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by Gabriel Fernandez
National Faculty

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Topic tags: Social-Emotional Learning, Project Based Teaching Practice: Build the Culture, equity

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August 1, 2018
Stoking the Culture for PBL: Using Icebreakers & Energizers to Engage ALL Learners

by Gabriel Fernandez
National Faculty

Stanford d.school

For ALL learners to have powerful learning experiences in PBL, teachers need to create intellectually and emotionally safe environments. But in under-resourced and over-stressed neighborhoods, demanding high achievement and delivering on the promise of high quality PBL can be a challenge. Sometimes the best planning in the world can be upset by a family or community tragedy that sends shockwaves through a school for weeks. What are educators to do when they serve young people who could be in deep social-emotional shock from a myriad of triggers?

Fortunately, we can look to experts and find free resources to help us with the hard realities affecting our youth. In the article “Emotions are the Rudder That Steers Thinking” (ASCD Education Update, June 2018), Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang argues, “Educators need to find ways for students to be emotionally engaged with the ideas and skills they are exploring, and to downplay the external stuff like grades, fear, embarrassment, and stereotype threat.” Emotions like fear, embarrassment, and shame are not easily soothed by direct confrontation or a lunch time conversation. Instead, projects framed by great driving questions and entry events that stir curiosity, and authentic problems whose relevance motivates learners to exhibit grit, can help traumatized youth do powerful work.

But we all know students in a class who have difficulty engaging because there is too much weighing on their mind and soul. They would love to think about a real life problem besides not having enough food at home or not having a dad to say he loves them when they get home from school. They would love to be a high achiever but friends call them out for trying to be somebody great, so they remain “undercover curious.” But they still want to learn. When a kid said, “I don’t care!” that’s the worst lie I ever heard as a teacher.

Start the School Year by Building a PBL Culture
So how do we design emotional and intellectual spaces in our classrooms and schools that meet the needs of ALL students, including the ones that “don’t care” about not completing the work? By building a PBL classroom culture that attends to mindsets and heartsets for deeper learning. One free resource to help teachers do this, with activities that don’t require lots of time to implement, is provided by Stanford’s d.school. Download the d.school Stoke Deck for free and play along with kids and teens who need fun in their lives before the challenge of hard thinking happens in a PBL project.

Start the upcoming school year with a great introductory icebreaker called the Fail Test (card #19) to build the mindset that failure is okay, and even celebrated. In a classroom where we want students to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from mistakes, we need to build emotional safety through fun and games—not from rules and norms asking kids and teens to be respectful and then punishing them when they can’t follow the norms because they are not feeling well on a particular day. Teachers have to be mindful that traumatized youth are coming to school with deep shame regarding failures they are seeing all over the place. Shame is not overcome through punishment. Trust me, the Fail Test activity works for staff meetings and for kids alike!

Another great icebreaker to consider using during the opening week of school is the Wind Blows activity (card #27) to build connections and boost energy. It is a physical activity where students move their bodies like they are blowing in the wind when students make statements about themselves that they can relate to. Under-resourced and over-stressed environments create loneliness in the hearts and minds of our youth that need to be addressed with intention. The Wind Blows activity is an example of fun that helps overcome the toxic emotions that can complicate learning.

The best thing about the Stoke Deck icebreakers is that they don’t take lots of time to implement in the classroom. A teacher does not need to spend more than 5-6 minutes having fun and building emotional safety so that deep learning can happen. It does not require extra training. It merely takes a “just do it” attitude. The Stoke Deck icebreakers may be initially hard to do because they ask students to have fun and be goofy. From experience, I can say they work even with the harder kids. The kids that are hungry. The kids who feel shame. The kids who feel contempt for learning because they have always been marginalized due to the manifestation of their tragedies through behavior. All end up participating when they see others having fun.

Make it a new school year resolution. Attend to ALL students’ social-emotional safety and watch the powerful promise of high quality Project Based Learning take root in a student who previously did not want to engage in learning. The only way to do it is to do it!


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