exercises

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.

Lit-up sign by the road that reads, US Border Patrol.
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr CC

Teaching about immigration can be tough because students come to our classrooms with the battle lines already drawn and believing their minds are already made up. We know, for example, that “the border” occupies a large conceptual space in our collective minds and that certain racialized populations suffer from perceptions of illegality. I have successfully re-centered my classroom conversation in a more constructive direction by starting with something most students seem to have a complete lack of information about: how the U.S. immigration system actually works.

Below I share some resources and
ideas for leading an hour long discussion on “everything you wanted to know
about the immigration system but were afraid to ask.” The activity below would
be a great fit for any course where you are going to spend several class days
on migration in the United States: Global Sociology, Social Problems, Migration,
Race & Ethnicity, or Crime & Deviance. This activity is intended to take
advantage of the fact that a classroom is a special place designated for
learning, where everyone (including the instructor) can always learn something
new without feeling embarrassed of our ignorance.

Materials:

You bring:

  • White board and marker
  • Projector/internet/resources to look at a
    website in class
  • Links to resources on immigration you want to
    show (suggested below)
  • You’ll probably want a printed copy of the
    immigration preferences and especially yearly numerical limits
    handy for
    your own reference (you may also want a few extra copies to pass around)

Students bring:

In-Class Activity

  1. Ask students what questions they have about the immigration system. Write the questions on the white board as students say them out loud.
  2. When you have a good number of questions on the board, including some basic ones, start with the most basic questions and begin answering them. Do this based on your own knowledge and, when helpful or necessary, show the students the immigration preference system and yearly numerical limits. Other resources for answering the questions can be found at the American Immigration Council Immigration 101 and, of course, the Department of Homeland Security. The fact that the DHS website is a bit complex and it may be hard to find the answer to many of the students’ questions is OK; that will be educational and make the larger point about the immigration system.
  3. Ask if anyone has ever traveled to another country. Ask the student(s) who answers where it was, what happened when they entered that country, whether they needed a passport, etc. Prompt the group to think about what would happen in the converse situation if a person from that country came into the United States. Would the same kind of situation occur? (It is important at some point in this conversation to encourage students to get at the fact that the U.S. has more power internationally than anyone else; we can go almost anywhere without applying for a visa in advance but the opposite is not true. This fact is invisible to most of us.)
  4. If there are other questions that seem essential to you, prompt the students to ask them or ask the students yourself to see if anyone knows the answer. It is essential to this exercise that your class understands that for the vast majority of migrants to the United States, there is not only no “legal path to citizenship,” there is no legal path to entry. I have found by having these discussions that most of my students did not understand the difference between citizenship and visas.

Discussion Tip

As you are standing in front of the room fielding questions, be sure to remember to acknowledge that some folks in the room may have more knowledge of the system (e.g., international or immigrant students), but do not make anyone feel as if they need to speak about their experiences or act as though they are experts. I think it is enough to say that of course some of us may have experienced this first hand. Some migrant or international faculty may talk about their own experiences while others may want to avoid that. It is my own belief that those of us who are white and U.S. born should take on the task of teaching these lessons so that others are not put in the awkward position of fielding these potentially hostile or awkward questions on their own.

Possible Variations

One way to vary this activity
would be to assign the questions to different groups in the class and have each
group research the answers on the Department of Homeland Security website. A
possible pitfall of this is that many of the answers can be a little detailed,
confusing, and interrelated, so the instructor would need to keep an eye on
making sure there is plenty of time for debriefing and not too much time spent
in the groups.

It is also a great idea to spend a little time either at the beginning or end of this class period simply learning about the experiences of undocumented migrants in the United States. This can be done through a video like this one or assigning a reading; if done in advance, a video or reading could be a great way to get the questions for this activity started with some curiosity toward learning more about what we don’t understand about immigration status.

Additional Resources

“Drop the I Word”
resources for help discussing why “illegal” is not an appropriate term in a
sociology classroom (or journalism)

Visual
example of the Latinx experience
from SocImages

Contexts “in brief” on the additional stresses experienced by undocumented parents

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 sign depicting a stick figure in a dress outside of a women’s restroom. Photo by Brendan Riley, Flickr CC

Like many instructors of the sociology of gender and feminist theory, I teach Simone de Beauvoir’s foundational text, “Introduction to the Second Sex.” Not only is Beauvoir part of the feminist cannon, but in some ways it seems even more relevant in today’s sociology classroom as Beauvoir deconstructs the very category of “woman.” She provides fertile groundwork for anyone looking to teach about sex and gender beyond the constructed gender binary. Unfortunately the reading can be a little difficult for undergraduate students to digest; this is where Sociological Images comes to the rescue! In this activity the instructor will show students contemporary, everyday examples of Beauvoir’s concept of women as “other” and engage them in a discussion about its continued relevance. This active and visual engagement is designed to incorporate Beauvoir into students’ working vocabulary.

This activity is ideal for Sociology of Gender and classes that teach feminist theory, but it could be modified for use in classes that explore gender in smaller doses like Family or Introduction to Sociology.

Materials:

You bring:

  • Projector/internet/resources to look at a website in class
  • Links to the Sociological Images posts you want to show

Students bring:

  • Copy of Beauvoir’s “Introduction to the Second Sex,” assigned in advance

Instructions

  1. Assign Simone de Beauvoir’s “Introduction to the Second Sex” to be read by students in advance.
  2. Open the class by discussing the reading a little bit so that the main questions and topics are in the foreground of students’ minds. This could also be done by lecturing for the first section of class if that better suits your teaching style. For example, I ask the students to identify some of the key sentences of the reading, and what they think Beauvoir’s key question is. There are of course many important concepts in this reading, and in order to stimulate a comfortable discussion, it’s important to just let students nominate any and all sentences and ideas.
    The ideas that I’ll focus on in the next steps are Beauvoir’s concept of woman as “other,” or, as she says, “A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong” (xxi); and “thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” (xxii). Keep going until someone comes up with this; you can leave other questions and concepts that come up here on the backburner to come back to later in this class to see how the reading fits together as a whole.
  3. Once you have students puzzling over this idea of women as other, pull up this post from Sociological Images for your class. The SocImages team refers to this same concept as “women versus people.”
  4. Expand each image in the post one at a time by clicking on it and ask the students “what do you see?” I do not show my students the pre-written analysis on the post but ask them to do the analytic work together in our discussion. Allow the students to start to discussing and problematizing each image out loud as a group as you go through each one by one.
  5. At the bottom of the post there are links to more; two of my favorites are scientists and females scientists and Body Worlds, although that example is not visual and will have to be read in advance and explained.
  6. Throughout this discussion it is important to clarify that the problem is not necessarily the segregation of the items or that there are separate women’s items (t-shirts are a great example here); it’s that, just as Beauvoir describes, one item is for “everybody,” while another item is specifically for women. Are women not part of everybody? You can draw the students back into a discussion of Beauvoir and her continued relevance today by engaging the question of what is hidden under these universal categories. How does one dominant group remain unmarked while others end up marked?

Possible modifications

  • You could also give an assignment to students after this exercise to find their own local examples. (I have often had students come back and tell me in later class periods that they couldn’t stop seeing this concept at work in the world.) This could work well for discussion board posts, or an extra credit assignment, especially if coupled with a short paragraph explaining how the visual/example they found illustrates the concept with citations from the reading.

Additional resources

TROT on the Social Construction of Gender and Sex

A list of 5 reasons why pointlessly gendered products are a problem (even if they aren’t “women vs people”) from Sociological Images

A different example to illustrate the broader concept of how privilege operates for those in the “unmarked” group from Sociological Images

 

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 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.