Self-affirming Icebreakers

Early on in my teaching career, I was teaching a modern art history course and standing at the front of the class off to the side of a huge projected image of an etching by 20th century German artist, Käthe Kollwitz. As I paced in the darkened room, highlighting the difficult life and subject matter of Kollwitz’s artwork, I glanced up at the screen to look at at the raw black and white representation of a mother holding a dead child. The mother looked subhuman, as if her physical body was morphing away into flesh of the child. The image had always been hard for me to look at, but that day it literally and unexpectedly took my breath away. I lost my words. And I began to cry. Right there in front of my students. I was mortified.

But as I looked out at my students’ faces, lit by the glow of the projector, I saw them sending care and compassion to me. I felt as if they wanted to give me a hug and say it was going to be ok. That was human connection. And that class became one of the most powerful classes I had ever taught.

Human connection is essential for community to develop – in a seated course or in an online course. But connection does not come through enabling a webcam, assigning a discussion, or rolling out a group project. Connection is established through relational trust and empathy. And when you take the first step to share and be vulnerable with your students, they are more likely to be willing to lean in and do the same. And, for the record, yes, community can be fostered asynchronously.

Collective Effervescence

Collective effervescence is a concept developed by French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, that describes when a group of individuals express the same thought or action. This universal experience serves to bond a community. Brené Brown discusses the concept in her book, Braving the Wilderness, and gave a few helpful examples including a story from the day the Space Shuttle Challenger crashed in 1986. She was driving on a freeway in the middle of the day when she noticed that all the cars had turned on their headlights to signal their grief of the national tragedy and loss of lives. Can you think of your own examples? Being one of tens of thousands of people holding a lighter at a concert comes to mind. What else?

Durkheim’s concept seems to implies synchronicity – people must be engaged in an action at the same time. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I have memories of being a young girl and wearing yellow ribbons in my hair to signal support for the US hostages being held in Iran. Since then, yellow ribbons have been used around the world to for various causes.

Ice Breakers

I see a correlation with collective effervescence and successful ice breakers in online courses. Designing an ice breaker that elicits shared vulnerability amongst a class is a powerful way to highlight the interconnectedness between all humans. I’m not suggesting to jump into the deep end though, like I did with my teaching example shared above. But I am suggesting that, as online teachers, we need to activate sharing that illuminates the feelings and experiences that connect all humans. Doing this by inviting students to show something important to them and share a story about themself mitigates belongingness uncertainty, which is shown to impact Black college students much more negatively than White students (Walton & Cohen, 2007). Belongingness uncertainty puts minoritized students in a state of stress, continuously seeking cues that signal their belonging and undermining their cognitive bandwidth (Verschelden, 2017).

If you are intrigued by this idea, consider using this strategy to design a self-affirming ice breaker. Encourage students to hold up their object and share it in a video recording or share a photograph of themselves holding it. Or come up with an adaptation. For example, I ask my students to share a favorite photograph and share why they chose it. Photographs have an impalpable power to forge connections amongst a group of individuals that don’t know much about one another.

In addition to crafting a prompt, this will also involve explaining steps to record the video or image, which will vary depending on the learning management system you are using. Alternatively, you could use an external tool like Padlet (which is free for the first 3 Padlets you create) or VoiceThread (which I only recommend if you are fortunately enough to have a site license at your college). If you are familiar with Google tools, you could create a Google Slide deck set to “Allow anyone to edit.” To prep the slide deck, type the name of one student at the top of each slide so each student can click through the deck and find their own place. To a student, this creates a sense of belonging – kind of like walking into a classroom or arriving at a dinner party and finding your pre-assigned seat.

Here are a couple of additional self-affirming ice breaker ideas from awesome online educators who I have learned so much from over the years:

  • Identity haiku. Students post an image that represents them and write a Haiku describing their identity as a learner. Then they reply to three peers acknowledging a possible connection. Shared by Fabiola Torres.
  • What would you hold? Students take a photo of an object in their hands – one that they will keep with them forever and explain its importance to them. Shared by Denise Maduli-Williams.

Have a self-affirming ice breaker idea you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below!

4 Comments to “Self-affirming Icebreakers”

  1. Kim Vincent-Layton

    One of the icebreakers that I have used is “Share the Story of Your Name”. Students are invited to use video and/or audio (VoiceThread) to share a personal story of their name. This is different for each student. One might share where their name comes from or the story of how/why they were given their name. Others might share what their name means, how they feel about their name, or a story about their nickname, and so on. This icebreaker opens up student-student and student-instructor connections that carry on through the course, and even beyond. I have had students reach out to me semesters later and share about how this first activity paved the way to friendships that lasted beyond the course. (I have also used this activity in online faculty development settings as well!)

    1. Michelle Pacansky-Brock

      Kim, thanks so much for sharing. I was introduced to this idea in the past year when I heard it discussed during a workshop. My initial thought was, “This is amazing!” Then I started wondering if it would leave some students out (students who have no information about why their names were picked, those not in touch with their family, etc). But listening to you expand on all of the ways the prompt can be explored was very helpful. I would think touching on a few of those suggestions in the instructions would create a very inclusive and meaningful experience. It would be so fun to listen to the stories too. Thanks again!


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