Icebreaker Fails

Icebreaker Fails

My First Failed Icebreaker

I remember my first big class after finishing grad school and getting my TESOL degree. It was an Intermediate ESL course at a community college in the United States. I faced a room full of Chinese students, mostly in their 20s, who needed academic English to survive in college classrooms. I started the class with a name game.

Yes…A name game. If you have a degree in education, I’m sure you know the type. I don’t remember the details, but it was the kind of activity where the only objective is for everyone in the room to remember everyone else’s name. My students played along politely, but a lot of them had these blank stares, which I interpreted to mean, “Did we come all the way here so that this American kid can teach us how to remember each other’s names?”

Sure it’s important for students to learn each other’s names, and I know that this sort of activity can be really fun with some groups of students, but I realized right away that it just wasn’t the right way to set the tone in this particular class. I guess that was the moment when it struck me that not every great communicative activity that I’d learned in grad school would work with every class. Luckily, my lackluster icebreaker wasn’t the end of the world. The course turned out just fine, my students learned lots of useful things, and I learned to be more selective with my activity choices.

The Icebreaker I’d Never Try

Are there any icebreaker ideas that make you cringe? Ones that you’ve read about on the internet or learned about in a professional development workshop, but would never ever ever try?

For me, its that toilet paper one. You know that one that seems to show up on so many Top 10 ESL Icebreaker lists? If you don’t, here’s the gist: You casually pass a roll of toilet paper around your classroom and say, “Take what you need,” with no further explanation. When everyone has some toilet paper, you ask students to share one fact about themselves for each square that they took.

Um… Has anyone actually tried that out with real students? I imagine that if I were to begin class on a Monday morning with a roll of toilet paper in my hand, my professional adult students would take one look at me and lose all faith that they would ever learn anything from me.

I know…I know…I’m being overdramatic. But this just seems forced funny. I have a silly sense of humor, and my students are always giggling as they make grammar mistakes, but… toilet paper? What’s the point? Why don’t you just ask your students to share 5 facts about themselves? Or to roll a dice? And what if one student takes the entire roll? I’m sure that the rest of the class doesn’t want to spend the day listening to that person’s entire autobiography. Maybe it could work if you teach middle school students who find toilets hilarious, though…

What do you think?

Anyway, I like a good ice breaker as much as any other teacher, but I also love a good fail story, so please leave your comments, stories and ideas in the box below. Here are some questions for you to think about:

  • What’s your icebreaker fail?
  • And what icebreaker would you never try?
  • Have you attempted the toilet paper thing and lived to tell?

Leave your comments below. I’m listening!

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