Introductions with a Purpose


Daniel Reinish

I hate ice-breakers.

It’s not that I love throwing a bunch of people into a room and watching them awkwardly stare at one another. It’s just…games like “Two Truths and a Lie” where I have to share some nifty fact about myself make me anxious—am I interesting enough???—and whenever I try to lead an ice-breaking activity, it just feels overwhelmingly inauthentic. If there’s something I value, as a teacher and as a person, it’s authenticity.

So the first week of school can always be a little frustrating.

The thing is, ice-breakers and team-builders are very much necessary, especially on a publication staff and especially when students are not necessarily attending class in person. These folks need to feel comfortable with each other and need to have some seriously well-opened lines of communication if they are to successfully create a website, publication, broadcast program or any other project.

And so, we do ice-breakers. But this year, in order to make them feel less stilted and way more authentic, I’ve been looking for ways to integrate them much more tightly with my instructional goals. Here are a few examples I’ve tried so far.

Partner Interviews

I most certainly did not invent this one. But I’m mentioning it because it works so well in a journalism classroom. It’s simple: rather than asking students to introduce themselves, you put them in pairs and have them each introduce the other student. In my English classes, I usually give them some seed questions: what’s their name? what’s their favorite book or movie? etc.

But in my yearbook class this week, I didn’t give them any questions. Instead, I told them their job is to make the other person interesting. And then I began a mini-lesson (or, perhaps more accurately, a demonstration) about the importance of follow-up questions, which consisted primarily of me interviewing a student volunteer and asking lots of follow-ups. Afterwards, we talked about the topics that I identified in the conversation and tried to learn more about. I also gave a few examples of follow-up starters: e.g. “Could you tell me more about…”

After that, it was time for the students to interview one another in their break-out rooms and then share back with the whole class. They got to know each other, but they also got to practice their journalism skills in the meantime.

Show and Tell—with Captions!

This was a new activity I tried this week. I’m sure I didn’t invent this one either, but I really liked how it went. At the end of that first class, students were told that for homework, they should find a photo that they took at some point. It should be a photo that they really like or which had some kind of meaning to them. Ideally, it should have people in it. I instructed the students to post these photos to our class discussion board along with a caption.

The photos themselves were not necessarily anything special; only a few would likely have been publishable in our yearbook. But that wasn’t the point. By sharing personal photo and telling us about it, students were being asked to open up a little bit.

Most of the captions were also nothing special. Veteran yearbook staffers did a better job. Newbies wrote one-liners or sentence fragments.

But after everyone shared their photos, including why they chose them, what was going on and what they wrote, I gave them a brief lesson on the fundamentals of caption-writing. We looked at a few examples together, and then I asked the students to work in pairs to revise the captions to their own photos. (I also gave them the liberty to make up a quote—just this once!—to include with their caption.

And lo and behold, all the students came back with much more interesting and informative captions. So once again, they were able to learn a useful journalism skill while also getting to know a bit more about one another.

Group Brainstorm

This isn’t really an ice-breaker, but I’m going to throw it in here anyway. Part of how I’m hoping to build a team bond this year is by helping my staff recognize that they’re all in this together. Part of understanding that is realizing that I’m not the one with the answers this year. We’re doing something entirely new, and they have the challenge (and privilege) of figuring it out.

So another really useful activity that we did this week was a group brainstorm. I gave students the following four categories:

  • Stories You’d LOVE to Tell
  • New Angles for Stale Stories
  • Reporting for Duty (how are we going to actually do our reporting this year?)
  • Photography and Design (how are we going to get our photos + design ideas)

Then, in small-group break-out rooms, they rotated through the categories, spending at least five minutes on each. While they talked, each group posted their ideas to a discussion board for the current category so that everyone could see the brainstorms. By keeping the groups small, my hope was that everyone—even the new staffers—would have the space to speak.

And most importantly, they’d see that not only does the success of this book depend on each of them individually, but that they can come up with ideas. If they feel like they truly have ownership over this process—this experiment—then that will go a long way towards feeling motivated to make it work.

In the coming days, I’m hoping to find some additional activities that get students talking while also learning. But I’ve been excited about how things have started and look forward to making this book work together as a real yearbook team.

(And full disclosure: We also played “Two Truths and a Lie.” It was the editors’ idea!)