Break the Ice: 4 Strategies to Strengthen Classroom Community

Posted by Armen Menechyan on August 6, 2015

Building on our webinar for creating a safe, reflective classroom community, this week each LA Program staff member of Facing History and Ourselves will share their favorite community-building activity. Just in time for back-to-school!

My go-to strategy is called “Circle in a Circle.”

This strategy can be used not only to “break the ice,” but also throughout the year to review ideas, make connections, unpack or extend information, prepare for writing, and more. It gets students up out of their seats and talking. The process is simple enough for students to learn, and can then be varied for effectiveness based on which questions you ask students to discuss.

Circle in a Circle


1. Identify a list of questions for students to discuss in advance.

The questions or discussion prompts you choose of course depend on the subject and goal of the exercise. Generally, it is better to start with shorter and simpler questions that can be addressed without “heavy lifting” either cognitively or emotionally, and then to build on that foundation through the rest of the exercise.

2. Form the inner and outer circles.

The first group of students who are called up will compose of the inner circle. Invite the first group to arrive and stand in a circle. Ask the second group of students to form the larger outer circle. Inner circle students turn around 180 degrees and face a partner. If there are an uneven number of students, the facilitator may choose to participate.

3. Explain the procedure.

EXAMPLE: “We will engage in a series of short conversations. The person you are facing is your first discussion partner. I will pose a question or “discussion prompt” and direct you either to “block time” or “share air” for approximately three minutes total time. If you “block time,” it means that each partner has approximately one and a half minutes to respond—while the other person listens. In this model, the goal is for each person to have the chance to express his or her idea(s) and for the other person simply to be a good listener. If you “share air,” it means that the three minutes will involve open conversation, with give and take from each partner. At the end of each question and discussion, the inner circle will shift to the right. That means that each new question/conversation occurs between a new pairing of participants. At the beginning of each exchange, please introduce yourself to your new partner. At the end of each exchange, please thank your partner before the shift occurs.

4. Pose the first question.

You can give participants a 30 second warning or signal the end of the first discussion by a bell, raised hand, or turning off and on the lights. At end of each question/discussion, ask partners to acknowledge or thank their colleague before the circle shifts. Continue asking questions and shifting the inner circle to the right.

5. Post Work (Optional).

As students return to seats, and get settled, it is an opportunity to ask them to write in their journal or brainstorm/review what they did and heard. This might be writing what they learned from this activity or what they learned about their peers.

Community pinned on noticeboard

If this is truly an ice-breaker, and the goal is to “build community” or pre-figure a comfort-level for later exchanges, the questions will reflect that goal. Here are a few sample questions for the first week of school


Sample questions

Question 1: If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Question 2: What was something new or interesting you tried this summer?

Question 3: What is one realistic goal you would like to accomplish during the first month of school?

Question 4: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

Question 5: What does a good school year look like to you?


What other questions and strategies do you use? Share your comments below.

Check back Friday, Monday, and Tuesday for three more favorite community-building activities!

Topics: Safe Schools, Teaching Strategy, Breaking the Ice

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