From Ice-Breakers to Algebra: Building Community and a Strong Foundation for Learning

Debra Finger
Building a community where all members feel loved, supported, and valued as their authentic selves is a key component of Shipley’s Framework for Well-Being, which provides a roadmap for thriving and how we can help our students become their best selves. During the first days of school, teachers in all three divisions focused on creating belonging in their classroom learning communities through different ice-breaker activities⸺ including games like Getting-to-Know-You BINGO and This-or-That, design challenges, and more.

However teachers chose to break the ice during the first days of school and beyond, they cultivated individual well-being by creating an environment that supports and nurtures diversity of strengths, skills, personalities, thoughts, likes, and dislikes. Beyond the individual, the activities also support the needs of a thriving school community: creating a culture where learners, peers, collaborators, and friends thrive; and building a safe community for risk-taking. Finally, students are building successful habits of mind, like flexibility, open-mindedness, and seeing possibility in any challenges that lay ahead.


Patty Lein’s Upper School Algebra students were caught off guard when the bell rang at the end of their 75-minute class on the first day of school. They were too busy completing the Marshmallow Challenge team-building activity, in which students were given cardboard, one marshmallow, some dry spaghetti, and tape, and were tasked with building the tallest structure they could. Students learned about themselves as learners, what it means to be part of a productive learning community, and made connections between creative thinking and specificity (or not) of instructions. 

Ms. Lein has noticed that both she and the students keep coming back to the challenge, even as they are talking about Algebraic concepts. . . “What was neat about the challenge,” she explains, “is there were infinite ways to approach it. In math, students often feel that there is only one way to solve a problem; when, in fact, students are seeing now that there are different ways to approach a problem.”

The ice-breaker challenges continued with students actively engaged, moving, learning, and building in Ms. Devlin and Ms. Eiteljorg’s Design-Thinking classes. Students were divided into two groups, where one built the bottom of a box, and the other built the lid to fit on top. The challenge? The two groups could not see what the other group was doing, nor could they talk to each other. The students could, however, use a whiteboard to pass notes and questions to the other side of the wall. 

The purpose of this particular design challenge was manifold: helping students learn about who was in their class; teaching them how to navigate the space–where to find tools and supplies; and giving them a preview of the course’s first unit, in which students design and build a container that shows its purpose without revealing its contents. 

The takeaways from this challenge are many, as evidenced by student reflections from the activity: Students said they learned the following:
  • communication and specificity are key when it comes to asking questions when seeking to learn; 
  • dimensions are important to building—students learned that lesson when their lid did not fit the box and they had to remake it; 
  • who in their group was good at what, and what diversity of strengths can bring to a group;
  • creativity is contagious; and 
  • collaboration and open-mindedness are important features of design thinking. 
In the end, the three sections had three differently-shaped boxes with lids that fit on top!


In Middle School, students in Ms. Corgan’s English class played an anonymous game of “This or That,” where they voted electronically on things like “puppies or kittens” then saw the results populate on the screen. Students had very strong feelings about the results which made for lively and fun debates. When asked if Ms. Corgan noticed any other outcomes of these two games, she said,  “I think it certainly helped the new kids get a feel for who their “people” might be and vice versa. It also just livens up the initial middle school “cool” cover when they accidentally lose themselves in a debate over why cats > dogs.”

In Mr. Mueller’s 8th grade laptop-free-zone advisory, students tossed a ball around as they shared a special memory from the summer.

In Ms. Denney’s advisory, each advisee wrote down an anonymous response to a prompt (i.e. what advice would you give a new student in the first week of school? What is something that brought you joy this week?) and then draw them at random and try to guess whose was whose. This gets students thinking about their classmates in a different way.

In Ms. Ding’s Mandarin class, a calligraphy activity involved students and their families. Ms Montano’s advisory practiced “speed meeting” where students had two minutes to ask questions of each classmate. 

Over in Ms. O’Leary’s 7th grade SEED class, students selected stickers to decorate their laptop covers and shared why they made their selections.


In the Lower School, fourth grade students were up and moving around the dining room courtyard as they tried to fill up their Getting-to-Know-You BINGO boards. Since students could only use each person one time, it provided the opportunity to talk to a lot of different people while on the search for who can whistle, who knows how to play chess, who lost a tooth this summer, and more. Kids were moving and making joyful noise as they filled up their boards getting to know each other. 

Fifth grade teachers Ms. Lee, Ms. Siebert-Hall, and Mr. Kellett wanted to ease any nervousness in the room with their random question game. Students randomly selected a number from a hat that corresponded with a question like, “If you could have any superpower what would it be?” Student responses often prompted spontaneous laughter amongst the class, which alleviated some of the first day jitters.


In embracing Shipley's Framework for Well-Being, our teachers are fostering not only knowledge, but also a profound sense of community and belonging among our students. These ice-breaker activities, from the algebraic challenges of Ms. Lein's class and the design-thinking endeavors of Ms. Devlin and Ms. Eiteljorg, to the low-stakes debates led by Ms. Corgan, and the meaningful interactions in Mr. Mueller's advisory, all illustrate the dedication of our educators to create an environment where every individual feels known and valued. 

As students move through the different stages of their education, they are not just learning algebraic concepts or how to write a persuasive essay; they are learning the vital lessons of communication, collaboration, open-mindedness, and embracing diversity. 

Shipley's commitment to nurturing well-being extends far beyond the classroom, empowering students to approach challenges with flexibility, creativity, and the knowledge that there are many ways to solve any problem. Through these activities, our students are not merely acquiring academic skills; they are building the foundations of a thriving, supportive, and vibrant community that will guide them on their journey to becoming their best selves.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.