First Day Icebreakers

Incredibly useful throughout the semester

Incredibly useful throughout the semester

The first day of classes looms. For this short post, we’ve asked colleagues to share some of the icebreakers and activities they use on the first day of class – and we’d like to crowdsource more. Please add to the list in the comments below!

1) If you don’t do it already, consider asking your students to fill out a brief index card with their name, preferred email (so they actually receive communication throughout the semester), experience of art history prior to your class, their academic standing (junior, senior etc). You can also throw in a question or two at the end that asks them to stop and think for a second – favorite artist? Last museum they went to? Do they have images on their walls at home, and if so, what? These index cards are a useful way to get a very early read on the demographics of your students, and to remember to insert loved works of art into your lectures if your students name them on their bios.

2) If you have an iPad, a great way to start remembering names and faces is to use an attendance app that allows you to take pictures of your students. You can joke that you’re taking their “mug shot” at the end of the class (and maybe throw in a picture of a Bertillion card to your PPT to highlight the confluence of early photography and forensic science if you want to get nerdy), and of course let them know this is optional. There are a range of apps out there, and suggestions below on tried-and-tested versions are needed. The one we have tried is Attendance. It’s no frills, but it works well  to track attendance and maintain an easy electronic record, take student photos, and to email students en masse if needed.

3) Ask your students to talk a few minutes to swap emails with two people sitting near them in the class, so if they happen to be sick one day, they have a “buddy” system to catch up with notes. If you want to turn this into a longer icebreaker, ask them to interview one person sitting  next to them in the class. They’ll have five minutes to ask their neighbor: “what is art?” “what is art history?” and “what one special thing should I know about you?”

Students can then present in a variety of ways – if you have a class blog, the first assignment for the blog can be building a class Facebook/introductory page with name and 60-word introductions of each student written by their buddy. If you have a small enough class, students can introduce their buddies in class after the short interview.

4) Jesse Day’s great post for AHTR last week suggested ways to get students actively describing what they see. This strategy is one way to begin your first lecture after some of the first-day admin has been taken care of.

Like Jesse directed, have the students pair up, and then ask them to self-identify as either artist or describer. Have the student-artists face away from the projector screen and the student-describers face towards it (some chair orientation first will be necessary). Then project an image onto the screen and ask the student-describers to analyze and carefully describe what they see to their partner who will have 5-7 mins to draw. Ask them to sit on their hands so that they really use words only. Have everyone hold up their drawings at the end of the exercise and then artists can turn around to see how close they got. Then, repeat the exercise with a second image, and have the students swap roles.

During this exercise, take time to explain what visual analysis is, and why it’s a tool that they’ll be using a lot in your class. Talk about form and context. And then take time before swapping images to discuss the first one in detail – what did the students notice about it? What was hardest/easiest to draw and describe? Weave in context as you discuss the student observations.

For the first half of survey, you could start with the Woman of Willendorf and then use the Laocoön for the second image. Students laugh when they see the second, harder image (you think I can draw that?!) and you can introduce the idea of changes in representing the “ideal” body when you discuss it after the drawing-describing exercise. For the second half of the survey, one suggestion is Duccio’s Madonna and Child versus Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, where changes in perspective, subject matter, and style are all talking points.

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5) It’s difficult to remember each student by name early in the semester, especially in larger classes. This is where “responding via number” can come in handy (and can be a fun way to change up the dynamic in the classroom). Give your students individual numbers at the start of the class by printing a roster and numbering the roster 1 though however many students you have. You can let them know their number as you take attendance if easiest. During the class, as you ask questions related to the images on the screen, do so by numbers rather than by names. Participation is switched from singling out whoever falls in your eye line, and instead becomes a theatrical “game” where students are nervous about being picked but usually are more willing to talk because it is a random, semi-playful gesture. You can have them answer questions from where they are sitting, or ask a pair to come up and formally analyze a work standing by the screen at the front of class.

6) John Bean’s Engaging Ideas is a useful compendium of icebreakers, writing activities, and active learning strategies (short book review here). It’s got some great activities and ideas that work well on a first day (including low stakes writing, if you want a writing sample from your students to keep on file) and is worth the investment for reference throughout the semester.

7) Yesterday, I, Karen, had the pleasure of meeting the two new Graduate Teaching Fellows I would be teaching with for the next year. It was a mix of a, ummm, seasoned instructor, someone who has been teaching introductory art history and modern surveys for the past few years, and a young graduate student right out of the gate. But within the hour or so we spent together I learned a few new things that I have already incorporated into what I thought was my finished syllabus. I am sharing Christina Paxson’s essay “An Economic Case for Saving the Humanities” with my class. Alexis Carrozza (who is also writing a future blog post for AHTR), shared the idea with me and will be passing the essay out to her students to read and discuss on the first day of class. We know why art history is often a required course at university, but do the students sitting in front of us? What is the place of the Humanities for students in the STEM disciplines or, at my college, for students aspiring to get into the business school? A discussion on the topic may help the students see the greater role art plays in the “real” world and help them engage with the class on a serious note as they read about the cuts in funding to the arts and how that may directly affect their lives. And, learn how even an economist (!) has a need for the arts.

8) Or, you could show the class a series of images that pique an interest in the subject such as Mantegna’s The Dead Christ (1480) with Kehinde Wiley’s Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (2008). Other images I have found to spark great discussion in a first class include Carrie Mae Weems,Mirror/Mirror,” from the Ain’t Jokin series 1987-88, Zhang Hongfu, Soy Calligraphy: Chinatown Sweat Shop Help Wanted Ad, 1996, or Bartana, Trembling Time, 2001. It helps to think about your student body for this exercise. The first day may not be the time to teach them about something that is completely foreign to them. Find images that speak directly to your students.


9) Last, but certainly not least (share your ideas!), there is the old standby of the formal analysis exercise. I use Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495-98). I find it helpful because not many of my students recognize it. But even for those who do, I ask them to pretend that they don’t know the image. It is such a great painting to read – it is clear and one that the novice is able to grasp fairly easily and quickly. It demonstrates to the class how I structure my course and the emphasis I place on learning to look and read a work of art. It may also set them at ease. The discussion is lively and most participate in the exercise pointing out how Leonardo conveys information to the viewer. Art history may not be so bad after all.

2 responses to “First Day Icebreakers”

  1. steven kennedy says:

    Outstanding! Great advice.

  2. Maestra Irvin says:

    How inviting! It is strikingly useful. Thanks a lot!

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