Beyond the Icebreaker: Building Community in the Classroom

By Kristin Flora

Kristin FloraI’ve been fortunate to have that seemingly ‘magical’ class. You know the one—small, seminar-style setup with students actively engaged in asking deep, critical questions of the readings and each other. But I’ve also had that frustrating class: same small, seminar-style setup, yet getting discussion going and sustaining it feel nothing short of academic acrobatics. When I reflect on these experiences, the easy answer is to pin it on the students. Those in the former class were more extraverted or more invested in their education than those in the latter class.

That’s a cop out. When I reflect on my successes and failures with seminar-style classes, one variable of import is the attention I pay to community building in the early weeks of the course. The energy and strategic planning of early class sessions can be some of the strongest factors in having that magical class experience. As instructors, we can create an environment where students feel comfortable sharing ideas, critiquing their classmates, and questioning ‘truth.’

While much attention has been paid to community building in online courses, the same emphasis should be placed on the merits of building community in face-to-face courses. Currently, I’m co-teaching an interdisciplinary course on cross-cultural conceptions of beauty. It is a competitive, seminar-style honors course open to all academic majors. Students range from freshmen to juniors. I have 13 delightful students who will be asked to examine their own beliefs and values surrounding beauty while considering viewpoints from anthropology, biology, sociology, and psychology. Ideally, students will read these provocative pieces and jump into eager discussion of the big ideas, such as how we define and judge beauty cross-culturally. But without intentional community building by the instructor, students’ anxieties and feelings of vulnerability may lead to proverbial crickets.

Importantly, community-building activities are not the same as icebreakers. Icebreakers are intended to be short and superficial, often with simple goals such as learning names or eliciting a positive mood. Community-building activities are designed to foster a knowledge of one’s peers, learn how to collaborate as a learning community, and establish an environment of trust and respect. Certainly we hope they are fun, too, but the primarily goal is bigger than just making each other laugh with a silly activity.

Here are a few takeaways as to how my co-instructor and I have approached building community in this particular course.

1. It takes time.

We are fortunate to teach in a 100-minute time block twice a week. We carve out 20 minutes of the class period to intentionally focus on community building, which means we have less time for content. The trade-off is well worth it, however, as the content we do cover is richer because more students are helping drive the conversation.

2. It takes consistency.

Icebreakers are often one-off activities, which is fine considering their simple purpose. However, it’s unrealistic to expect a sense of community to emerge after one community-building activity. Thus, we integrate such activities for the first 3 weeks of the course. Trust and respect build over time. Each week, we remind students both through the activities themselves as well as through explicit statements from the instructors that they are a respected part of the learning community with unique viewpoints that are valued.

After we’ve designed community-building activities during the initial weeks of the course, we hand off the discussion responsibility to our students, who are each tasked with leading discussion for a class period. Part of their duties as discussion leader is to develop a community-building activity that sets the stage for discussion. We always encourage students to meet with us for guidance or ideas. With students feeling empowered—exhibiting voice and choice—we’ve witnessed some very creative and effective activities.

3. Make it meaningful.

One reason students groan when they hear ‘icebreaker’ is that the activities are perceived as meaningless and shallow. Provide space for students to have real, meaningful interactions. And bonus points if you can tie the activities to the course content.

For example, our community-building activity for the first day of class asked students to form two concentric circles (students faced each other). Those in the inner circle were given 1 minute to try to identify the most interesting fact they could from their classmate (without asking that very question). After 1 minute, the roles were reversed. Following this 2-minute exchange, the outer circle rotated and the procedure was repeated. These one-on-one conversations provided an opportunity for focused time to learn about a classmate and what unique life experiences they bring into the classroom. The next class period, we used our community-building time to focus on what binds us together. Using a set of low-stakes prompts, such as “Find classmates with the same color hair as you,” students organized themselves into groups and were given 3 to 5 minutes to continue the conversation, responding to questions such as “What is the shortest your hair has been?” or “What is the most unique hair color you’ve had?” Because our course focuses on beauty, we created questions to reflect the course topic, but the questions you use can take any form you deem appropriate.

During Week 2, we moved into more team-focused activities, including a group drawing task and a music task where students, in groups of three, were asked to identify the title and artist of songs pertaining to beauty from an instructor-generated Spotify playlist. To provide examples of student-generated activities, one discussion leader asked their classmates to form a ‘tribe’ and discuss the symbolism of tattoos as markers of beauty, with the final task of creating a tribal tattoo that is representative of their culture. Another student employed a fast-paced spotlight activity, where, working around the circle, each student was given 10 seconds to convey a highlight of the day’s reading; moving to small groups, students were asked to synthesize and report out the main ideas.

Investing the time up front has paid off. We’re now reaping the rewards of students who, while still not completely confident in their ideas, are more willing to take risks and engage in the deep thinking and critical dialogue that reflect the learning outcomes of the course. Especially in interdisciplinary courses, where class composition transcends major, building community is a critical component to a course’s success.

Acknowledgments: I am grateful for my co-instructor for this course, Dr. Susan Crisafulli, associate professor of English, who consistently models energy, empathy, and rigor in her teaching. I continue to learn from her each day I’m in the classroom with her. And thank you to the spring 2019 IHE 100 class. I’m very proud of our learning community, in large part because of your willingness to bring your authentic selves to each class period and do the hard work of learning.

Dr. Kristin Flora is the Roscoe W. Payne Chair in Philosophy and Psychology at Franklin College. She is a featured faculty member in ACUE’s Career Guidance and Readiness course.

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