Review of Classroom Community Builders: Activities for the First Day & Beyond

It’s September (already!?) and lots of people are starting new terms and school years. It’s a good time to think about icebreakers and also consider stepping away from the same old first day of class ideas. I find it very easy to get stuck with such activities but also feel rewarded when I try something new or return to something I haven’t done in a while. The new book, Classroom Community Builders: Activities for the First Day & Beyond by Walton Burns from Alphabet Publishing could be a useful one for teachers in the same situation. Please find my review of the book below below. 

I should mention, in the interests of full disclosure, Walton sent me an advance copy of his book and asked me for comments. He is also a nice guy, a passionate educator, and a fellow Nutmegger. 

walton book.jpg

I once worked in a language academy where first day getting-to-know-you ice-breaking type activities were not allowed! It was always a bit strange to me to just jump into the grammar or whatever without students learning each others’ names or anything about each other. I never liked that rule but I think it came from students’ complaints about teachers wasting too much time on touchy feely, fluffy, mindless activities unrelated to learning or class content.  I wonder if things would have been different if we’d had access to Classroom Community Builders: Activities for the First Day & Beyond, a helpful book published by Alphabet Publishing, which shares a variety of useful activities. The book is well-organized collection activities for teachers interested in incorporating community building into their classes.

Burns states in the intro that he wanted to get away from “empty” and meaningless ice-breakers and instead focus on activities “relevant to the content of the class. Rather than choosing between teaching our subject or doing community building activities, we need to find activities that do both.” This is a noble goal and I’d say it is achieved. Throughout the book is a clear emphasis on collaborating, creativity, community building and fun. I also like how many of the activities have students get out of their chairs and work in different ways.

I especially liked the Book Scan, Syllabus Scavenger Hunt,  Classroom Rules Negotiation activities because they seem like they could “kill two birds with one stone” by addressing typical first day of class information while keeping the focus on building a community. I feel like this speaks to the concerns the Director in my previous job where these activities were banned. It be easy to forget about the content when aiming to break the ice and I think it can be important to keep them both in mind.

I also like the way the activities handle potentially challenging topics (like classroom rules)  by giving students a chance to think and talk about them rather than listen to edicts from the teacher. Of course, this can also add to student buy in and can help students feel they have a voice in how things will go in the course. I think this is a nice and useful angle. I think the nuanced approach to these conversations and decisions would be very helpful for teachers who are not so comfortable with such things.

If I had to criticize anything it would be that I feel like I have seen (or done) a version of many of the activities in the book. That said, I think it’s nice to have everything in the same place, right there in this handy book. Also, even though I was familiar with many of the activities variations and wrinkles are provided and this adds a new level to activities I’m familiar with. As an example, I have done Sentence Auctions numerous times but seeing how it is detailed step-by-step here was still helpful for me. I tend to play with slightly different rules so it was worthwhile to reflect on why I set up the game in the manner I do.

Additionally, variations on many activities are suggested and these could surely spice up teaching routines for activities that teachers are already familiar with. There are also extensions and suggestions for additional sources. I can imagine these suggestions and additional links being very helpful for a teacher who would like to add a new wrinkle on activities they are already comfortable with.

Also provided is a list of materials needed (often including the materials themselves) and the steps to take for each activity which could also be helpful information even when we have done an activity a few times already. Example sentences and texts are supplied and these could act as support for a teacher interested in making their own or could simply be printed off and used as is. In any case, the examples provide a firm basis for teachers to try out the activities.

An interesting aspect of the book is how tried and true activities (like sentence auctions or cloze paragraphs) are categorized as community builders. I think simply shifting how we think of these from say, strictly a grammar activity to a community building activity is a useful mental exercise that could potentially yield even better results. This was a helpful reminder for me and something I will try to keep in mind this autumn term and beyond.

I found the book to be personal, thoughtful, and engaging.
I’m looking forward to trying out a few activities in September. I will be sure to try out Follow the Directions in the first few weeks of class.  Thank you for reading and thank you to Walton for sharing the book with me (and for writing it).

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