Photo of penguin and polar bear on ice

I’m a student teacher in a classroom of high school juniors starting the day off with the mandatory standardized testing prep disguised as a journal entry and icebreaker. I turn on the projector to post the essay prompt, “What are qualities of a good parent and why?” And for the first time all semester, the class is completely silent. Within less than a minute of the prompt being on the board, I have one student slam the door while running out of the room, another has their head down and is quietly sobbing, and several folx are staring at me with a WTF look. This experience embodied triggered. What was probably a well-intentioned “easy” essay prompt from some test writer destroyed a lot of the trust and conversation in our classroom. In this one heartbreaking moment, my 21-year-old self learned how important questions, and how we ask them, can be.

Essentially, bad icebreakers build more ice than break it. Sparking Reddit threads galore, even in r/teachers. Below I’ve put together some lessons I’ve learned the hard way around icebreakers.


1. Pose an easy question for all to answer

Have you ever had someone ask a really really really good question, but it is met with crickets? Maybe it is too personal for a group that doesn’t know each other or maybe it requires PHILOSOPHIZING LEVEL 100!!! And 5 minutes won’t cut it. Starting with objective questions are a good way to lessen the social anxiety.

Examples: What section from the document most stood out to you? What is an example of your experience with ______? What words catch your attention? What have you heard about _____? 

2. Build common ground over shared values or experiences

Similar to the experience of students walking out of our classroom. There was always an audible groan growing up when the teacher asked at the beginning of the year “Say your name and one thing you did this summer.” Well, if that doesn’t say who has money and/or parents around, I don’t know what does. Hearing about summer camps and family vacations was always a dread for me. I wish I had the confidence as a middle schooler (as I proudly do now) to say, “I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in two and a half days. If I hadn’t fell asleep, I could have probably finished it in less than 48 hours.” Instead of focuses on things that can feel divisive, focus icebreakers around similarities. How do we move towards building common ground?

Example: Start your session by asking questions that can help build common ground by identifying shared experiences:

  • What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?

  • What’s the last book you read?

  • What podcast are you listening to right now?

  • What are you currently watching on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu?

  • What did you study in school?

Additional Resources: Write and share an “I am from” poem


3. Honor differences

When you’ve become comfortable enough to share what unites you, then conversations around differences is easier. When we build the space that unites us around shared values and experiences, the same space can allow for discussion and appreciation of differences. One of my favorite activities is story of your name because it brings to light what people want to be called and how they have felt about their given names.


4. Is it quiet? Give it some time.

Sometimes it takes time for conversations to get going. Back when I was teaching, this was infamously called the “teacher wait.” If you’re asking a question that is beyond sheer observation (what do you see? What do you hear? Etc), build in time to reflect with announcing time for reflection with a prompt like “Let’s spend a minute reflecting individually and then come back as a whole group.” One, it holds off those that are quick to answer and two, it makes space for those that need time to reflect. I’ve noticed during webinars that it typically takes about a minute and a half before responses start rolling in through chatboxes.

E.g. Count down slowly from from 8 down to 1 

Other tips: Make sure to prompt that questions and discussion will remain open. Pay attention to who is speaking.


5. Is the question sparking conversation? Let it emerge and grow.

So what if you have the opposite of complete silence? People are asking each other followup questions, showing agreement, or wanting to share.If a question is really sparking conversation, make sure to give that time for connection.

Tips: Listen for when there are natural segways into the topic at hand. Give a heads up that we’re switching gears, so the ending doesn’t feel so abrupt, “let’s share 2-3 more experiences.” “Let’s leave room 1-2 more people to share that haven’t shared yet.”

We'd love to hear your suggestions as well, Click here to add your favorite icebreaker to our crowd sourced list!