ARTICLE

Ding! Start Your Class off Right!

Bell ringers jump-start student learning and take the chaos out of the beginning of class.

Transitions in and out of class can pose some challenging moments. From directing hallway traffic to eliminating unsupervised classroom corners, teachers must have some tricks up their sleeves to artfully close one lesson and begin the next without incident.

These transitions also present some of the most difficult minutes of the day for students who must navigate their routines while also negotiating friendships, fitting in, family concerns, athletics, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs and academics. At any given time in the school day, a student could be thinking about dozens of topics. Teachers can reduce some of the uncertainty surrounding transitions by using bell ringers.

Bell ringers are warm-up activities that students complete at the beginning of class—when the bell rings—while teachers take attendance, pass out materials or briefly catch up with students who have been absent. This strategy allows teachers to utilize every minute of class time while taking care of “housekeeping,” and also serves to jump-start student success by guiding thinking toward learning objectives, helping students quiet the many competing topics on their minds. Bell ringers also offer opportunities to introduce social justice or anti-bias topics and to empower students who may not normally speak up in class. 

To design a bell ringer: (1) Think about what students need to know to find success in your lesson; (2) Tease out the skill(s) required to accomplish that learning; (3) Ask students to practice that skill by responding to a question, completing a short writing assignment or drawing an illustration. Students come in to class and immediately begin work that connects to class outcomes, giving them time to “pre-game” while settling in.

The first few times you implement bell ringers into your class, practice with directions before expecting students to own the activity independently. Establish consistent and dependable norms and routines. For example, a language arts teacher may use journal entries as his bell ringer activity. He begins by establishing an expectation with his class community that each student will have a separate notebook dedicated to journal writing; he makes journal prompts consistently visible in the same location of the classroom; and, he clearly communicates the time limits and writing expectations ahead of time. 

Daily oral language, or DOL, is another commonly used warm-up activity in language arts classrooms. In DOL exercises, students fix grammatical errors in sentences chosen to reflect mini-lesson topics or commonly observed errors in student writing. Brainteasers and logic puzzles are other great ways to get students’ brains working. Propose a hypothesis for students to disprove in science, or have students identify everything they know about a particular region of the world in geography. Take it a step further and connect the activity to a real-world issue in their communities to build agency and help students safely develop critical thinking skills. Do these things every day.

Just like students become accustomed to classroom practices, such as raising hands and exit tickets, students come to expect a warm-up activity to start the class; these routine procedures and clear expectations can help create a classroom community where all students feel they can be successful. The opportunity to communicate ideas without the pressure of grading or evaluation is also empowering—for students learning English, for shy students and for students who may struggle in school.

Bell ringers can’t solve all the pitfalls of transition time, but they can remove some of the chaos and uncertainty while optimizing every minute of your class time.

Ever tried a bell ringer based on a social justice or anti-bias topic? Tell us about it in the comments!

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.