Board Game Icebreaker: Relationship Onboarding

Wednesday was the first day of the 2018-19 school year and all of those half-baked plans and ideas are finally getting BETA tested. One idea that I was excited about was playing board games with students on the first day of class instead of traditional activities like going over the syllabus or doing ice breakers. I have done both in the past but in a gamified classroom it always felt like starting off on the wrong foot. Some icebreakers like “Fruit Basket” that get students moving around and provide an “out” for students can work but even good icebreakers assume a level of interpersonal trust exists between students when the game starts that the game should instead be developing. I don’t know about you but I know that I have said things during first day ice breakers that was at least mildly embarrassing. I’ve also tried to gauge the room or group and tailor my answer accordingly. That’s not really a get to know you exercise.

Which is why I eas interested in using board games on the first day. Playing board games with new people creates a “Magic Circle” where the rules of the game provide a structure for the players. Learning the rules and discussing tactics allow for natural conversation and trust to develop between players. With the push to develop relationships in the classroom as well as my need to “onboard” students into my gamified class board games seemed to be a natural fit. I will share several reasons below but I think the type of game is important too. On our first day my students and I played Secret Hitler.

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If you would like to know more about this game I would encourage you to go to the secrethitler.com website. Apparently you can download the entire game for free! (And please be sure to check out the last FAQ entry for a very subtle joke). At its heart Secret Hitler is a bluffing game for groups from 5-10 players. A majority of players are Liberals (as in pro-democracy and rule of law) and some are Fascists (evil liars). The Fascists want to elect Secret Hitler while the Liberals are trying to enact Liberal policies. The Liberals though do not know who the Fascists are bit the Fascists do! Played well the game involves a lot of discussion and trying to observe the other players. What a great way for students and teachers to get to know each other. Also, WWII is part of my curriculum so I get to talk about why Fascists and Hitler are so bad.

This experiment went fantastically! Here are a few of my thoughts about Game Board Ice Breakers.

  • 1st Day Shared Laughter – I’m my first year teaching I struggled with “classroom management”. My principle told me that I needed to “be a bear” and the kids would respect me. Yeah, that didn’t work. Since then I have really despised the notion of “don’t smile till November”. It is possible to,have a positive working relationship with students. While playing the board game we shared literal belly laughs at the shenanigans that some of the students pulled to try and win the game. My students saw me smile and laugh but more importantly we shared a mutual moment of joy. When I have the unavoidable bad day my students now know I am capable of laughing. More importantly, when I am fed up with some of these,kids and don’t understand why they act in certain ways I will be able to remember their laughter and it will remind me that they are people doing the best they can too.
  • Positive First Experience – How many of us have say throw the opening day Staff Meeting and thought about how much we would rather be anywhere else? Now apply that to the traditional 1st day syllabus reading. That is a negative experience and one that does not build any relationship, empathy, or good will. Now play a game and converse with the students and both teacher and student get a positive 1st impression.
  • Learning Names – I am good at many things, but learning student names is a constant effort. Both pronunciation and matching name and face are not my strong suit. In Secret Hitler everyone is President and anyone can be Chancellor. I used the students’ names every turn. The corrected me every Time I got it wrong. I know almost every name by the end of the game. Just as important I had a context for that name.
  • Learning Personalities – It is good to know which students are extroverts and introverts, which are friendly and with whom. Also with a bluffing game like Secret Hitler I learned some of the students’ tells – how they act when trying to lie. I might not need that but maybe I will.
  • Breaking Down Classroom Roles – This one was very interesting. I played this game with students at least a dozen times. In nearly every game students forgot about me as a potential Fascist (secret bad guys) and trusted most of my discussion points at face value. Then in nearly every game one student would look at me and realize that I might not be acting in good faith. That was such an amazing moment. I don’t want students to see me as a liar but I do want them to realize that they are in control of their own learning experience and that it is OK to question the institutionally established authority figure. The board game, at least in that first meeting, erased the classroom hierarchy and allowed the seeds of a new Student based dynamic to be sown.
  • Shared Victory/Shared Defeat – Some members of the 2017 Cleveland Cavs could not really stand each other. LeBron James and Kevin Love notoriously subtweeted each other like crazy. They went on to win the 2017 NBA championship and I guarantee you that the hard feelings disappeared in the location for at least that night. Shared victories are important probably second only to shared defeat. Of course the latter is more dangerous if handled poorly by leadership but people tend to rally together in the face of obstacles. I’m a Mets fan… I know… Playing the board game allowed both experiences to occur in a relatively safe space.

I am certain that their are other benefits that I have overlooked but at the end of the day I felt positive and energized. My students walked away from a class that I am sure would have ranked among the least looked forward to – an American History class – with a smile, a story, and a curiosity about what will be coming next. Definitely a win in my book.

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