A conversation that teachers often have are about the purpose of bell ringer activities. I’ve known teachers who swear by their phenomenal bell ringers, while others question every opening activity that they try. The difference I notice most: The reasoning behind it.
By the book
When I first started teaching, I was told of the importance of effective bell ringers. “It was vital to my success,” they explained, “in creating a transition from the bell to seated desk work to lecture/activity. You have to have something to start the class with!“
Unfortunately, I had no idea what that looked like in practice. So I went by the book!
My warm-ups in years 1-3 were incredibly boring. They were taken directly from workbooks. As an English and Reading teacher, it was often a grammar practice or vocabulary filler.
These bell ringers failed for the following reasons:
- They had no connection to the course
- It was not relevant or interesting to students
- There was no shared purpose or reason for them to be completed
- They did not serve as a powerful transition to lesson
Bell Ringers That Work!
Soon, I got sick of the time wasted on bell ringers. It became a constant battle of getting the class quiet so they could focus on the material on the projector. Then, they would do it, I would explain the right answer, and they would get a grade for putting something on their paper.
Seeing no purpose or benefit, I decided to start from the beginning. Why do we do bell ringers?
As I questioned the practice, I began to rewrite my definition of a warm-up. Here’s what I decided on:
Bell ringers exist to spark joy in my students and shared experience for our classroom.
Why that definition? Because I started evaluating what was really important. If a bell ringer is just a transitional activity, it has to serve that purpose. When my students had their curiosity ignited and their joy was sparked, they performed better throughout class and were more prepared to continue learning.
Along with that necessary element of joy, shared experience created a culture where learning together was cool, important, and accepted.
Spark Joy. Share Experience. Those became the defining practices of my bell ringers. If students enjoyed it and it gave us as a class something to experience and learn from together, it was a winner.
Putting it to Practice
With this new definition, I was able to create stronger bell ringer activities. While I cycled through many ideas, I eventually went with Ted Talks. The rules were simple… I sorted the talks by 6 minutes or less in length, and by most popular.
Each day, I picked a random topic from the list and we would watch it and reflect on it together (both out loud and with journaling).
This became a simple 5-10 minute warm-up practice. But it became so much more powerful than that. Why? Because now we were learning and reflecting together. We would solve a riddle, or speculate on why the speaker felt the way they did. We created joy in learning (random topics) and a shared experience where all of our perspectives mattered and were valued.
How should you practice bell ringers? It’s totally up to you! But please, throw out the boring workbook practice. See what happens when you revolve your warmups around sparked joy and shared experience. You will see stronger transitions, more interested and engaged learners, and you will have more fun as the teacher in the room!
Read next: Teaching with Think-Alouds