We hear about the importance of creating a safe and supportive learning environment often. Typically ice breakers serve as a way to help students feel more relaxed, learn about each other and ease into learning.

Thinking back to an ice breaker experience from a course about six or seven years ago, the prompt was “what’s the most exotic thing you ever ate”? For me the question raised anxiety to the point where I wanted to skip the ice breaker and plunge in cold but I didn’t understand why I felt this way at the time. Now I do. This innocent and fun question caused me to take pause and make quick inventory of my past exotic eating experiences: alligator in Sarasota, Florida? Too dull. Dog biscuits with my sisters when I was eight years old, on a dare? Nope… too weird. Cloudberries in northern Norway? Too natural, plus 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 after I’d taken so long to consider my answer and felt pressured by time to share an interesting response. For me this activity didn’t serve as an ice breaker. I experienced this was a way to potentially feel less than… a familiar struggle. There’s no way a teacher would know or expect that an activity intended to be light and fun might bring up feelings like this; sometimes in the classroom feelings based on earlier experiences can emerge.

As a teacher, I catalog struggles — my own and others — and aim to keep them in my heart and mind when working with students. When adult students have told me “I feel so comfortable talking in your class” and similar comments, I believe that this is about their willingness to be vulnerable and share their concerns and fears openly more than anything than I am doing in particular as a teacher. There is also work that must be done to create this kind of learning environment.

First, give students an opportunity to just “be” in the classroom. This might include reading a short paragraph and writing a brief reflection on what comes to mind; considering one or two things that they are wondering about and having the opportunity to write these down and share them with one person, only…. and purposely leave at least ten minutes for the inevitable conversation that ensues.

Second, become comfortable with silence. There may be times when a student has shared something personal or the instructor has asked a question that led students to contemplate quietly and silence is necessary yet not always comfortable.

Third, allow adequate time for students to get to know each other personally. This often goes a long way in creating an environment where students can feel comfortable taking risks in learning without fear. An example of how this getting to know each other might take place is an activity I’ve done with high school English language learners during the first three class sessions of a new school or program that I call creating a “Gallery of Us” in the classroom. After students have done a brief introduction — name, family members, interests, I ask them to think about and write at least three questions that they’re wondering about after what their classmates have said in their introductions. After students write these questions, I have them work in pairs drawing each other and talking while they draw. Once the drawing is complete and questions and responses have been written or typed and placed with the drawings, each student chooses a spot in the classroom to place the drawing and responses their partners have created for them. We leave them there for the entire period of the course… several weeks, months or an academic year depending on the course and duration. This is a form of slowly melting the ice rather than breaking it. When I think of ice breaking, I think of falling through, into a cold and difficult place. I want to create an environment that they look forward to coming to and feel safe being part of.

Don’t Break the Ice… Melt It