Breaking the ice: an assessment tool + culture creator for the high school classroom

Jan 28, 2019

The following is part of the 'Remix Archives' from my days at the Global Pen (circa 2012, friends!). This archive involves those posts my audience has known-n-loved over the many years we've been colleagues and friends, so consider these ones 'back by popular demand'! Enjoy!

The original version of this post was published on: JULY 25th, 2012 @ the Global Pen

Raise a digital hand if you've every subscribed to the maxim that teachers shouldn't crack a smile until December (or October, at least) in an effort to establish authority and coax learning.

I'm literally cringing at the thought. Not because I'm judging you, but because I've actually been guilty of some variation of this 'maxim' during my early years as a teacher.

So if you're raising that digi-hand, I'm (embarrassingly) with ya, pal...

Seriously, I want to know who came up with this nasty, little lie so I can take their teaching certificate and rip it into tiny shreds (Ugh!).

*teacher-blogger laughs in jest*

I mean, I get it...there's this need to feel in control over our classrooms when we're starting at the beginning (no matter what year of teaching it is); but the truth of the matter is, this isn't about us. It's about our students.

And if they're going to learn, they need firm soil and sunshine. In other words, they need to trust the classroom ground beneath their feet, and they need to feel accepted in order to grow.

So that whole 'ice-cold glare for three months straight' is so not speaking to this!

Instead, let's talk about ways to break that *shade* you've been throwing by trying something new. And yup, I've got just the activity for you and your crew!

It's called the 'Human Bar Graph,' and it's one of my favorite icebreakers of all time.

I first encountered it during a 3-day workshop I took back in 2005 with assessment experts Rick Stiggins and Jan Chappuis (authors of Classroom Assessment for Student Learning, 2nd ed.); so I've since adapted it to fit various activities in my instruction.

[And if I *may* digress for a moment: Stiggins & Chappuis rock...that workshop was among the *best* PD experiences I've had in my career. A second-year teacher at the time, it was professionally game-changing in the way I viewed assessment!]

So depending on how you use it, the Human Bar Graph (HBG) icebreaker isn't just a first-day-of-school type-of-gig. It can be used to ease into just about anything if angled right (and not overused).

Trying to crack open a conversation, a novel, or a project with your students? This is a great way to get them on their feet while gathering valuable insights into their thoughts, beliefs, and/or attitudes as you launch into new learning territory.

Here's how it works...


Time Frame: approximately 1 class period (45 minutes)

Materials:  "Human Bar Graph" Survey Questions-handout (teacher-designed, based on purpose).

Large, 'number' signs 1-5

Plenty of classroom floor space

Whiteboard OR large post-it notes, colored markers

Enthusiasm...and a little bit of bravery...and trust (oh, and pixie dust ;-))


In advance of this activity, push the classroom desks off to the side in order to make plenty of standing room in your classroom.  

In the back of the room, opposite the whiteboard, post the 'number' signs 1-5 on the wall about 6 feet high and about 3-5 feet apart.  Students will eventually be lining up in rows here, so make sure they have space to stand and can see the whiteboard from their 'numbered' 1-5 row.

Join my Free Resource Library and take a peek at this sample SURVEY HANDOUT.  This one is designed to assess students' perceptions of their capabilities and tendencies in the ELA classroom, so this might be great in getting to know your population of students in the beginning of the year and to generate conversation about some of the methods, habits, and practices you'll engage in over the course of the year.

But remember, you can design your HBG survey for a million different reasons. So think about experiences where you want to peer inside the minds of your students (how about every waking moment, perhaps?!). Think of times where you'll need to know where they are, or moments when you'll need to check their pulse before proceeding.

Once I lay out the steps of this activity, I'll share a ton of ideas for using it beyond 'get to know your students' stuff. So hang tight for some inspiring ideas once we get acquainted.

So once you've decided how you will use the HBG, and you've drafted up a sound set of 5-15 survey questions, you can knock out the final prep, which is setting up your data collection stations either on your board, through the use of an online tool, or by recording them on chart paper).

I like to display results the good ol' fashioned way. So if you're down with this, draw on your whiteboard several, mini-graphs, one for each question you plan to chart the results for (i.e. if you have, say, 15 questions on your survey, pick the top 5-ish to dive into during this interactive part of the activity).  

On the horizontal lines, make tick marks to represent numbers 1-5, which correspond with the 1-5 number responses students will offer for each survey question.  On the vertical lines, make tick marks for the numbers 5, 10, 15, and 20 (or up to 25, depending on class size, but also noting that usually not every student agrees to exactly the same question!).

These vertical lines represent how many students chose the responses for the various 1-5 options.  So quick example, if I had 8 students rate the first statement on their handout as a '4, mostly agree,' then I will eventually be drawing on my chart here, a vertical bar in the '4' row which reaches up to just below the '10-number of students' line.

Don't forget to label each mini-graph with the survey question # and/or a brief-phrase so you can quickly and accurately identify which survey question is represented there.

REMEMBER: you can have as many mini-graphs on your board as you wish, but I'd feature the top 5 questions you want your humans (AKA students!) to graph. The activity tends to overstay its welcome if you make them stand too long!

Ok, you're up and running in terms of prep! Now before we begin, and just for the sake of clarity:

  • during the first part of the activity, students will need to sit at the desks, which are situated off to the side.
  • for the second part, they'll be shifting into the general, open space of the classroom.
  • then finally, they'll populate the numbered rows you created, as they graph out each question.


Here we go!



Once students file in and find a seat, distribute your variation of the "Human Bar Graph" (HBG) Survey Questions handout (so again, depending on what you intend to break the ice on, be it class in general, the beginnings of a novel, observations mid-way through a project, etc. Full list of ideas to follow steps!).  

Before anything else, tell them NOT to put their names on this sheet of paper...the responses are to remain 100% anonymous!  

Ask them to read each statement on the handout and rate these ideas 1-5 according to the rating system provided at the top of the page.

Now, for this next part, I leave you with two options, depending on your comfort level as a teacher and a person. Option A is the traditional route designed for this activity, perfect for any classroom.

I, however, like to live on the edge: *teacher-blogger cues evil laugh* ...

I've included Option B for your perusal just in case you might like a more, um, 'dramatic' approach to classroom icebreaking.

(Read 'em both...choose your own adventure.)

Option A | The "Traditional" Route…

Once students finish independently rating each survey question provided on the HBG handout, ask students to wad up their paper into a snowball, move into a makeshift circle in the open area, and toss their paper to the person directly across from them.  Have them toss the paper a total of 3 times to increase the anonymity of whose paper they have in their hand before beginning the graphing portion of the activity.

Now you are ready to create a Human Bar Graph with your class!  Proceed to Step 2.

OR, you could opt for...

Option B | The Way I Roll…

Once students finish independently rating each survey question provided on the HBG handout, I ask them to take one final look at their carefully planned answers.

"Now," I say to them with a pregnant pause, "crumble it up."  The kids look at me like I've completely lost my mind (which gets me *every*'s the little things in life!).  

With some hesitation, the kids begin crumbling their papers up while I quietly chuckle at the confused, guilty looks that now shadow their brows.

Then I tell them a quick little (rather dramatic) story about how I understand they will not necessarily like me this year because I'm about to torture them with some serious grind-work and deep-study projects. Ones that will challenge them to try, try again, fail, then give it another shot until they've created something they're actually proud of and pleased with...

So to give them a break, I'm going to let them take their frustrations out on me in advance.  I'm going to let them do what they'll dream about doing for the next 180 school days...

I'm going to let them throw the book at me, or at least the paper form of the proverbial book, anyway.

I tell the students that when I count to three, they have full permission to throw (yes, throw!) their wadded-up paper ball at me as I stand prey before them in the front of the room.  

Oh, the looks of joy that will spread across their faces!! (Picture the Grinch who Stole Christmas, when he conjures up his plan to knock off Whoville on Christmas Eve...again, gets me *every* time!)

I tell them to aim directly. for. me. so the papers fall just within reach at my feet.

I also lay some quick, ground rules: "Careful now kiddies, I am in charge of your grade.  I do know where you live.  I will remember particularly nasty curveballs."

I hold baseless grudges, my friends.

Of course, they get a good chuckle out of this.  Then I assume the position: arms overhead, one eye peeking out of my hand to watch for devious intentions, and I slap a rather contorted look on my face.

This is the best part because as they wait for the 3-2-1 countdown, you get those kids who are ultra-eager to wing you one good...I take a moment to recognize them (dramatically, of course ;-) ) by asking, 'and what was your name again, lil' human?'  

The kids get one more good laugh as I begin the count: 3-2-1...FIRE!

Oh, it's paper...RELAX!  I've survived it every time so far without a single battle scar to speak of (or referral to write!).  

You'll be all right.

TIP: keep a lookout for late-blooming launchers, or you might get dinged in the head for real without expecting it...then you might have a small embarrassing moment on your hands after all!

Option B disclaimer: for some reason I loooove making a fool of myself, day after day, in the holy name of evoking interest in learning.  But I swear, 'though this be madness, there is method in it yet' ;-) so stick with me...

Anyway, once the students have fired away at your noggin, begin picking up each wad of paper and firing them (gently) back at the crowd...they won't expect that part, so it can be fun, too.  Just an underhand toss to each kid until all papers are redistributed to the crowd will do.

I sneak in a few jump-shots and fade-aways while I'm at it, but I don't throw overhand just in case, so as to avoid actually winging a kid back on accident!  Take this moment to dramatize how KIND you are in returning their papers...potentially unlike them (manipulative masterwork right there, right?!).


No matter which option you chose, A or B, every student should now have an anonymously answered HBG survey in their hands.  Ask them to un-crumble it and briefly review their peer's responses to the same questions.

Now it's time to make ourselves into a giant, human bar graph!

DON'T FORGET: I don't recommend you graph ALL statements on the handout, so pick the ones that you think will make the best point for your audience.  

The goal is to help them see that they are not the only ones who might feel a certain way about what this school year, novel, project, or conversation will bring (or has brought).

"Ok, class, let's take a look at Statement #7.  Seth, will you read it aloud for me?"

" says, 'I look back on my past work to review and to learn from past successes and mistakes.' "

"Thank you, Seth.  Now everybody, take a look at what the person scored next to statement #7 on your handout.  Go to the labeled row that corresponds with this number and line up. Ready, go!"

Students will dash quickly to one of the rows you've created in the open space: 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5.  Once they get organized into the row, have them face toward the front of the room (not toward the number sign you placed on the wall).  

Remind them that where they are standing does not represent their own views; rather, it anonymously represents someone's view in the room, which is why we swapped papers in the first place.

That way, they won't be pressured to conform as the activity continues to unfold.  

(You know the phenomenon: 'Oh gee, everyone is in the 4 row...I better go there too!' Nope, no's not your own answer your representing, so you don't have to feel foolish as the loner in row 1!)


Now go to the board and graph out the response you see.  Count how many students are in the 5-row and draw a bar on your horizontal 5 line that extends up vertically until it reaches this number of students.  Do the same for the rest of the response rows 4-1.

(Time Saver Tip: Have the first person in each row count how many people are in their line for you).


Now it's time to reflect on the results. Let's imagine, for example, that you used the HBG to gauge students' perceptions on contemporary issue X. Once you chart the responses, you can have them dive right into a Socratic Seminar that focuses on issue X. Chances are, your students will be much more open to conversation following this quick survey of how others feel, too.

During this Socratic, you can actually ask them to 'own up' to their anonymous opinions as they feel comfortable in doing so, OR you can have them discuss the ideas of the survey from the outside looking in (i.e. 'the 6 students who felt that way about this question may have felt like that because...').

I recommend the latter -- this can unlock deep conversation and unearth valuable perspectives that they might have been too timid to chase after otherwise!

In the past, I've used the HBG to gauge initial student perceptions for multiple, contemporary issues we'll intend to cover that quarter. Then little by little, we'll unpack these survey questions as the focus questions for each Socratic, which drip out over the year.

So while we're at it, let's now discuss the many, unique ways you can use this activity in your classroom, beyond the 'get to know you' icebreaker as we know it.

Ways to use the HBG activity

So beyond assessing student perceptions of ELA as a class during those first days of school, you could also use the HBG as:

  • an anticipation guide prior to starting a novel
  • a gauge of perception prior to diving into a conversation ( as discussed just above)
  • a group progress check during the course of a project (to assess areas of strength and/or struggle and to pair students with peer-help thereafter)
  • a reflective tool following a particular learning experience
  • a feedback tool to help teachers learn how to improve instruction moving forward


I particularly like this last one because, as you likely know, getting student feedback is *so* necessary to improve our methods and approach, but also potentially *so* painful (and scary!) at the same time.

So using the anonymous HBG model, it lets you see the collective results and it lets students have open and honest conversations with you.

Don't get me wrong, online surveys are also fine, but this route makes the reflective/constructive convo feel so much more human because you're having it in real time, but without the awkwardness of students being directly attached to the teacher critique in question!

And, there are lots of ways you can further discuss the results of the survey, be it in a Socratic discussion as a follow-up, as a written assignment, blog reflection, FlipGrid response, or other. The key is that students are thinking about their thinking in doing so.



So what does this activity accomplish?  By carefully crafting the HBG survey questions...

YOU--as the teacher--get inside the minds of students without making them feel awkward, lol.  

And THEY get their blood pumping right away by moving around the classroom and interacting, while also gaining an understanding + awareness of how the collective feels about similar issues or concepts.

And the truth is, this may be the first time your students are invited to move around in class all day (and I'm certain they hadn't been invited to peg their teachers in the head with paper balls, either!).

So this'll be the talk of the lunch AND dinner table because it can provide for a memorable learning experience while gaining valuable insights and feedback..  

And don't forget, you can use this activity ANY TIME during the course of the year to get a gauge on how your classes are feeling.  

No time for fun-n-games? Get off my blog.

Lol, I'm KIDDING, but seriously, I challenge you to get weird and give play a chance!

Remember, this is a structured activity with a structured outcome (if you structure your surveys right)...and it helps kids to INVEST in you and your class. And that's because it's helping to create the very culture that makes learning possible, one that's built on trust, fun, and warmth.

We all need a little sunshine, right?!

I'd love to hear how things go with the Human Bar Graph in your classes. *Please* drop a line in the Comments section below to tell me all about it! Feel free to start with the model I offer in this post, but I can't wait to hear how you innovate on these basics! #getnerdy

In peace and collaboration,

PS...Total transparency, here... I’m affiliated with those book links listed in this blog post, yep! which means if you use them to purchase that particular product, I can make a tiny commission from that.  Consider it my ‘tip jar’ for spitting all this free wisdom at you ;-) I only share + affiliate myself with resources I believe in; I’ve either tried them for myself, or they’re simply in line with my values as an educator.  So rest easy on that laurel, ma’ friends ;-) I hope you enjoy the cache of recommendations, and if you’re so inclined to leave a ‘tip,’ simply use my links to make your purchases.


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