Bell-Ringers in Middle and High English

I first realized the power of bell ringers years ago, thanks to a particularly unruly class that would bounce off my walls after lunch. After consistently wasting the first ten minutes of class getting students seated, settled, and ready to learn, I decided to give bell-ringers a try.  They were immediately a classroom game-changer.

Bell-ringers—sometimes referred to as “warm ups” or “do nows”— are questions, tasks, or other warm up activities that students complete at the beginning of class (or when the bell rings, as the name suggests.) They jump start student learning, calm classroom chaos, reduce uncertainty, and make transitions smoother, all the while allowing the teacher to maximize their time and maintain their sanity. 

I’m here to share the benefits of using a bell-ringer routine in your classroom, tips and strategies to implement them effectively, and answers to your most commonly asked questions.  I'm also sharing free bell-ringers that will last you a couple months! 

1) Extra time at the beginning of class

Bell-ringers give teachers the gift of time.   In those 5-10 minutes, you can take attendance, get papers ready and/or passed out, prepare tech, catch up with students who have been absent, or even prepare for your next period. 

2) Improved classroom routine and classroom management

As students transition from class to class, they tend to get amped up from hallway antics. Bell-ringers improve the transition back into the academic setting and establish a consistent routine and minimize classroom management issues.  There is a lot of uncertainty in a teenager’s world, and though they may not admit it, students crave predictability and routine.  After the routine is established, you’ll even find that students will get started on the bell-ringer BEFORE the bell even rings, as they know exactly what is expected of them. 

3) A chance to practice ELA skills and assess and review standards

By using bell-ringers at the start of class, you are taking advantage of an extra opportunity to practice the ELA skills and meet standards you have been diligently working on throughout the year. Bell-ringers are perfect for putting what you’ve taught to the test in a creative, fun, low-pressure way.  Given that they aren’t heavily graded on the bell-ringers (or not at all), the pressure often associated with other tasks is alleviated. 

1. Mix up your bell-ringer each day 

If you are using the same bell-ringers every single day, students will likely grow tired of them. I like to have themed days for each of the bell-ringers that will address a specific skill. Below are some of the types of bell-ringers you might consider using:

  • Improve word choice
  • Locate figurative language
  • Have a short discussion with a partner
  • Watch a short video clip and write a personal response to a prompt
  • Infer the meaning of new words in context
  • Correct grammar errors
  • Have a mini-debate with a partner
  • Use a picture to spark narrative writing

I liked to use each of my year-long volumes of bell-ringers to have different activities for each day.  You can try four free weeks by clicking on the image below to see if they might work for you.  

2.  Give students a fun challenge

Another way to mix up your bell-ringers is to set a challenge at the start of the week and have students progressively work towards a solution on Friday.  My favorite way to do this is with escape room bell-ringer challenges.  

When you use an escape room bell-ringer, students are given a back story on Monday where they find themselves in a situation (dungeon, alien planet, military bunker, scientist study etc.).  They work with their group for the first 5-10 minutes of class to progressively move through different floors, rooms, chambers, and cells each day to solve ELA related puzzles.  Their goal?  To successfully escape by the end of the week.

Want to try a bell-ringer challenge with your students?  Grab a free figurative language bell-ringer activity below as a fun way to start one of your classes.    

2. Model a Good Response
Spend the first days  explaining the daily bell-ringer activity for that day and even show them what a strong response looks like for each different bell-ringer activity you do. Taking this time at the beginning will get you better responses from the students as the year goes on. 

3.  Set specific expectations and procedures 

From day 1, you’ll want to demonstrate exactly how things are going to play out. Start by literally walking them through the process of entering the classroom and retrieving their bell-ringer booklets or binder.  Once they are completed their work, you might think of getting them to hold onto their booklets and putting them back at the end.  I would recommend not doing this as typically someone will accidentally take it home or the booklets will get destroyed since they all are eager to leave and are throwing the booklets on the shelf (real life teaching, right?) 

That’s why I would suggest you establish a system for collecting the bell-ringer booklets after they are done, and go through it with them a few times to practice. You wouldn’t think something as simple as collecting the booklets would be an issue, but having a plan makes things run so much more smoothly. 

If you use a standard classroom set up (desks in a row or pairs): 
Have each row turn around to collect the booklets from the row behind them and move them all forward until they are in the front row.  Select one student to collect them all from the front row and put them back in the proper spot.   

If your desks are set up in groups: 
Have one member from each group be responsible for collecting the booklets, and have all groups pass them over to the group closest to where to store them.  Have one person put them all back.  

On the first day, I practice this 2-3 times and set a timer to see how fast they can do it (I tell them they are in competition with the other classes). This makes it fun, but it also establishes a routine, and set a precedent to strive for throughout the year and it makes collecting the booklets quick and efficient.

1. Should I grade bell-ringers? Won't that make more work for me?
Listen, the LAST thing I want to do is add more paper to an English teachers' pile! Bell-ringers are a type of formative assessment that do not need to be graded. They are a quick way for students to practice and develop ELA skills. I did add a quick check rubric on the bottom of some of my student handouts because I personally used this to keep students accountable and motivated to complete the work to the best of their ability. I would tell them that one week out of the month would be graded, but they wouldn't know which week (insert evil laughter 😉). This lessened my grading, but I also liked peeking at them monthly to see who was completing the work well and where I needed to focus my instruction.

2. How long should you spend on bell-ringers?
For me, bell-ringers would typically take an about 5-10 minutes to complete. The time will vary depending on what type of bell-ringer you are completing. Some people like a quick 5 minute bell-ringer, others like to dive in a little deeper and spend more time as it pertains to their lesson.  If students are improving the word choice in a passage or practicing labelling figurative language, it may only take a quick 5 minutes. However, if they are discussing an ethical prompt or watching a video clip and writing a response, it may take closer to 10. It's important to remember though that sometimes your students will be totally engaged in a bell-ringer, and you may end up spending more time than you thought on it. This is not wasted time! The content still relates to your curriculum and helps students hone their writing, reading, speaking, and listening skills. Sometimes an unplanned part of a lesson is where the best learning happens.
3. How do you manage all the paper?
Here is my fool-proof system. A word of caution: don't let them take their bell-ringer binder home! It's an absolute nightmare waiting to happen 😂.
  • Have each student purchase a small 1 inch binder to hold all of the bell-ringer response sheets (or use a three-clasp folder).  
  • Have students write their name in big bold letters on the spine (or the front if it is a folder). Having a variety of colors of binders/folders is better so they can find theirs more easily.
  • Put a bookcase somewhere near the door of your room.
  • Assign each class an area of the bookcase.  Tell students they will grab the binder when they enter, and it will go back on that shelf when the bell-ringer is done.! This makes it easy to find their binder the next day.
4. Will using bell-ringers help my classroom management?
Yes, routines are your friend! I learned fairly quickly in my teaching career that expected procedures are necessary for survival when it comes to classroom management. Bell-ringers set the tone in the first few minutes of class and help students transition back into work mode after a break period. I was literally wasting the first 5-10 minutes of class quieting my students down and preparing to get started. After starting a bell-ringer routine, they immediately started working when they entered! 
5. Should I do bell-ringers every day or just on some days? 
Personally, I think it is better to bell-ringers every day and stick to the routine.  When you are always skipping the bell-ringer or only doing them here and there, students lose that consistency, and you won't see the classroom management benefits.  You can certainly make it work if you don't want to do it every day, but if you do this, I might suggest writing on the board or projecting a slide to say if there is a bell-ringer that day.  This way you don't have to constantly answer the question, "Is there a bell-ringer today?"
Still have questions about using bell-ringers successfully in the classroom? Don't hesitate to reach out! I'd love to hear from you.

Need more bell-ringer ideas?  The bloggers of the coffee shop have you covered! 

Growth Mindset Bell Ringers from The Daring English Teacher 
Daily Career Writing Prompts from The Classroom Sparrow
Bell-Ringer Journal Prompts from Tracee Orman 
Collaborative Bell-Ringers from Nouvelle ELA

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