There are lots of websites full of ‘icebreakers’ out there. A simple Google search, though, shows me that they often compile activities taken from everywhere, including corporate training and party games. Clearly, not all of these ‘getting to know you’ games will work in a classroom to engage learners or fulfill a teacher’s aims for the first day of class. In this book, Walton Burns has therefore collected and written down activities that he has tried and tested in his own classrooms, and feels achieved their goals including learning student names, building rapport, or establishing classroom rules. You can find more of what Burns says about his book here. The information also includes his Author Bio:
Walton Burns is a teacher and award-winning materials writer from Connecticut who began his career in 2001, teaching in the Peace Corps in the South Pacific. Since then, he has taught in Central Asia and in his native country. His students have been a diverse group, including Russian oil executives, Afghan high school students, and Chinese video game champions. As a writer, he has been on the author team of two textbooks and written lesson plans and activities for private language schools. He is currently chair of the Materials Writing Interest Section of the TESOL Association, the international association for English language professionals. For more information, including projects he has worked on, go to Walton’s blog and his website.
The activities are good because they enable teachers to create positive atmospheres with their new classes whilst often also fulfilling some purpose and making some of the organisational aspects of a first lesson more interactive. Because of this, and despite what the book’s title says, many of the activities could also be used throughout the term, to re-energise the class group, strengthen the sense of community, or deal with organisational matters.They could also be used by substitute teachers jumping in to cover a class they’ve not taught before, as they often require very little preparation.
That said, the majority of the activities are of the ‘getting to know you’ type. To make these even more useful, I would suggest that the teacher makes notes about what the learners say, for example mistakes they make or their interests and goals, so that these can form the basis of a rough needs analysis at the beginning of a course. Within this section, there were no activities that were entirely new to me, although a few interesting variations. Still, for novice teachers the collection might contain new ideas, and for us more experienced teachers having all of these activities collected in one place is a good selling point for this book.
The instructions on how to set up and run the activities are formulated very clearly with illustrative examples, and also include ideas for possible adaptations or variations of the activities – so the book would be helpful for anyone new to teaching, as well as experienced teachers looking to re-jig their first-lesson activities.
The activities are specifically aimed at ELT classrooms, often beginner levels learners. Still, the adaptations and variation Walton Burns suggest allow teachers to use them with more advanced learners, too, and they’ve all been tested by Walton Burns in his various classes of English learners. A lot of them are probably more appropriate in classes of students from different countries and backgrounds, but again possible adaptations are explained so that teachers with mono-lingual groups can also employ the activities. Many of them would also be suitable for other subjects’ classrooms.
One or two of the activities here will need to be handled with care, such as English Names, and I Have Never, but this is also highlighted in small notes at the beginning of the instructions for the activity.
It is in the “Assessing and Evaluating” section of the book where activities with a clear classroom-organisation focus are presented. These cover matters such as needs analysis, goals, basic classroom vocabulary e.g. for items or instructions, class rules. Some of the ideas here seems less like ‘first-day’ activities, and fall more in the category of interesting ways to check and review language; though in the first lesson they could form part of a needs analysis. The “Setting the Tone” section includes activities which are perhaps more suitable for the beginning of a course, and clearly have the purpose of establishing the class rules or lesson routines, encouraging self-study, or introducing the textbook or materials. For me, these sections are the most interesting in the book, as they all have a clear aim, which is more than just ‘having fun’ and ‘breaking the ice’.
Overall, for just ~€7, I’d say this book is well worth a look, and would be a worthwhile addition to any staffroom bookshelf!