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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Back to School: 3 Question Activities to Connect Students

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality." Educators realize that this is true of classrooms and schools. So, to begin this school year, take some time to build your students as a caring community of learners and as a problem-solving team. You can do this grade-level wide, in individual classrooms or advisories, or for the greatest benefit, school wide. It's time well spent.

There are many developmentally-appropriate resources out there to draw upon for team building. Since it's the beginning of the school year, I'm going to focus on one aspect: helping your students get to know one another better. Some of the following questions can lead to more extensive conversations, and many can be done verbally or through other modalities, such as drawing:

#1 Student Pairs: What's Your Name?

To begin with, be sure everyone knows each other's names. At Responsive Classroom, they recommend using greetings to help students get to know one another better and feel more comfortable with each other. A greeting consists of saying your name, saying a greeting phrase in English or another language, and doing something physical to greet, like a handshake, fist-bump, high-five, or bowing. The greeting is acknowledged: "Hello, Robert. Thanks for your greeting. My name is..." . This needs to be repeated, with variations, early in the school year to build a comfort level, particularly with students new to the group or to each other.

#2 Small Groups: Who Are You?

Use a timer to give them 30-45 seconds per student to respond. After the first round, help them learn how to keep track of time and to listen to what one another has said. Consider asking them to keep a list or find other ways to let their group mates know they are listening. Repeat other rounds over the next few days and/or have kids share the same things with different peers. Here are some sample questions:

  • What kind of music do you like?
  • Where do members of your family come from? What languages do they, and you, speak?
  • What holidays do you enjoy and how do you celebrate them?
  • If you could travel anyplace for free, where would you like to travel? Why?
  • What is a place that you have visited that you like the most?
  • Have you ever been to a park, zoo, museum, or a farm? Pick one and tell us about it
  • When is your birthday and where were you born?
  • What is a movie or a book you have seen or read lately that you really liked? Why?
  • If you could be any animal that you wanted, what would you pick? Why?
  • What is something you would change about this school if you could, maybe if you became the principal?

#3 Whole Class: How Many Of You...?

This is an active variation of getting-to-know you and question-asking team-builders. The main question is asked, and you decide how you want the student to let you know their answer. It's best if they have to respond by doing something other than raising their hand (e.g., by standing at their seat, or holding up something that you distribute). Make it tangible and physical. You ask a question, and all those who can answer "yes", stand up. After the first question is asked, invite other students (with your modeling and help), to ask follow-up questions until everyone's specific answer gets identified. You will also end up building vocabulary and students' questioning skills.

Below are some sample main questions and some follow-ups to encourage:

  • (How many of you) play an instrument?
  • Play a sport?
  • Like to read? Non-fiction? history? fiction? Mysteries?
  • Like to eat dessert?
  • Like pizza? With cheese? What kind? Other toppings?
  • Know a quote from a book or poem or music? Know the author/composer?
  • Like hot weather/cold weather? Being in the sun? Being in the rain? Thunderstorms? Windy days?
  • Know someone with a disability?
  • Have ever been part of a team? In school? Out of school? Music-related? Sports-related?
  • Have ever been to a concert, play, show, sports event? Indoors? Outdoors?

Thanks to my colleagues at Responsive Classroom and Passageworks for ideas and inspiration for team-building activities and starting the year off well. Please share with us ways you team build in your classroom.

Back to School Blog Series
Back to school tips and strategies to help you rock the new year!

Comments (3)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

Timely post!

Since we're in the early days of the year, it seems so appropriate to remind teachers that the time spent in building community is never wasted. Kids who feel safe are more willing to take academic and social risks when we ask them to, but safety doesn't come over night- we have to build and maintain it intentionally and consistently over time.

In my work with the Critical Skills Program, we talk about creating opportunities for students to build deepening trust as a way to move them through the stages of group development. We describe them as:

1. Knowledge (learning basic facts and information about each other)
2. Communication (learning how we speak to each other informally and about things that matter, what it looks and sounds like when we communicate effectively)
3. Cooperation (a tacit agreement not to get in each other's way as we solve a problem or complete a task together)
4. Collaboration (a shared commitment to our mutual success as a community of learners)
5. Community (the point at which a group is invested in the shared happiness, success and safety of its members)

I can't wait to share your ideas with my colleagues!

Jen Audley's picture
Jen Audley
Manager of Online Communications for Responsive Classroom/NEFC

Thanks for highlighting Responsive Classroom in this post! For more about greetings and other ideas for building positive community in the first weeks of school, check out the Resources for Educators page at our website: https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/resources-educators (The featured resources on this page change frequently, but we'll keep them tied to this post through the weekend at least.)

Mark Collard's picture
Mark Collard
Playful adventure educator, author, founder of playmeo.com

Excellent stuff Maurice. Can I suggest your readers check out the hundreds of fun interactive activities on playmeo.com - in particular have a look at Ice-Breaker Question Exchange - http://www.playmeo.com/ice-breaker-get-to-know-you-games/ice-breaker-que... - for dozens of wonderful, non-threatening questions to use to break the ice among students, esp in the first week of class. Also, for the record, I posted a link to this post on the playmeo blog - cheers, Mark

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