Don’t break the ice… melt it.

We hear about creating safe and supportive learning environments and use icebreakers to help students get to know each other and ease into learning. Thinking back to an ice breaker experience from a course several years ago, the prompt was “what’s the most exotic thing you ever ate?”

The question raised anxiety to the point where I wanted to skip the icebreaker and plunge in cold. This innocent and fun question caused me to pause to make a quick inventory of my past exotic eating experiences… frogs legs on the Gulf coast of Florida? No… too dull.

Dog biscuits with friends at age eight? Nope… too weird.

Cloudberries in northern Norway? No, someone else had climbed the mountain to get these precious berries and then shared them with me… I didn’t even work for them.

I don’t recall which food I chose to talk about. Probably the dog biscuits. For me this activity wasn’t just an ice breaker. I experienced this as a way to feel less than. There’s no way a teacher would know or expect an activity intended to be light and fun might bring up feelings like this; sometimes in the classroom feelings based on earlier experiences emerge.

As a teacher I catalog struggles — my own and my students’ — and aim to keep them in my mind and heart. When my students take risks in the classroom, I think this is about their willingness to be vulnerable and share concerns and fears openly.

We can find ways to let students just “be” in the classroom. This might include writing a brief reflection on a reading and sharing with a partner.

We can also learn to become comfortable with silence. Silence is often beneficial despite not always being comfortable.

We can also make plenty of time for students to get to know each other. This time is well spent as it goes a long way in creating a learning environment where students feel comfortable taking risks without fear.