Even after almost 25 years of teaching, one task I still approach with new-teacher determination is finding an effective icebreaker to kick off a semester. Every summer, I scour the internet with the goal of finding a non-cliched, community-building, invigorating activity that I can wow my students with on the first day of class. These are hard to find! For certain classes, though, I have an old faithful that produces that coveted “wow” reaction.
This icebreaker serves a few purposes. Not only does it break the ice, but it also demonstrates what a professional study is, what characteristics make it strong, and how it is written about and reviewed by peers. It works best with students who already know each other a bit, such as those returning from break, cohort groups, and graduate students. The activity begins before my students set foot in my classroom, when I ask them to read Mandy Len Catron’s article “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” from Modern Love in the New York Times. In it, Catron references psychologist Arthur Aron’s 1997 laboratory experiment where he successfully makes two people fall in love by having them ask one another 36 questions that increase in intimacy, followed by a four-minute-long session where the prospective lovebirds stare continuously into one another’s eyes. In her article, Catron explains the experiment and her own attempt at falling in love following these parameters.
When students arrive to class on the first day, knowing they’ve read the article, I open with this question: How many of you have ever been in love? A cringeworthy question to ask, admittedly, but I usually have a few students willing to respond, either with a sheepish hand-raise or sometimes with an enthusiastic “I have!” From here, the discussion can take off in many ways. Some years, we’ve spent time figuring out what being “in love” really means. Once, a young man spoke adoringly and at length about his long-term girlfriend. We then turn our attention to the article and Dr. Aron’s experiment. Invariably, students are skeptical that a scientist or anyone could really make two people fall in love. At this point, it’s an awesome opportunity to show them the actual study, making note of the many characteristics of such a professional study and the way it is written about and reviewed by peers. In the writing classes that I teach, we have a learning objective of understanding different types of sources, so we begin that work on day one by way of taking a peek into Aron’s study.
Next, it is time for them to really engage. Before they know what’s happening, I’m pairing them up with a classmate and distributing a copy of the 36 questions Dr. Aron used in the study (Jones, 2015). They’re giggling and nervous and probably wondering about my intentions, so I assure them, “Now, I’m not trying to get anyone to fall in love in here, but if it happens, so be it!” Due to time constraints, I ask them to choose 5 of the 36 questions that they would be willing to ask their assigned classmate. It’s a version of the traditional interview-a-partner-and-then-report-back icebreaker, but with the 36 questions provided for them, things can get interesting. Many students choose the first question, playing it safe: If you could invite anyone in the world to dinner, who would be? Often, though, students venture into the later questions, those designed to create intimacy, such as #24 (How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?) or #34 (Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?).
In both the asking and the answering of these questions, the students open up to each other, and they report back to the whole class one answer they elicited from their partner. I see them relaxing, and that’s when I remind them of the other part of Dr. Aron’s experiment: staring into one another’s eyes for four minutes straight. At that point, a ripple of energy that ranges from murmurs to outright protest will erupt in the room. “Oh, no!” they cry, or “No way!” as they begin to realize where we’re headed next. I stand there and smile at them for about 30 seconds before lowering the boom: “There are two parts to the experiment, folks.”
So, you may be wondering: Do I really ask them to stare into one another’s eyes for four minutes? No, but I do ask them to pass a gaze, from one student to the next, snaking around the room. I ask them to hold the gaze as long as they possibly can, and when it breaks, pass it on to the next person. As you might imagine, some students give up pretty quickly, often with a giggle, but others throw down, ready to take on this beast of a challenge, trying to outdo students who come before them in the progression and have some success staring at each other.
Typically, we will come up against the end of class time with this second part of the icebreaker. As students exit the room, they’re laughing together, giving me looks that say, “Whoa—what was that?” I’ve heard that they sometimes take the 36 questions back to their dorms and try them out with their friends.
The activity feels like a win on this all-important first day back, and it seems to hit its mark in truly breaking the ice. Again, I’m not sure I’d use it on a typical first day when you don’t know the students yet, and they don’t know each other, but if you have an opportunity to use it after a class has any kind of initial gel period, you might just fall in love with this icebreaker.
Catron, M. L. (2015, January 9). To fall in love with anyone, do this. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/style/modern-love-to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html
Jones, D. (2015, January 9). The 36 questions that lead to love. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/style/36-questions-that-lead-to-love.html
Jill Giebutowski is an assistant professor of writing at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. She teaches in the first-year writing and in the regional online and continuing education programs.
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