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If I walked into a new class: Tips on unlocking engagement with a new class

When we walk into a new class, we have “absolute musts” in mind. Some of my “absolute musts” is that I inspire trust through personal credibility, that my students get an overview of the academic map of the year, and that I get across as a pleasant professional with expectations of myself and my students.  Formulating a shared class vision is top on my list too. With the help of my “get-to-know-you” type of icebreakers, I illustrate the communication strategies and classroom tactics that we will be using. Embedding leadership language, highlighting communication skills, the value of empathy, of emotional and social well-being are additional “musts”. Teaching students how to express their thinking with reasonable arguments while politely challenging what they disagree on is another ‘must’ of mine.


Getting to know each other


One classic “get-to-know-you” icebreaker is sharing basic information about oneself and inviting students to ask what they want to know about us. The “Miss, how old are you” question is to be expected!


Another icebreaker is starting a little talk on something one can’t imagine one’s life without and then giving the floor to students to talk about what is very important to them. This allows a free flow of controlled exchange of personal information.

Additionally, the teacher could introduce himself using the “many truths about myself and two lies” technique. This technique requires that one tells a story about oneself that contains many truths and two lies. The students must spot the lies and it is all very fun.  

One can learn about one’s students and their level of English with the “get-to-know-you” leaflet. Students are required to give 60-word answers to questions of the type “which is your favorite film”, “who is special to you”, “the sportsperson who has inspired you”,  “a target you have set for yourself”, “your favorite superhero”, “if you were a scientist who would you be and why”. Other questions are “what works best for you when learning a new word”; or “should we teach subjects connected with other subjects” or “is a teacher’s job to also instill ideals, principles, and ethics”? Through their answers students air their views and show their level of English as well. These answers make better sense when the teacher reads them a month later when s/he knows the students better. Doing the same activity orally is less effective as it takes up much time, offers less information and shy students are inhibited. 


With B1 and over classes, the teacher could use split collocations on slips of paper that are given out to students. Some students get the cards with one half of the collocation and others the other half. When one student calls out his half, the class listens, and the one who has the other half of the phrase stands and calls it out. This goes on until all cards have been used.


‘The three words at a time’ activity

This icebreaker game is about inventing a story with each player adding three words at a time. A group of 6 to 8 students is formed and they stand in a semi-circle in full view of their class. A topic is tossed by the teacher who starts off the story with the first three words. The first player adds three more, the second player extends the previous with another three and so does the third, fourth, etc. The one who is blocked or makes no sense is signaled by the teacher to leave the circle.  Students are kept on their toes, improvising relentlessly as they cannot plan ahead. The players must think quickly. It is intense as the mind must syn with the mouth. It is fun to see how long the telling circle will last and if the group develops rapport.


The “Yes, and that means” icebreaker game

This story-building activity is about getting the team to create a story starting from one true sentence that anyone can offer.  Each player adds to it using the “Yes, and that means” phrase first.

For example, I can say: 

“We were on holiday when a tornado passed by our hotel room”.

Player 1. Yes, and that means that we saw things floating around.

Player 2. Yes, and that means that plants and trees were uprooted.

Player 3. Yes, and that means that umbrellas were turned over at the beach.

Player 4. Yes, and that means that there was a power cut.

Player 5. Yes, and that means that children started crying and people shouting.

So, each player builds on what was previously said by contributing a sentence. The activity lasts two minutes tops and the players co-create their story.  If they put in some drama, physicality, and animation, their consequential story is most impressive.


Memory chain

Students expand a simple sentence into a longer one by repeating all previous items and adding one more item to it. The longer it lasts, the harder it gets because one has to remember all that was said before and add to it.

For example :

Student A says ”My mum went to the greengrocer’s and bought tomatoes”.                       
Student B says “My mum went to the greengrocer’s and bought tomatoes and some potatoes”. This continues with the list getting longer and longer. The activity can be done with word fields like sports, hobbies, school subjects, etc.


Attention seeker signals

If the class gets too excited in the process of getting to know each other, the teacher can use a variety of attention seeker signals. With young learners, the teacher might say and do matching actions which the learners repeat and copy.

Ex. 1,2,3 look at me.    1,2,3 listen to me.    1,2,3 eyes on me.   1,2 eyes on you.


With older students, one rings a little bell or holds up two hands or a tiny flag.


Carving teaching paths

We carve our personal teaching paths and cater to the needs of the students based on improvisation, our personal preferences, skills, talents, and experiences. We just need to remember that learning paths that have in-store experiential, relevant, project-based activities and leadership opportunities invite positive emotions which fertilize learning. Play, art, science projects, or drama games translate into pleasant learning which in turn means focused attention.      


Note: Zafi Mandali  is the director of the Department of English, Ellinogermaniki Agogi, an active teacher and a teacher trainer. She has given a number of presentations, published a number of articles, authored “English Grammar Exerciser”, “Absolute Must in Composition Writing” and “FCE Training”, E.A. Publications. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics, University of Essex. Her soft point is storytelling in education and samples of her work is uploaded on  www.eltstorytelling.com   and   the Eltstorytelling facebook group.