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Breaking a tough crowd
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 06/10/2008

Bouchard Bueller? Bueller? It’s hard to forget the dusty, bone-dry, high school teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Whether he’s droning through attendance or a lesson, he repeatedly fails to elicit any response from his comatose classroom. The students stare with absolute boredom, with one even too apathetic to scrape a burst of bubblegum from her face.

“There are times where you can be in the absolute basement of apathy from students,” says Joe Bouchard, a corrections and psychology instructor for Michigan-based Gogebic Community College. “Sometimes you feel like a talking head. I find that teaching in corrections especially.”

To wake up sleepy or indifferent students, one technique instructors rely on is icebreakers, which are activities aimed to jumpstart classroom participation. In The Correctional Trainer, the quarterly journal from the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel, trainers throughout the field submit their own activities to share in the “Icebreaker 101” column. Bouchard, the journal’s editor, decided to create a one-stop shopping resource for trainers by compiling them into a book, IACTP’s Icebreakers 101.

“In corrections there is theory and practice, and the classroom brings both of those together,” Bouchard says. “Training is crucial in keeping the community, prisoners and staff safe. Icebreakers are important in keeping training active and alive and memorable.”

The book offers twenty-six ideas from ten different authors. It is the first volume in what Bouchard hopes will become a series of icebreaker books.

“When you make a breakthrough with a class, whether using an icebreaker or not, it’s like the planets aligning,” he says. “It’s the absolute pinnacle of the teacher experience.”

The icebreakers in Bouchard’s book aren’t only for the classroom. Speaking to a crowd of seasoned corrections professionals at tradeshows or conferences can present its own set of pitfalls. Bouchard, who is also the librarian at Michigan’s Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility, has first-hand experience with these tough crowds.

“When I go on the road and present at a professional conference, I find I have to sell myself within the first couple of minutes,” he explains. “These are serious people who are trained observers. They can see through someone who’s fronting or selling a lie a mile away. You have to grab them or knock them out with something strange or more unusual in the first couple of minutes.”

Starting with a scenario that the audience might encounter at their facility is one way to break through.

“One of the icebreakers I wrote is about how to build a shank,” adds Bouchard. “It’s about a careless colleague who leaves things lying around for prisoners to pick up and use to their advantage. This colleague has left keys out, blurted out his social security number over the phone, even left out transfer orders. One time he leaves out a small metal tin of mints. I split the class into groups and give each group a tin and other materials inmates have access to in a prison environment. Then I guide them through how shanks or knives can be made.”

From shanks to stories, the inspiration to create icebreakers seems limitless.

“I use Dr. Seuss in the classroom too,” Bouchard explains. “Seuss encapsulates so many simple ideas, basically how grandma or grandpa said you should act, but tell them in fun way. Reading a child’s story captures the imagination. It’s never belittling and never condescending. I have yet to have a group walk out or throw anything.”

These activities don’t have to involve props or detailed scenarios. A series of simple but offbeat questions can help instructors find group leaders or volunteers out of a class.

“You can pick out a volunteer by asking the group who has the most letters in their first name, who is wearing specific color, or who recently baked a cake,” Bouchard says. “The person who ‘wins’ gets to volunteer. You can ask strange things you might never think of, like who drives the oldest car? It’s fun and ultimately the participants get to know a bit about one another.”

“These are field-tested,” Bouchard adds about the techniques in. IACTP’s Icebreakers 101 “I really stand behind them. I’ve had a lot of fun with them.”

Related Resources:

More on IACTP

Order the book

Watch the Ferris Bueller economics lesson



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