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4 Team Builders to Try the First Weeks of School (Secondary Edition)

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

No one loves a corny ice breaker more than me (or anything corny, matter of fact), but in addition to the cliche activities that we see year after year, there are a few team builders that I've really enjoyed implementing into my back-to-school routine.

When I was in college, I worked for the Center for Leadership and Service, where my peers and I ran retreats and service learning programs. I absolutely loved the years I spent there and besides a lot of valuable information and ideas that I still incorporate in the classroom now, I also repurposed many of the activities we used to run.

Now don't get me wrong, as cool as I think they are, high school babies will still complain for just about anything, but they don't seem to hate these AS much as other activities I've tried. The activities outlined below have become staples for me and I think you should consider giving them a shot as well :)

- Tower Building (tied with MLA review for my fellow ELA teachers)

*Think the marshmallows and toothpick activity, minus the sticky fingers*

Materials Needed: envelopes, index cards, tape, paper clips, and other random trinkets

Time Needed: 20-30 minutes including instructional time, building time, and debriefing time

The Run Down:

Prior to running this activity, make sure to have the materials prepped. Fill each envelope with 4-6 index cards, a roll of tape, and sprinkle in a few paperclips, maybe a string, some binder clips, and whatever other random office supply you find in your cabinet. You want to be sure the groups' materials vary. They should all get index cards and tape, but even the number of index cards should be different. The reasoning for this will be important later.

The day of, have students count off 1 - 4 or 1 - 5 (depending on how many students - keep the groups small) and then tell them, "All the 1s get together, all the 2s get together, etc."

Next, clearly state these instructions:

- Each group will be given materials

- Your task is to build the tallest free-standing structure with the materials given to you in the time allotted

* Free-standing means your structure cannot be taped to the floor, hung from the ceiling, held up by a strong pinky toe, etc.

- "Hurricane-force winds" might swoosh by your structure to test its stability

- If you ask me any questions during this activity, I will repeat these same instructions

Then, put 10 minutes on the board, hand out an envelope to each group, and let the students get to work. While they are building, walk around and take notes on what you see and hear from the groups (this is my absolute favorite part of the activity because it helps you learn A LOT about your new students' personalities, working types, etc.). Offer no assistance, praise, or criticism, and simply repeat "Your task is to build the tallest free-standing structure with the materials given to you in the time allotted" when any question is asked.

Count down the last 10 seconds and when the timer goes off, instruct all students to back away from their towers. You can walk by each one, test it with "hurricane winds" (blow on it), and decide which one is the tallest. Then comes the most important part - the reflection.

Have students take a seat (in their desks or on the floor) and ask each student to say 1 word that describes the activity or how they felt during it - you'll most likely get a mix of: "confusing" "frustrated" "fun" "stressed" - and random other thoughts.

You can then express what you saw and heard during the activity. Don't call students out by name but for example, you would say, "I saw some people taking charge right away, I saw some of you arguing for the best strategy, I heard someone frantically yell 'don't let them steal our idea!'," and so on and so forth.

You can then ask students to volunteer sporadically or ask 1 student from each group to share what happened in their group during the activity. I find it interesting to always ask, "did anyone think to combine groups and work together to build an even taller tower? Why not? I never said it was a competition."

I also like to pose the question of how they think this can apply to life. It's just index cards and paper clips, but how can what happened apply to school, friendships, etc.? Students can answer vocally or reflect on paper.

*This last part is optional, but this is how I combine this activity with ELA content:

I have students type out their reflection incorporating 1 piece of text evidence from an article on team building (you can use any article you'd like for this).

I first teach whole class how to set up a properly formatted MLA template with the heading, header, and title. I walk students through this step by step, including adjusting the font and spacing.

Then, I give them sentence stems for incorporating text evidence, and I explain that they're going to write about their experience during this activity, and support something that happened or that they learned with a line of text from the article. Lastly, I show them an example.

- Musical Chairs Writing

*The most hilarious activity you'll ever do*

Materials Needed: 1 sheet of paper or 1 laptop (or other device) per student

Time Needed: 10-20 minutes including instructional time, working time, and debriefing time

The Run Down:

The instructions to display for students are posted as a freebie and pretty self-explanatory, but the kicker is that you can also break up students into small groups to complete this activity and then have them present in groups.

I also break down the instruction on how to run the activity in this video:

- GooseChase Edu

*A scavenger hunt-esque activity*

Materials Needed: GooseChase Edu account (I use the paid version but there is a free one) and app OR Google Slides OR a similar platform where students can upload pictures/videos (for example, Padlet)

Time Needed: 20-30 minutes

The Run Down:

Goose Chase is an online platform for scavenger hunts where participants can upload pictures/videos of completed challenges for points. I remember I first used Goose Chase on a girls trip to New Orleans and then I saw it being used again for virtual team building during the first COVID shut down. That is when I thought to myself that it would so fun to use with my students, so I tried it that year, and it was a huge success.

I ended up using it to recap The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, and for end of the year fun. My favorite thing about this platform is that the possibilities are truly endless. I started hardcore advocating for this platform and continued to use it with my students.

However, I did have some teachers wary about using this platform, and I realized the same type of activity could be replicated using other platforms like Google Slides, Padlet, or the similar.

For students in schools that are not one-to-one, I also suggest it can be done on phones - if just 1 student per team has a phone).

The point is if you can find a way to make it work in your high school classroom, I guarantee you will not be disappointed by this activity. It is one of my favorite forms of controlled chaos :)

So, how do you put it together?

Basically, come up with 12 to 15 challenges that you'd like your students to complete and the amount of points you'd award them per challenge.

Some examples include:

- A photo of your team by your favorite item in the classroom

- A video of your team members reciting the class norms

- A video of two of your team members doing a creative handshake

- A photo of your team creating a cheer pyramid

Here's a video of one I did using Google Slides at the end-of-the-year:

You can purchase this slideshow (completely editable) here:

And here's a video of me explaining how to create one on the actual GooseChase platform:

Again, the possibilities are endless.

Lastly, something fun to do at the close of this activity is a whole class share of some of the best submissions.

- Calculator

*also a great energizer!*

Materials Needed: 30 sheets of paper or paper plates (labeled 1 -30), tape

Time Needed: 5 - 10 minutes

The Run Down:

Also apparently called Key Punch, in this activity students work together to hit all the numbers in the "calculator" in a specific way, trying to accomplish this in a faster time each round.

This can be completed indoors or outdoors, but indoors is a little easier because you can tape the papers (or plates) down and wind would not be a factor.

I found this YouTube video that breaks it down pretty well (start at 00:48):

And this one, where you can see it in full action (with adults, funny enough):

The only thing I would add is how to increase the challenge: I usually have my students complete 3 - 5 rounds, always trying to beat their time from the round before. However, for 1 or 2 of those rounds I might add a "road block" like: no one can talk for this round, or 3 people must do it blind (by closing their eyes or using bandanas).

These added challenges increase the amount of team work that must be used to complete the activity. If your students are really struggling when doing this, you can also have them reset in the middle of a round and facilitate some thinking by asking questions like: what strategies have you not used yet and has everyone's voice and opinions been heard.

If you try any of these four team builders with your students this year, I'd love to know! Feel free to shoot me a message and we can connect :)


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