In my panicked research the month before school, I read that the icebreaker is more important in a blended learning (or completely online) class than in a face-to-face class. This was problematic in that I rarely use icebreakers in my face-to-face classes. I hate them in my college courses: a wasted period of listening to people you don't want to know introducing themselves and explaining why they took the course. Who cares? I don't want to listen to you; I want to listen to the professor! Argh! In my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition classes, the students already know each other through ten-plus years of tracking. In my Sophomore Language Arts class, the students immediately bond in fear of me. I'm kidding. Partly. Anyway, I needed a way to make my class feel like a family, and I needed it toute de suite. Thanks to two colleagues and a session at Blackboard World, I discovered Voicethread.
Voicethread is a free Web 2.0 tool that allows the user to post documents, pictures, or videos to a specific group (or the general public, if the user wishes) and collects the comments from that group. Users can comment by phone (calling in or texting) or computer (text or video). I started by uploading three threads: one from my son, explaining a silly picture of his tricked-out hair; another from my daughter, explaining a picture of her day at the fair; and the final of my explanation of the importance of my running shoes. Here is my post:
Voicethreads from the Teacher's Family
In the first stage of my icebreaker, I asked the students to respond to each of the three voicethreads. I figured that students would find it less threatening to respond to my children's posts than to post their own at the start. The second stage was for the students to post their own voicethreads. I told them to upload a picture or video that meant something to them and to explain its importance. I then made positive comments on each voicethread, in which I compared the students' experiences to similar ones I've had. In stage three, the students had to respond to each voicethread using the the technique I demonstrated. When I surveyed students later about this experience, they said that this activity helped them to see that most of them shared similar feelings and experiences, which made them feel more secure with each other.
At this point, I could have stopped the icebreaker because it probably accomplished what I wanted: a feeling of security and a bond among classmates; however, I realized that Voicethread could help me even more. My first learning module was the Reflective Narrative Essay. This is where the student uses narrative technique to write about a personal experience and share its importance, and it is generally the focus of the first semester of college composition. My students had already used reflective technique when sharing their voicethreads, and they also used this technique when commenting on other posts. What if I took the next step? Why not?
Stage four: Write a narrative about your voicethread post. Show me the importance of your post. Normally asking students to write a story elicits groans and lots of whining. This time, however, there was no whining because the students already had a topic, their previous posts. Now, all they had to do was turn the picture into a narrative using techniques they had previously studied in three-plus years of high school language arts classes. This time when I commented on their posts, I was able to be a bit more critical, telling them where they could add more detail or improve their narrative technique. Taking their cues from my comments, students were able to give constructive feedback at this stage; peer editing was much simpler than it usually is because the students were already comfortable with the previous posts. This was a pleasant side effect that I had not anticipated when I assigned the Voicethread activity.
My end-of-unit survey showed that my icebreaker gave me much more than I expected: students felt comfortable with me, with each other, and with comments on their writing. In fact, the survey revealed that because of this activity, students would welcome more constructive criticism in their writing because they trusted their peers (and me). In addition, students jumpstarted an essay without even realizing it. I learned through this activity that the icebreaker can be so much more than an introduction; it can be a way to model the structure and expectations of the class.