Rethinking the Bell Ringer—How a Common Routine Might be Sabotaging Your Classroom Culture

Known by a variety of names: Bell Ringer, Do Now, Warm Up, or Daily Work, this management tool can serve the general function of helping students engage with learning, enter into the mindset of a specific content area, and provide some time at the beginning of class for teachers to take attendance and perform related class business.  When done correctly, it is purposeful. And it should continue.

So if its usefulness is not in question, what’s the problem? Well, to speak plainly, it’s very possible that the bell ringer—or more specifically, the way it’s being implemented—is threatening all the work you’ve done to establish a positive classroom culture.

While the Do Now expectation may send a message of academic focus and bell-to-bell instruction, it also can work against the social nature of students. It’s not honoring their humanity, in that it doesn’t recognize the impossibility of being academically focused for all but a few minutes every few hours. Furthermore, it actually contradicts the value you’ve placed on collaboration and connection by not giving students time for either.

Consider This Common Scenario:

Bell Ringer task: Featured on the board.

Teacher: Stationed at the doorway monitoring the hallway and welcoming students

Students: Entering class. Leaving a crowded hallway. Trying to beat the bell. Enjoying the very small break between classes to talk with friends, check their devices, etc.

Teacher: Reminding students from the hallway of the expectation to complete the Do Now.

Students: Responding in a variety of ways, but generally ignoring the teacher, not out of malice but because they’re focused on their friends.

Class Begins

Teacher: Enters from the hallway and says his/her first words to students: There’s a warm up on the board,” OR “Let’s go guys. You know what you should be doing now.” OR “THREE MINUTES!!!” (Yes, the caps lock is meant to convey shouting).

Students: Some are still settling. Others are finished. A few are just now arriving.

Teacher: Continuing to remind and correct and give directions.

Classroom tone: Frazzled. Frustrated. And maybe even a bit hostile.

Why would we choose to start our classes this way every day?  There is a better way.

Let’s be fair. In some classrooms, this process works flawlessly. Students are greeted warmly by the teacher, come in and say hello to their classmates while they’re sitting down, and then begin working quietly. The bell rings and the students complete their work. A well-oiled machine of a class, commendable in many ways. This educator has spent time teaching, modeling, and reinforcing routines, and students have internalized them. There is truly a lot to celebrate here.

But two issues remain: 1. This is almost never what actually happens. 2. Even if it were, should it be what we expect?

On the first point, it’s important to discuss what typically occurs in the vast majority of classrooms. Students acknowledge their teachers’ greetings, enter the classroom, and begin socializing with friends. They may engage in a few expected behaviors, like having a seat or grabbing a textbook, but most sit or stand with their peers. They check their phones. They talk about the last class, or the football game, or the girl who said such and such about so and so. And in most classrooms, there’s a Do Now clearly posted on the board. And students don’t do it.

And teachers bellow from the hallway something like, “There’s a warm up on the board,” OR “Excuse me. Let’s get to work on the Do Now.”

Ok, I appreciate the effort at reminding students of your expectations, but think about what’s happening here.

Your first words to your students today are being shouted in their general direction. They are words of correction and discipline. As such, they do not set a tone of welcome or compassion. Rather, they create a combativeness right from the beginning. You’re asking students to do something that you can’t fully monitor, that they likely don’t really want to do, and that doesn’t take into account their social nature.

If the first words my principal said to me every day were corrective in nature, how likely would I be to love coming to work?

Let’s talk about this other major reality: Class hasn’t started yet! Consider this from a student’s perspective.

I’m here early, and it’s like I’m in trouble. I have to get right to work. No time for talking or laughing or checking in with my friends. Meanwhile, the kids who are standing in the halls talking with their friends are going to rush in here right before the bell and still have the full amount of time to complete this. So why should I either 1. Arrive early or 2. Do this now?

This is a completely valid response, and it’s probably coming from some of your more agreeable students.

If the kids doing exactly what you want aren’t buying in to your routine, something has gotta give. The alternative? Classroom culture sabotage.

Can we also discuss the fact that very few adults would abide by our bell ringer/Do Now policy?

How many faculty meetings have you walked into and begun doing a warm up? Even though you arrived early? And even though the bosses are not there yet? And even though you haven’t had a chance to engage socially with another adult in several hours? Exactly. Probably none. And why not? Because this is not normal behavior. Right?

What is normal is to arrive on time and to engage in social interactions until the meeting is called to order by the person in charge. This indicates that the meeting has begun and that participants should adopt a work-oriented mindset.

Here, we have the second argument against the bell ringer: Even if it’s working flawlessly, it doesn’t honor students’ social nature.

Classroom cultures that disregard the importance of making time for collaborating and building relationships are very likely not as positive, motivating, or productive as those that do.

So what should we do?

A Better Way

Rather than having students come in and begin working right away, let’s modify our expectations.

Let’s focus on having students be READY. What does ready look like in your classroom? Well, it looks like whatever you (and in some cases, your students) decide will best help them begin learning when class starts.  * Note: You don’t have to use the word “ready.” Use whatever word communicates a sense of urgency and focus and even fun. Let your personality shine here.

In my classroom, READY looks like this:

  • All students are seated.
  • Binders and/or journals and pens are on desks.
  • Electronic devices are away.
  • Backpacks are under desks.

When I enter the classroom, I stand square with my class and greet them with a “Good Morning or Happy Monday or How are you? Thanks so much for being on time and ready.” If there are a few students who aren’t quite there yet, rather than “calling them out,” I simply review what READY is with a focus on what’s missing. “I appreciate you having your electronics away and backpacks under your desk….and (because they’re doing this) thanks for continuing to do well with being seated with your binders out.”

Next, I might take a moment to check in with them to see how things are going. Maybe I’ll ask about what they did over their long weekend or about how the big dance went. Or about whether they took advantage of free coffee day on their way into school. We’ll have a brief conversation, just enough to remind ourselves that we care about being whole people, and not just students and teachers, and then we’ll get to work. I’ll review the agenda and the day’s objectives/essential questions.

Now—and not until now— it’s time for the warm up, which I can now explain, clarify, and begin by saying, “Any questions? Ok, you have ____ minutes. Begin.”

What Have You Lost Here?

Honestly, not much. Except maybe some tension and conflict right at the beginning of your class. Some will say, “No, you’ve lost the extra 1-2 minutes it now takes to start class.” Not true. Because in most cases, those 1-2 minutes were being used telling kids to get ready, redirecting them, and explaining directions to all the students who walked in right at the bell.

Ok, fair enough: Asking them how they’re doing isn’t content based, but it is culture-oriented. And meaningful content doesn’t happen in an unhealthy culture.

You’ve also lost having students completely focused on academics from the moment they walked in. But as we’ve said: They probably wouldn’t have been focused on the academics anyway. And why should they be? We want them to be social at appropriate times. The five or six minutes between class IS an appropriate time.

What Have You Gained?

You’ve clarified an expectation that helps you and your students accomplish the goals of your classroom.

You’ve treated students well by welcoming them, asking about their lives, thanking them for what they’ve done well, giving them a focus for the day, and offering clear instructions with a definite and shared starting point.

You’ve cultivated harmonious relationships by setting clear expectations and offering appropriate praise when these processes are followed, rather than correcting and chiding students before class even begins.

You’ve created a warmer and more focused environment by having a clear beginning to class and by offering a picture of what the plan is for the day, clear instructions for their first activity, and a clear framework for how to do it.

This is a win.

How Can You Apply this Tomorrow?

First things first, explain your rationale. You could say something like:

“I think we should revisit how we start class. I’ve been thinking that it might make sense to let you guys have more time to talk with and check in with each other, rather than having to get right to work as soon as you enter the room.” Show some empathy by saying, “I know I enjoy having time to talk with other teachers in between classes, and I’m sure after being in a class for ____ # of minutes, you probably need a little down time.   So what if we change things up a bit?” (YOU WILL HAVE 100% buy in right now).

Now, explain the change:

“So rather than doing a bell ringer/do now as soon as you enter, we’re going to just focus on being READY to learn.”

Now, your choice here could be to poll the class to ask them what they think should constitute being READY. Or you can simply tell them what it looks like.

Whichever method you choose, you should have the steps written down so that they can be referenced while you say them. And to be very clear, you can point to each step as you state it.

As you tell them what READY is, give them time to do what you’ve said. For instance, if you start with, “Being ready means having your notebooks out,” then say, “Do this now.”

Once all students have their notebooks out, tell them the next step, continuing the process until they’re completely ready.

Then practice. Use a timer and see if they can get faster at entering the room and getting ready. The incentive of being ready faster is more time to relax and visit with friends and knowing that they’re meeting the class expectations.

Now that they’re ready, you can start class the way you will from now on: By greeting them and asking how they’re doing, reviewing the agenda and objectives and then beginning the warm up (what was previously the bell ringer).

Some Tips

All of this interaction should happen with you stationed in front of and squared up with the students. It’s friendly but focused time, and your posture will indicate that class has started and directions are about to be given.

When you explain the warm up, clearly review the activity verbally while directing students’ attention to the written directions. Be sure to explain how the warm up connects with the day’s lesson.

Now, ask if there are any questions.

Set a time limit for the warm up. And clearly begin the warm up by saying, “Go, or “Begin” or “Show me what you’ve got.” Or whatever phrase you like; the idea is that it has to be clear.

When time runs out, hold students accountable. You can collect papers from all or some (randomly chosen students). You can ask them to share with a partner or group and then call on a few (randomly again) to report out to the class. You can move around and place stamps on their work. But you’ve got to deal with it in some way.

If it’s only a tool for you to get attendance done, your students will resist it. It must have connection with their learning.

In doing these things, you will accomplish the goals that should be at the heart of all classroom structures: helping students engage with content and cultivating a positive culture.

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