The first day of class can be a bit scary. New students shuffle in, nervously clutching registration papers. After a quick glance at the room number, they take a seat, often far from each other. Occasionally, a returning student will recognize a pal from the past, and after a joyful greeting, the friends sit close together. The new ones, however, remain silent, waiting, perhaps hoping that they are in the right place, that they have a kind and capable teacher, that they can manage the workload.
Their first experience in this room may well set the tone for the entire semester, so how does a teacher get started on the right foot?.
While there are several first day measures that a teacher can take, including arriving early, greeting students with a smile, and distributing crisp new syllabi, perhaps the most important goal for a language class is making students feel comfortable.
The following icebreaker helps teacher and students get to know each other on day one. It suggests that learning one another’s names is important, and that student talk is expected and valued.The activity can take anywhere from 20 – 30 minutes depending on class size, and it can be adapted to use in different ways throughout the semester.
Bring a small beanbag, stuffed animal, or other tossable toy or object–a crumpled up paper ball will work in a pinch.
Ask students to leave their books on their desks and stand in a circle. You may have to move desks around to make room for the circle, but take the time to even out the line so that everyone can see everyone’s face, and there are no “leaks.” Expect a slight air of anticipation as they arrange themselves.
Once everyone is in a circle, show them the object, and say something to the effect of, “You’ll need to know your classmates because you will be working together in groups, so we will start this class by learning each other’s names.”
Then, “I am going to start by telling you my name and something I like. Then I will toss this object to one of you. The person who catches it must tell my name and what I like. Then you will add your name and something you like. Then you will toss it to a new student who repeats only your information and adds his or her own.”
Provide a model to get them started such as, “My name is Ms. Katie, and I like reading novels.” Then toss the object to a student and ask the student to continue. The student should say, “Her name is Ms. Katie, and she likes reading mysteries. My name is Phuong Dao, and I like playing piano.”
Remind students that they only need to repeat the information of the person before them, not everyone. This keeps the students alert, and does not overtax their memory or slow down the pace.
Check that students understand, and then begin again. As students toss the object around the room, intervene only as necessary to insure that all students say names as clearly as possible. When there are grammatical errors, you may feel inclined to correct them, which is fine, or make a mental note to address them after the activity. Bear in mind that the main purpose is to foster a sense of belonging in the class.
When all names have been stated, you might observe that it is still hard to remember everyone’s names. Consider repeating the activity with a different piece of information such as, “My name is Ms. Katie, and I want to be a singer.”
To wrap up, invite one of the students to say everyone’s name. The volunteer (or volunteers) can look around the circle stating each person’s name, which further reviews the names. Step up the challenge by having students move to a different place in the circle, and asking a new volunteer to repeat names. Do it yourself if you can. Students will be impressed if you get them all right.
If all goes well, you may notice a difference in their demeanor as they take their seats: their shoulders may look more relaxed, they may be smiling, and they may well be expecting to play an active role in the upcoming semester.