Synthesis and the Imperfect Rectangle:  An Icebreaker for a Slower Classroom

1 0 1,143


There is, I know, a vast amount of privilege that comes from making an imperfect rectangle on the first day of class. The chairs and the tables have to be moveable, not nailed down to the floor. We—the students and I—have to be situated in the same room, face-to-face. It helps that there is natural light streaming through windows that face the sky.

But having taught in windowless classrooms, in damp basements and old-fashioned science labs with sinks and immovable tables, I no longer take for granted any of these seemingly mundane details. Indeed, even our presence together in a face-to-face classroom seems an immense luxury.

The first week of class, the classroom computer and projector did not work, so we created a “slow” classroom dependent on analog technologies, including paper, handwriting, and the dry erase board. I invited students to write letters to me, first on what motivates them in their work, then on their expectations for the course. I answered questions about the course and about myself.

For me, one of the highlight of the week was an icebreaker that invited students to find three things that they shared in common. These three things needed to go beyond the mundane. For instance, the groups could not say that they were all students, all studying at the same university, and all enrolled in this writing class. After several minutes in groups of 2-4 students, the smaller groups were asked to join with another group, and to repeat the exercise, this time finding five common attributes among them.

I participated in this activity in a community diversity discussion group at our local public library. Unlike the library group, which included high school students and retirees, most of my students are the same age and are beginning their second semester on our university’s largest campus. But at the same time, similar to the diversity group, the students are diverse in ethnic, language, racial, and social class backgrounds. The similarities they found ranged from having dogs in their lives, having traveled out of the country, and liking to cook—especially grilled cheese sandwiches.

The icebreaker is an introduction to the idea of synthesis, finding commonalities beneath the surface of obvious differences. We live in a moment when synthesis is not much practiced in our lives outside the classroom. It seems as if we are in the midst of composing an ongoing comparison/contrast essay, focusing on what divides us, what separates us, what makes us deeply different and isolated from each other. In a sense, comparison/contrast is an easy approach because these differences seem obvious, on the surface, readily available.

The similarities are more difficult to find, but perhaps not as uncommon as we have been led to believe. The imperfect rectangle allowed us to slow down to find these connections. In the past in that classroom building, the students sat in rows, all pointed toward the teacher, the computer, and the screen as the centers of attention. Many students sat in the back row, and saw only the backs of their classmates as well. The imperfect rectangle shifted that center. Like Socratic dialogue in high school, a student remarked.  

The winter desert sunlight played on the tabletops. A new semester had begun.

Key words: #first day activity #icebreaker #first-year writing #synthesis #community

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.