julia foulkes

The First Day: Two Truths and a Lie

I have eaten at a diner in all 50 states; I helped start a company; I have jumped out of plane. Two truths and a lie: it’s a common “icebreaker,” an informal game used to create connections and foster familiarity. In this one, a person comes up with two truths and a lie about herself and the group has to figure out which one is the lie.

I have used such introductory exercises during the first day of class for many years, usually asking students to talk to the person next to them and introduce that person to the group. I often ask them to include a question pertinent to the class – what is the first historical event they remember, for a course called “What is History?,” for example. Compiling the answers on the board usually serves as way to connect a personal anecdote to the content of the course itself. From “the day I started kindergarten” to “9/11” does a pretty good job of getting at the assumptions about what is significant in the past, for whom and for what purpose.

Lately, though, I’ve been bolder. Last semester, I used “two truths and a lie” on the first day and found out that someone was an unicyclist, another did not like roller coasters, and a third had visited all NYC subway stations and it took 28 hours to do so. At least the latter connected to the class, which was a thematic approach to the history of New York City, but most of the responses had little or nothing to do with the course content. Why devote 15 minutes to this exercise?

Because it exposes at least two truths and a lie about teaching. The first truth is that students have lives outside our classrooms that bear upon what happens in them. Getting a brief peek into their larger lives allows me to begin figuring out how education fits. Arguably there are more direct ways to do so, such as the questions “why are you taking this class?” or “what do you hope to gain from taking this class?” Both are great questions to ask. The icebreaker format, though, prioritizes a slightly different intention: I want to know who you are first, then why you’re here. I record what students say, which helps in the process of putting face to name, and often there are anecdotes that do connect to what we will be studying.

The second truth is that this kind of exercise can help create a learning environment that is dialogic, responsive, and, ultimately, personal. I think all of us hate icebreakers — but that’s the point. It discomforts all and the unease prepares us for greater ones, unsettling assumptions or challenging each other. The informality and humor that can arise through an icebreaker also punctures the seriousness and high stakes that can often cripple or silence students.

Which gets to the lie: such an exercise undermines the gravity of the intellectual enterprise and, ultimately, a teacher’s authority. This concern resonates deeply with me. I am a short, white woman who, before grey hair crept in, used to look a lot like students in my classroom, and I teach a subject associated with stately white men with trimmed beards who wear tweed jackets with patches on the elbows. A Teaching Assistant, a friendly babysitter, an imposter: these are the images that accompany me into the classroom on the first day. Why would I risk any of those associations by telling two truths and a lie about myself?

Research on student-centered learning proves that students learn more when authority is shared in the classroom. Sharing is not a giving-over of all power to students, nor a conceding of expertise and experience, as Maryellen Weimer discusses in one of the books that the Provost’s Office is encouraging faculty to converse about this semester.[i] Instead, authority is built as a reciprocal relationship. Students may resist the idea that they should even have any authority in the classroom – aren’t they paying an enormous amount for my expertise? I do have to establish my credibility and lay out clear expectations, as Stephen Brookfield suggests, before students take on authority in the classroom.[ii] But if the authority resides only with me, then students learn to become stenographers, not masters of their own learning.

The first day of class is about articulating and enacting your teaching philosophy as much as it is about an introduction to course content. An exercise that begins to build the relationships necessary to difficult conversation may be more important than diving into subject matter (although I do that too). But if I expect students to provide much content of the course – in thoughts, questions, and increasing expertise – then I want to begin by creating an environment in which learning arises from being together in a class and extends beyond it.

(I still need to eat at a diner in Alaska.)

[i] Maryellen Weimer, Learning-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (Jossey-Bass, 2013, 2nded.). Weimer devotes chapter 2 to the research about learner-centered approaches; in chapter 4, she tackles “the balance of power” question directly.

[ii] Stephen D. Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (Jossey-Bass, 1995): 6. This is another book on the Provost’s Office list to discuss this semester.

The text was originally published in Teaching Learning: Learning Teaching. Reflections on Education, The New School.