classroom activities

Four young adults stand in a circle facing each other. They are all smiling. One is holding a piece of paper.
Photo by US Coast Guard Academy, Flickr CC

As a sociology instructor, I have
been thinking about how ice breakers can be used for students to get to know
each other and to seamlessly move
into course content. There are a lot of good ideas for ice breakers online,
including some that do a great job of building community in the classroom. However,
I find myself moving away from them because they seem to be a one-trick pony.

Here are three examples of ice breakers that could be used to
connect students with each other, as well as slide right into sociological content.

The Machine by Viola Spolin of Hull-House

Hull-House educators, Viola Spolin and Neva Boyd, used improvisation and theater games to help their students, who were often immigrants, become “fuller participants in democratic society.” The games created new ways to for immigrants to connect with each other, even if they had different cultures and backgrounds.

One of Viola Spolin’s activities was to have a team of people create a “machine.” Each person in the activity is a single “part” of the machine. It starts with one person making any motion and accompanying sound. It must be something that they can repeat over a few minutes. Then someone else adds another part to the machine, specifically, a motion and sound that works in reaction to the first motion and sound. Then someone else adds in another part and then another. The machine can speed up or slow down, adding a level of silliness.

Postcard image shows a large brick building with many windows on a street corner. The top corner of the postcard reads, The Hull House, Chicago.
Postcard of Hull House in the early 20th century. Wikipedia, public domain

With the right class, this would be a great way to break the ice during the beginning of class. In addition to being fun, this activity can be used to introduce a variety of topics. For instance, I might use this at the start of a Juvenile Delinquency class as a way to introduce the history of the juvenile justice system. Jane Addams and the entire Progressive Era are important because they reacted to the brutality found in the Houses of Refuge — all covered in my Juvenile Delinquency course. This activity could also be used in social work classes to introduce Jane Addams and various perspectives on helping people, or in a Methods class that uses the “Maps and Papers Nationality Map” to talk about early scholarly studies. Lastly, you could use this activity in an Introduction to Sociology course to illustrate the interconnectedness of society and its institutions.

Deviant Behavior Notecards

In this activity, I write down ten
different deviant and criminal behaviors that range in seriousness from leaving
a dog in a closed car to physical assault to using someone else’s Netflix
account when you aren’t paying for it. Depending on the size of the class, I divide
the students into small groups of three to six and give each group the same set
of ten cards and ask them to place them in order from most to least serious. All
group members must agree on the order. It gets the groups talking, and they
always laugh about certain behaviors and how they think that they aren’t
serious even though they know that they are.

After they have organized their list, I ask the students to identify three themes that they used to organize the list. Usually, they include things like the punishment that would come with the behavior, the harm done to the possible victim, and the moral consequences of the behavior. This leads me into a discussion about the social construction of deviance and how we determine what is deviant and what is criminal. I also use this as a way to teach students about the difference between deviance and criminality. You could use this second activity after the first, or on its own. In small groups, students separate the behaviors into a Venn diagram with sections for criminal behaviors, deviant behaviors, and then behaviors that are both. This activity could also be used in a Juvenile Delinquency, Criminology, or Deviance course.

Zoom Puzzles

This activity draws on children’s books called Zoom and Re-Zoom. These books have also been used as a form of team building by Launch Leadership and Andrea Johnson. In order to prepare for this ice breaker, you need to create the sequential pieces based off of the children’s books. Each piece should include one image. The next piece then consists of the previous image within another image. You can see an example with the roosters from the book below. You could also create your own Zoom puzzle. Once your puzzle is created, depending on your class size, you could split the class into small groups of four to six people. Give each group the same puzzle and simply ask them to solve the puzzle. They will need to piece together the story from the puzzle pieces.

At first, students look at the pieces and think that it’s a jigsaw puzzle so they start to move the pieces around. Eventually, someone notices that there is a similar image in multiple puzzle pieces. For example, as seen above, in Zoom, there is a rooster that shows up on numerous puzzle pieces from different vantage points. At that point, they start to realize that it is the same scene across all of the pieces; it is just further and further zoomed in. In order to complete the activity, students have to arrange the images from the farthest out to the closest in.

This is a fun activity for students because it gets them out of their seats and because there is something tangible for them to move around on their desks. They talk with each other and laugh once they realize how to solve the puzzle. This activity could be used in an Introduction to Sociology course to introduce the Sociological Imagination and the idea that students need to “zoom out” and look at the structural influences on their lives and behaviors. Personally, I would use this in a Juvenile Delinquency class to talk about the differences between macro- and micro-level theories. This would help students understand the differences in theories of crime and what these theories focus on as reasons for criminal behavior. I think it would work in a similar way in a sociological theory course.

We, as sociology instructors, often rely on ice breakers as a way to lay the foundation for active learning or future discussions, and I think that we could make them even more useful. I hope that one of these ideas may be helpful for you, not only to help students connect, but to help you to move directly into course content too.


Dr. Andrea Krieg is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Elmhurst College. She earned her PhD from Bowling Green State University in Sociology. She teaches a variety of courses and loves her time in the classroom.

Photo looking down on a person climbing up the side of a rock face. The person is wearing a blue helmet and a long sleeve shirt and is holding onto the rock with two hands.
Photo by Laurel F, Flickr CC

With the recent Oscar
win for Free Solo
, many students
are likely to be interested in rock climbing. Jennifer
Wigglesworth’s research and recent post on Engaging Sports
about the sexism in rock climbing route names
provides a perfect way to think about established concepts using popular
culture phenomenon.

This is an interactive activity designed to get students out into their own communities and seeing them with new eyes. During this three-part activity, students will think about history and specifically how naming practices privilege or marginalize certain groups and histories. The activity begins with a critical examination of a pop culture concept — rock climbing — and then asks students to broaden that idea by examining the geography they circulate every day. The lesson concludes with an academic reading on the broader history of imperial naming practices in the United States. This activity would be good for Introduction to Sociology, Sociology of Gender, Race and Ethnicity, Sociology of Sport, Sociology of Culture, Theory, and Urban Sociology.

Materials:

You bring:

  • copies of the two suggested readings
  • white board and markers for report back and
    discussion
  • physical or virtual map

Students bring:

  • copies of the two suggested readings
  • notes on what sources they consulted and what they found

The Activity

  1. Assign Jennifer Wigglesworth’s “What’s in a
    name? Sexism in rock climbing route names” to be read by students in advance.  
  2. Discuss the reading in class. Focus on students’
    reactions. Were they surprised? Upset? Do they feel like there is something
    about the rock climbing environment that lends itself to these sexist naming
    practices or have they had similar experiences elsewhere? The discussion does
    not need to be long but should give students a chance to talk through their
    feelings about the piece.
  3. Place students into groups of 4 and assign each
    group to find 3 local place/site names to research: at least one should be on
    campus, and at least one should be off campus. You may want to divide up a map.
    This activity could be done either between class periods, students could leave
    class during a long class period, or they could do it virtually over the
    internet. It is ideal if students physically walk or drive around and find the
    place names to research however so that they are seeing their environment with
    new eyes.

For each place/site name, each group should answer the following:

  • What is the name?
    • Who named it? When? What is the history of the name?
    • What does the name mean?
    • Note: you may want to discuss in advance what
      sources of information are appropriate for this activity in advance. Because of
      the local nature of this activity, I would suggest that any source that
      students can find would be OK (for example, Wikipedia will probably be very
      helpful) but they should be encouraged to keep track of what sources they
      consult.
  • In class, have each group report back their
    findings. Probe the groups for any thoughts or reactions. What surprised them? Do
    not be disappointed at this point if most groups did not notice anything
    surprising or problematic. Part of the exercise is to discuss why we might not
    initially find a place name problematic, but as we dig deeper we may find
    troubling roots.
  • Assign students to read C. Richard King’s
    chapter “De/Scribing Sq*aw: Indigenous Women and Imperial Idioms in the United
    States,” from Unsettling America,
    2013, Rowman and Littlefield, pp 93-106. 
  • After students have read King’s chapter, use it
    to revisit the previous two discussions with them. What might the group have
    missed, and why? Looking at King’s examples, are there local examples that seem
    less innocuous now? Is there anything in Wigglesworth’s research that parallels
    the history that King describes? In this discussion, using King’s helpful
    example of people’s differing awareness and reaction to sq*aw, focus on
    exploring with students how racism and sexism become embedded in place.

Possible modifications

For methods or other upper level
courses, students could be assigned to mimic Wigglesworth’s research and
conduct interviews or surveys to understand how people negotiate the meaning of
problematic place names in their community.

Additional resources

Dr. Meghan Krausch studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization. Read more of Meg’s writing at The Rebel Professor or get in touch directly at meghan.krausch@gmail.com.

Photo of a backpack, a pair of shoes, and a book lying on the grass. Photo by Josué Goge, Flickr CC

*~* “Teach with TSP” Contest Honorable Mention, 2018 *~*

I’ve always loved Tristan Bridges’ Sociological Images piece about how we can readily see the ways that we “do gender” by analyzing what we carry around with us every day. Bridges focuses on wallets and purses, telling the story of a transgender women who struggled to learn the norms of purse-carrying during the process of socially transitioning to being recognized as a woman – remembering to bring it, knowing what to put in it, how to carry it, etc.  Aside from the fact that wallets and purses themselves are gendered, Bridges shows how what we put in those wallets and purses is also gendered. I’ve found the four-by-four schema presented in the piece to be a great model for getting students to analyze the contents of their own wallets and purses and to reflect on the ways that gender norms influence their choices.

In this activity, I build directly from Bridges’ piece to get students thinking about whether and how gender norms influence the kinds of things they carry around with them. While Bridges focuses on wallets and purses, I’ve found that students are most likely to be carrying backpacks. So I complicated Bridges’ piece a bit to get students thinking about not only how wallets and purses are gendered, but also how what might seem like a gender-neutral bag – backpacks – may or may not conform to some of the same gendered norms found among wallet and purse carriers.

I’ve used this activity in an Introduction to Gender Studies class and an Introduction to Sociology class. It’s worked great in both contexts. I usually run this activity during a week/day that’s devoted to understanding concepts like socialization and the social construction of gender. I have students read the Bridges piece, either as part of the week’s readings or as part of the activity itself, and then hand them the attached handout with a four-by-four schema and some discussion questions. Then we talk as a class about their analysis. Students enjoy the interactive and tactile aspect of the activity (I ask them to dig through their bags), and it gets them talking about sociological concepts like gender norms, socialization, and “doing gender.”

Activity Materials

Doing Gender with Backpacks – Handout Lab 8

Jacqui Frost is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include non-religion and religion, culture, and civic engagement, and her dissertation project is an ethnographic study of a non-religious community.

Photo of a health app on smartphone. Photo by Jason Howie, Flickr CC

*~* “Teach with TSP” Contest Honorable Mention, 2018 *~*

I use this in-class activity in the “Health, Medicine, & Illness” week in my Introduction to Sociology class to engage my students in critical thinking about small changes that can be made to address people’s micro experiences with health issues and inequalities.

I give each of my students a copy of “The Rise of Health-Tracking Technology,” an article from The Society Pages blog, “There’s Research on That!” 

Students are asked to read the article and then are put into groups of three to discuss the following questions:

  • How can we understand health-tracking technologies as part of medicalization?
  • What are some of the benefits of health tracking technologies?
  • What are some of the social problems associated with these technologies?
    • What are some problems these technologies are intended to help?
    • What potential problems might evolve from these technologies?

Then, students are asked to work in their groups to brainstorm ideas for how they would design their own health-tracking or health/wellness oriented app to address some of the social problems of health and illness we have learned about that week.

Student groups are then asked to present their app designs to the rest of the class, emphasizing how use of that app would address social inequalities associated with health, illness, and wellbeing.

An example of one proposed app from my student groups was the following:

An app that would address some of the health inequalities in food deserts through a GPS based system that would let users know where places to buy food are in their near vicinity. The app would be connected with store employees so that users would know when fresh produce and other fresh food items were available in the stores.

The take away discussion after this activity involves talking with the students about how small changes can make a difference in the way that people experience health inequalities in their daily lives, but that we must also be working in an ongoing way to address these inequalities at the macro level too.

 

Lydia Hou is an advanced graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying international students and Higher Ed diversity projects. Her work broadly focuses on race, gender, qualitative methods, critical higher education, and pedagogy.