Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
What will this woman say next?
Ice-breakers, done right. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Did you ever try to lead a group — anything really, from a birthday party to a company — and realize that the only way you’ll get anything done is if you can change the dynamic quickly?
Today's essay is adapted from a Twitter thread (with permission!) by Liz Norell, who has a technique to do just that. Liz teaches college-level political science, and it’s about the ice-breaking techniques she used in her first this semester—a night class—which happened to be the week after the protracted vote for speaker of the House of Representatives.
While it takes place in a college class, I think her technique was fun to read about, and might give you inspiration in all kinds of situations.
You'll see what I mean: I can imagine all the people involved starting out thinking, “This is pretty silly,” but admitting at the end: “Yeah, but it's also kind of fun!“
Links: LizNorell.com, original Twitter thread. Also, if you find this “turn-a-Twitter-thread-into-an-essay” thing interesting, here’s another popular example I did a few years ago in this newsletter, after the death of Carl Reiner.
I'd literally rather be no other place
by Liz Norell (adapted from Twitter with permission)
I was teaching at another campus (not my primary employer), because their night class professor couldn't teach this semester. I'd previously taught at this institution and I was thrilled to have the chance to have a night class once more …
Registration numbers fluctuate a lot in the first days of a semester, but this class had about 40 students. A mix of majors and non-majors. Age range? 17-42: some athletes, a few gamers, lots of "typical" residential college students (whatever “typical” means).
As I feel on EVERY first day of the semester, I'm giddy—positively vibrating.
The students sense it. They seem wary. (They always are.)
I brought a picnic basket of snacks. That breaks the ice.
The clock strikes 5:30 pm, and I can begin. I explode with exclamations of excitement that they're here. (This is also normal for me.)
I walk around the room, pacing with giddy energy, as I tell them that I'd literally rather be NO OTHER PLACE on the planet, than in this room with them.
I then begin to explain a few things I want them to understand from the jump:
First, I despise grades. I refuse to assign them for work.
My explanation of #ungrading and its rationale follows. I pause to ask if there are questions or comments. They stare at me, stunned.
Student Number 1:
Student: “Um, does that mean I can do nothing?"
Me: "Do you *want* to do nothing? Is that why you are here?"
Student: "I was just kidding. This sounds cool."
Student Number 2:
Student: "I have massive anxiety. I'm always worried I won't get a perfect grade. This is a huge relief."
Me: "I have a lot of anxiety, too. I get it."
Student Number 3. (He’s eating some snacks from the circulating basket):
Student: "If I were in church right now, I'd yell out, 'PREACH!' or 'AMEN!' or something."
Second, I have a plan for how our class might unfold. But, a night class presents opportunities. I'm open to hearing their ideas.
I tell them we'll circle back in a little bit and to let that marinate.
Third, I say that I want us to do some introductions, but I DO NOT want them to be cringe.
They laugh and agree. I ask for suggestions.
OK, my idea then. I ask everyone to make their way to the very large aisle in the middle of our big classroom. At this point, they're willing to go along with whatever I suggest. (WHAT WILL THIS WOMAN SAY NEXT?!?!)
I ask them to mill about, just kind of shuffle around a bit, and after a short time I'll tell them to stop and explain what to do.
(This is a trick I picked up from my colleague who once taught kindergarten. You should have a colleague like that. Steal all their tricks.)
After about 30 seconds of nervous shuffling, I yell out: "Stop! Find someone nearby and give them a high five.”
I then direct everyone to introduce themselves to the person they just high-fived and chat briefly about anything. The room buzzes for a few seconds and then everyone looks at me.
I tell them to start shuffling again, that we'll do this twice more. They shuffle.
On the second stop-and-high-five, the buzzing gets much louder. Now, whole conversations are unfolding. People are laughing, body language relaxes.
Some students are fully in the crowded middle, others are on the edges and quieter (as I would be).
One student, circulates through the room, shaking every other student's hand, introducing himself. When I suggest they circulate once more, only about half of them do so, because they're too engrossed in conversations.
Finally, I tell them we're going to do a few more standing introductions, but in a different way. I create an XY axis across the length of the room and give three prompts:
If you live on campus, come to this side. If not, head the other way.
If you like playing video games, go this way. If not, the other.
Arrange yourselves roughly in a line from youngest to oldest.
At each of these prompts, they're talking to the people near them. Some discover that they live on the same floor of the same dorm. Others discover they're both dual enrollment students. Video game suggestions are exchanged.
Now we sit, and the brainstorming begins:
What can we do with this time together?
Ideas include a field trip to our state capital to meet with legislators, creating educational fliers to post around campus about how government works, making an explanatory music video that’s better than Schoolhouse Rock.
Create a podcast. Host guest speakers. Do a community service project. Go to a basketball game together. (Conference games are mostly on Wednesday nights).
Themed class nights: Everyone dress like a character from Hamilton the musical!
Potlucks! Reenactments! Board games!
I mention I have four sets of Secret Hitler. Nervous laughter erupts, until I tell them the goal of Secret Hitler is to find and kill Hitler. They're on board for that.
We end class by answering this question: "What the heck happened in Congress last week?!" with some choice CSPAN clips and a discussion of "present" votes.
Students leave, chattering among themselves, with several hanging back to tell me about things they need to make class more comfortable—like noise-cancelling headphones before class begins, because the fountain in the lobby is a grating sound, or that they want to check in each week just to make sure they're not forgetting anything and are on track.
I leave on a cloud of happiness. #AcademicTwitter
Comments will have to stay locked again, for premium subscribers only, after the recent unpleasantness. For those who don’t know; it had nothing to do with real subscribers. Instead, someone created a comment account that impersonated me and started spamming and phishing 100+ users. It was an impersonation, not a hack, and luckily I caught it pretty quickly. But, I’m thinking about solutions. Thanks.
7 other things worth knowing today
More than 5,000 people are now reported to have been killed by the powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked wide swaths of Turkey and Syria early Monday. Hundreds were still believed to be trapped under rubble, and the toll was expected to continue to rise as rescue workers search mounds of wreckage in cities and towns across the area. (AP, CNN)
Facing two counts of involuntary manslaughter and up to five years behind bars if found guilty, Alec Baldwin and Rust armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed are about to find themselves face-to-face in court with the director of the troubled indie Western and many members of the crew as witnesses in the criminal case against the duo for the October 21, 2021 fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. (Deadline)
Actress Viola Davis has won a Grammy for the audiobook of her memoir, "Finding Me," earning her the coveted EGOT status—meaning she has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award in her career. Davis is just the 18th person to have won all four major entertainment awards. (CBS News)
This 29-year-old who says he had a "wake-up call" in 2014 after surviving an opioid overdose, left the U.S. for Budapest. Here's how he makes $120,000 as a freelance copywriter—and lives in an $800-per-month apartment. (CNBC)
North Korea's latest propaganda effort? A series of Youtube channels hosted by supposedly ordinary North Koreans painting an idyllic picture of the isolated and impoverished hermit kingdom. Example: "Song A," an 11-year-old North Korean girl who speaks pretty good English with a British-ish accent, who has built a following talking about amusement parks and "Harry Potter." (Insider)
How Vietnamese refugee David Tran—the man who brought Sriracha to the USA —became America's first hot sauce billionaire (without spending a dime on advertising and without raising wholesale price since the early 1980s). (Forbes)
10 rules of productive online communication (Gen Z edition). I have to admit, I was sucked in. Maybe some of you are savvier than I am; maybe you're Gen Z yourself or have Gen Z kids ... but this is actually one of the smartest assessments of how texting in 2023 works, with special attention to emojis. (Many One Percents)