just gives me an idea of how willing students are to interact with each other. I usually step in at the end and point kids to tables to get them all seated. I then let them peek and see if they were “right.”
2. Talk about science
Secondly, this gives you an opportunity to inject some science into the day. Once they are all seated I ask them questions like “were you right?”, “did you find it difficult?” ,etc. Surprisingly students who were positive they were a match often have different things in their containers. We discuss how the activity was like science. Experimentation, inference, communication, etc. This is my first opportunity to see what they know and don’t know and how easily they talk about it. Such vital and often overlooked, information you need to know about your kids.
3. Get to know each other
Lastly, in the photo above you may have noticed that all of the canisters also have questions taped to the outside. These are simple, sometimes silly questions that I have found or made up that are designed to start a conversation. I encourage you to come up with some of your own, things that you will find easy for you to talk about but you can also purchase a copy of my questions from my store on teachers pay teachers. I just printed the questions out on paper and used pieces of packing tape to attached it to the canisters. Here is a close-up of one of the canisters.
Putting it together
After kids are seated, I grab my clipboard with my blank seating chart on it and tell students that we are now going to go around the room and each person will introduce themselves, read the question on the canister and answer the question. Usually a student will start by whispering their name and the question and no one can hear. So encourage them to really speak up! I usually repeat their name (as I enter it on my seating chart), re-ask the question and then answer the question myself as well. Believe it or not, students want to know who you are too! Then I invite other students to join in and before you know it, we are chatting like old friends!
Me: “Hi Jenny”
student: “My question is, What are you obsessed with?”
Me: “OOOHH! Good question, what are you obsessed with?”
student: “I don’t know, maybe music?”
me: “What kind of music?”
student: “Classical, I’ve been playing the piano since I was 5”
me: “What? That’s amazing you must be very talented! Right now I am obsessed with Dr. Who, we’re watching all of the old episodes. What about everyone else?”
student 2: “I love Doctor Who!”
student 3: “I play the flute in the marching band and I love it”
student 4: “I’m obsessed with Taco Bell”
student 5: “OOOHH, yeah, me too!”
It may seem like you are just sitting around wasting time, but you are building a relationship with these kids. They can see that you are a person and that you are interested in who they are and what they like. The silly questions will help you laugh together and that is never a bad thing!
Try it out for yourself, I promise you will love it!
I really like this idea and I’m thinking of using it next year. Thank you for sharing! Just wondering, about how long does it usually take to get through the whole activity?
Jen Siler says
You will LOVE this activity! Typically, I start this as soon as they walk in and finish in about 35 minutes. I then move on to syllabus or lab safety or one of the other 11 million things we need to get to on the first day 🙂 You can obviously shorten and lengthen the activity by giving them more or less time searching for their “sound a likes”, allowing more or less chatting, etc. Enjoy your summer break and let me know how it goes!
Do you have them switch seats to sit with their like objects or let them stay where they ended up? (To avoid friends grouping intentionally.) If so, when and how?
Jen Siler says
Before the activity I don’t tell them that they are actually finding their lab partners for that specific reason. This way, they go about finding their sound alikes without just sticking near their friends. Then as they start pairing up I walk around to the groups and kinda check. “think you guys got it right? Let’s hear” , etc. That way I can scoot them along if they are in the wrong groups. Once 2 or 3 groups are done, I instruct them to take their canisters and their stuff and pick a lab table to sit down. Since they still have the film canisters they know we are not done with the activity so they are pretty good at sitting with their new group.
This is honestly one of my favorite things about this activity. You’re not assigning seats, really, but they aren’t all grouped with friends either. Enjoy the activity and stop back to let me know how it went!
Absolutely love this idea. Going to try with my high school English classes. Thank you for sharing!
Jen Siler says
You’re welcome! I would love to here how it goes!
This is such a great idea! I am student teaching in a science classroom and am going to try this out friday as an introductory of myself to the students! Awesome way to connect science to the getting to know you activity. Thanks for sharing
Jen Siler says
Aww, thank you! I really hope your kids love it.
Jared Lopez says
This is an excellent suggestion, though I am disturbed to see sloppy grammar and spelling from a teacher. Canisters don’t “lay” around. Lay is transitive. They lie around. And “peaks” are the tops of mountains. Peeking is looking.
Jen Siler says
??♀️ This is why I don’t teach English! Typos are the bane of my existence. Thank you so much for your corrections!
I don’t know if people who aren’t English teachers would know this. Funny iou missed a more glaring typo of they’re instead of their.
Love this activity! But what do you do if a student opens the canister during the activity? And how do you address a student who does not want to do the activity?
Jen siler says
Thanks! Good questions! If a student opens the canister I usually make an “oh no” face at them and tell them “Quick, quick, close it quick!”. I don’t want to be punitive or anything during this activity. And then there is the student that doesn’t want to participate. I tell them that if they “don’t participate, I get to pick your seat and I like all my favorite students to sit right here next to my desk so I can talk to you all day long”…you need to do it in an annoying sing songy voice. That’s usually enough to make them participate because the last thing they want to do is sit near the teacher! Hope this helps!
This seems like a great activity! I already do your Mystery Box activity though… when you started doing this ice breaker, did you stop doing the Mystery Box activity, or do you still complete both?
Jen Siler says
Hello! I still do the mystery box activity for my freshman students because it goes so much more in depth in terms of the discussion and scientific method. Also, the “get to know you activity” gives them some practice making observations so that when they eventually do the mystery box lab, they get started making better observations. We really don’t cover the scientific method in depth for other classes so this just serves as a good reminder for those students at the beginning of the semester.
Adrienne Crouch says
Thanks for sharing this… I am going to try it this year, as my usual is pretty boring (for me… haha).
I am going to link this page from my first day of school post – its a great idea! I love that its a new take on the mystery boxes. I try to do something different for the first day each year. We are in a small school and the kids talk, so they always think they know whats going to happen. I love to mix it up!
Jen Siler says
Awesome! Thank you, I hope your kids enjoy it!
I’m a parent, not a teacher. My son is high functioning on the spectrum. He would absolutely die a thousand deaths and ask to switch classes if he had to socialize in this manner on day one. As most are aware, autistic students can take weeks or even months to feel comfortable and confident enough to speak in front of people and they can suffer from extreme anxiety if not allowed to progress socially at a slower pace.
My son has a 504 plan so if you attended his annual planning meeting, you’d know of his challenges in advance. How would you accommodate?
Jen Siler says
Hi there. Well, it first depends on how detailed the 504 plan is. I’ve seen some poorly written ones. I end up calling home usually and talking to parents to get a better idea of a students comfort level and anxiety triggers. Several students on the spectrum enjoyed the activity as is, while others had different needs. I’ve had students that I knew the noise of all the shaking and talking would be a problem so we did a slo-mo version of the activity where students could only tilt the containers, move in slo motion and talk in a whisper. Still others found the social aspect a challenge so I worked one on one with them, asking them to describe sounds and guess what was in the canister. Then I had them choose their own question or to tell me about their favorite thing and would a) have them introduce themselves and tell us about their favorite thing or b) ask if I could introduce them and tell the class their favorite thing. I had one student in particular that really opened up after I introduced him and told the class that he loved the Green Arrow tv show because he found out other students in the class loved the show too. I have to say no two accommodations are ever the same, it really depends on the kids. As a teacher, I can tell you that we truly appreciate parents that really give us lots of information about their students. I helps us give them the best experience possible!
Deb Baldwin says
Great idea! Teachers are such creative people. What would the world do without us?
Thank you for sharing. This a a great idea. I teach students in 2nd grade and I am going to do this activity with them. I can already imagine the comments and giggles. It is going to be a fun, energetic and noisy activity. They will love it!
Dennis Kocher says
While I do like the activity, and will likely use it this year. The most inspiring thing to me is your comment about why you left teaching. The honesty you share somehow helps me feel more positive about my new year coming up. Administration likes to hide the truth about all of the new things they are adding to our plates, every year.
I have a colleague that out of frustration simply mentioned in an “important” department meeting that his students won’t do their work, etc. and how they need to take on responsibility. The Assist Super (who doesn’t know what he is talking about) blew up saying that we are responsible for their success, basically, everything is our problem. This was AM before school even started. I said a couple of things in his defense, but I think all of us wanted so bad to walk out the door.
Things aren’t always that negative – when you focus on your room, and the creativity of your work, those moments slowly fade.
Good job on your blog.
You could also use medicine bottles. You could either paint the bottles or wrap the paper question on the outside to cover the whole bottle. I have a bajillion pill bottles I’ve been saving trying to figure out what to do with them. Thanks for the inspiration!
Jen siler says
Yes! What a good idea! These days it may be easier to find those than it is to find film canisters!
I subscribed to the newsletter so I could get a free copy of this ice breaker and I never got the link. I look forward to future information from you!