A Beginner’s Guide for Practicing Diversity: Two Icebreaker Activities that Emphasize the Values of Diversity and Inclusion

Children run out of a school building.
Children run out of a school building.

The start of the school year is when administrators and teachers traditionally lead “getting-to-know-you” activities and establish school and classroom norms. Dedicating time to communicate expectations and cultivate personal relationships is a crucial part of building a cohesive community and setting your school’s climate. This process establishes a positive tone for the entire school year, reduces behavior problems, and can offset potential conflicts. Try incorporating activities that specifically emphasize the values of diversity and inclusion. 

“Crossing the Line”
For faculty, staff, and administrators

This exercise is intended for professional development sessions that take place before the first day of school. The goal is to build awareness of the many differences among the adults in the school building. Alternatively, the exercise could help a school’s staff build its awareness of the collective privilege that school leaders and teachers bring to their work, prompting a conversation about how these advantages might affect their students. 

To start, each individual responds anonymously “yes” or “no” to a series of questions, such as:

A facilitator explains how certain statements describe experiences associated with social advantages, also known as “privilege,” while others represent disadvantages.  

Collect and redistribute responses to different people to provide anonymity. Then, instruct the participants to hold hands and stand in a straight, horizontal line. A facilitator rereads the prompts and says, “Take a step forward,” for statements that illustrate privilege, such as “I feel comfortable walking down the street holding hands with my partner.” For prompts that illustrate challenges, such as, “I take medication on a daily basis for health reasons,” say, “Take a step backward.” At the end of the exercise, point out how groups fall into different places on the spectrum of privilege.   

The script for this activity can be easily modified and is available online at http://bit.ly/2JuDUEd.

After the exercise, invite participants to reflect on how the privilege walk made them feel. What emotions did they experience while stepping forward or backward? Was this an uncomfortable experience for them? Why or why not? 

Then, brainstorm additional questions illustrating social advantages or disadvantages that could have been included. If these questions had been asked, would the placement of individuals have been different? Were there any questions assigned to social disadvantages that participants feel more accurately represent privilege, or vice versa? 

To wrap up, the facilitator reiterates what the group has accomplished through the privilege walk. By gaining a better sense of the advantages and challenges that each individual in their community brings to the table, participants have a deeper understanding of the diversity within their school. In addition, they have explored the different ways that people can be socially advantaged or disadvantaged and now recognize privilege as something that affects their interactions with students. Finally, invite participants to add to this list, sharing what they have personally learned from the experience.

“Peaks and Valleys”
For Students of All Ages  

This activity is from the appendix of The English Teacher’s Companion, written by Jim Burke. It helps reinforce the need for kindness and empathy given the range of life experiences all students bring to the table. 

First, students chart the peaks and valleys in their lives on graph paper. They do this by charting their age on the horizontal axis and assigning a numerical value to positive (+) and negative (-) experiences on the Y axis, plotting both positive and negative experiences in their lives and connecting the dots (See figure 1).

Example student chart

After they have completed their graphs, students can find different partners and swap stories of their positive and negative life experiences. 

End with a general discussion of how everyone in the classroom brings positive and challenging experiences to the table, including ones that aren’t listed on the graphs, reinforcing the need for empathy.

Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.