As we have all learned over recent weeks, digital platforms and video conference rooms are tremendous resources for teachers and students who are separated by distance. If you are like me, you have also discovered how different, and even strange, teaching and learning can be in a virtual classroom. Inevitably, there are bumps along the way. Students might hesitate to speak up, wondering if their microphones work—or leave their microphones accidentally on mute. There may be feedback that makes it difficult to hear someone speak. A teacher might wonder about the overall level of class engagement as some students master the technology more quickly than others. And the list goes on...
In my virtual classes, I've taken three steps to create an environment that works:
- Offer simple tips around the use of video, the mute button, any chat functions, etc.
- Practice these tips myself and be willing to pause the class to help students with technical difficulties. I have my own technical difficulties too, which are great teaching moments—and may provide humor.
- Use virtual icebreakers.
Of these steps, I've found that the third is the most valuable. While the first two steps increase the technical comfort of students, virtual icebreakers are key to increasing their social comfort, which is essential for virtual settings. Furthermore, studies have shown that if participants don't speak in the first five minutes of a meeting, they probably won't speak in the meeting at all. (Here's an interesting article from Business Insider that explains the importance of early engagement.)
In an online ESL classroom, virtual icebreakers allow students to warm up to the technology as well as to greet each other and socialize. It also allows late-coming students to enter without missing out on the main lesson. And, in an ESL classroom, virtual icebreakers can also have an instructional component. Below are a few of my favorites.
1. COVID Names
This icebreaker is especailly valuable for sharing feelings during this difficult time. (To help your students with vocabulary, have them check out our previous post Expressing Feelings During the Coronavirus Outbreak.) This icebreaker also practices food words.
To make a COVID name, tell students to choose an adjective that describes how they're feeling and combine it with the last thing that they ate: Hopeful Soup, Unhappy Strawberries, Bored Ham and Cheese, Anxious Oatmeal, etc. Offer your own COVID name first.
In my classes, this has prompted laughter, but also honest sharing. For advanced classes, this icebreaker can be more challenging if students try not to repeat adjectives that have already been used, but rather use synonyms.
2. Questions & Answers
This icebreaker is straightforward: Ask the class a non-sensitive personal question, such as "What color is your kitchen?" During COVID-19, I find that students engage with questions that evoke more relaxed times, such as "What was your best vacation?" or "What is your favorite meal to share with friends?"
As a more challenging instructional follow-up for more advanced classes, give students an answer and have them form questions, Jeopardy-style (e.g., "Midnight." / "What time did you go to bed last night?").
This icebreaker works best if your virtual meeting platform has a chat function that accompanies audio. A function that allows virtual hand-raising also works. Ask students a trivia question and have them offer answers by chat or by raising their hands.
To increase instructional value, use trivia from previous lessons or students' location. For example: "Which Canadian city has hosted the Summer Olympics?" (Montreal) or "Which US state contains the Grand Canyon?" (Arizona)
If you wish, you can make it a contest and award points for correct answers. From an ice-breaking standpoint, though, remember the goal is to increase social interaction and comfort.
4. Thumbs-Up or Thumbs-Down?
For this icebreaker, students should choose a view that allows the entire class to be seen at once. They can also use a voting function if one is available in the virtual tool. Students take turns stating something they like/dislike or something they've done. For example, "I like shrimp." or "I've visited Washington, DC." Classmates indicate their similarity or difference with the person by showing a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down (or by using the voting function).
To personalize the activity even more, challenge students to offer an activity or accomplishment that they think is rare or unique about themselves, and see if anyone shares it. For example, "I cleaned out my refrigerator last night." or "I was born on February 29."
This is my favorite icebreaker, especially for small classes, but it is really nothing more than having a conversation. Too often in this time of social distancing, we do not have opportunities for casual conversation.
Ask students about their families or what they have recently done. Share the same about yourself. Talk about what you miss during this time of social distancing or what you are looking forward to doing again when the situation passes. Share that you are glad to be in class today and express your appreciation for students' participation. Compare notes about the best methods for buying groceries. Joke about wearing your pajamas.
There are countless ways to adapt these ideas. If you have a suggestion or have had success with a different icebreaker, please add it to Comments below—and, remember, we're all in this together.