My favorite ice-breaker with a new class was called Snowballing. I had everyone sit in the middle of the room in a circle of chairs. If there were more than 12 students, we made two circles, an inner one and an outer one. This was long before deskless rooms were the fashion, but the students were always ready to move furniture when it meant doing something different. The outside ring watched as spectators, then the two groups changed places. What is great about the activity is that since they were eager to learn as much as possible about each other, they were attentive. It is compelling input from the start.
I sat in the inner circle. If I had spotted a student that might be very shy or have learning difficulties, I sat with him on my right. And if a student seemed bright or overly confident, a bit of a show-off, I made sure they were on my left. Then I asked the student on my right three or four questions that you might ask someone when you first meet them. The actual questions depended on the level of the class and their interests. With beginners I would simply ask What is your name? Where do you live? Do you have pets? With more advanced classes I would ask more detailed questions. I did require that they reply with complete sentences. “My name is Pierre-Henri Constant. I live in Bajamont. I have a dog and two cats.” Then I asked the student on the other side of Pierre-Henri:
, What is his name? – His name is Pierre-Henri Constant.
Where does he live? – He lives in Bajamont.
Does he have pets? – He has a dog and two cats.
This is where it gets interesting, because then I ask the second student to answer the same three questions about himself. The third student has to give me the information about the first two and add his own information. The fourth student realizes that he will have to talk about all three that preceded him. The last student, the one on my left, realizes that by asking him to sit next to me I have challenged him and shown that I think he’s smart enough to succeed. I’ve never had a student not rise to the challenge. So we go around the circle, student by student. Everyone is following attentively, either because they’re coming up soon or because they have had their turn and are both relieved and interested in what they are learning about the others. If there is an outer circle, the students sitting there are just as interested in hearing what is said. If someone stumbles or hesitates, the others immediately, spontaneously, come to his rescue, giving him the right information. This may be the most important aspect of the activity, since it says “We are a class where we can help each other, where everyone can succeed.” It’s an ideal CI activity because everything is 100% comprehensible and compelling and repetitive. The original structures are repeated countless times.
What about the boy on my left? The one that has to remember the names of all his classmates, where they live and what pets they have? He usually does quite well, because he has had more repetitions than anyone else. And the class always gives him a round of applause for succeeding (led by me if necessary), which tells him that he can have the attention and praise that he craves without acting up in my class.
Usually the class catches on that there’s one more person in the circle who has not recited their names. If they don’t, I announce that it’s my turn. (And this is why I limit the number to twelve!) I then go around the circle, saying what I have learned about each student. Everyone likes to hear their own name, but the students cannot help smiling when they realize that I have already learned who they are, where they live and I know that they have a dog and two cats. And it’s the first day of school!
I didn’t always use ice-breakers. In some of my classes in the lycée the students had been together the year before and knew each other quite well. So I would do something different, letting the ice melt, so to speak. An activity that I often used was to ask them to work in groups preparing questions they would ask if they were going to hire an English teacher. (French students are usually quite curious about their teachers and rarely get to ask questions.) Then I would present myself as a candidate at a job interview and answer their questions. They always hired me, but then there were no other candidates.