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Plugged Into Learning

Five tips for maximizing the first five minutes of class:

Picture students piling into your classroom and diving straight into their work. This might sound like a crazy daydream, but it doesn't have to be. With a solid routine and some engaging activities, you can get your students plugged into learning within the first five minutes of each class period.

1. Implement Bellringers or Entry Tasks

Setting up a routine is easy. The key is consistency. Middle school students need to develop habits and have clear expectations or the conversation they were having in the hallway will HAVE to be finished at their desks (Is Sarah SERIOUSLY dating Adam AGAIN?!).

At the beginning of the school year, get your routine into place so students know exactly what to do. Keep it the same for at least a few weeks, then you can start spicing things up a bit. For the most part, I recommend consistency. When kids know your expectations for the first five minutes of class (grab your binder, open to your bellringer journal or entry task, get started, be ready to review when the timer goes off in five minutes), your chances of them actually following through on the routine are pretty good.

2. Connect to Real Learning

Students complete bellringers at the start of each class to help them plug into learning.

Bellringers can be the same way: well intentioned but really just busy work. I strongly believe that entry tasks and bellringers need to be directly connected to meaningful learning and standards. Think of the skills and standards you are targeting in the lesson for that day, and tie your bellringer directly to that skill or standard.

I used to have my students write learning targets in a journal, but I found simply copying a standard didn't connect to much meaningful learning (although I did really like the growth of academic vocabulary that resulted). Instead, I found that students needed a quick five minute or less warm-up question or activity that worked as an appetizer for the main learning course. I want my students to get their feet wet, test out what they know, show what they need help with, and then our entire lesson that follows will be more meaningful.

"Plugged in" means my kids know that today we will focus on citing text evidence, for

example. This is what it looks like on a small scale. This is what we know. This is what we need to know. A good bellringer will give students and teachers all of that information.

3. Make Bellringers Engaging

Last school year, I set a goal to get kids on their feet and moving as much as possible. It was more fun for the kids and more fun for me, too. Kids were involved and engaged when they had a task that involved getting out of their seats and moving through their work.

Bellringer time is a great chance to get kids on their feet. Here are a few ideas for helping kids learn and stretch their legs:

  • Sticky note bellringers: To get kids on their feet, have them write their bellringer responses on a sticky note and post it to the SmartBoard or another location at the front of the

classroom. It is so simple to adapt any bellringer to a sticky note task, and kids love it! Once students have posted, read through answers and discuss as a class. Answers will be anonymous, so students who might normally be hesitant to share in class will be a part of the conversation through their sticky note. Sticky note bellringers have led to some of my best class discussions. They allow me to see exactly where my students' understanding lies before we dive into a lesson.

  • Musical Shares: After answering bellringers, play music. Students will walk around and maybe even dance their way through the room (think of your classroom as the intro to The Ellen Show). When the music stops, they find the closest partner and share their answer to the bellringer. Not only does this set a fun tone, the focus is still on participating in the learning. I highly recommend participating in this activity with your students--they will love to see you share your best moves!

4. Build Metacognitive Skills

The highest level thinking skill on the Bloom's Taxonomy framework is evaluation. There is also a growing wealth of information about the importance of metacognitive skills (students being aware and thinking about their own learning--see an article on the topic here). Bellringers are a great time for students to evaluate their own learning and identify what they know and what they still need to learn. Doing so also gives them a greater purpose as they head into your lesson.

  • Sticky Note Data: Dedicate a bulletin board in your classroom to student-led data analysis (can you imagine your students doing your data work for you?!). Label the bulletin board with the standards running along one side and levels of understanding running along the other (basically it will look like a giant bar graph). You could choose to display all standards, but I find it best to focus on 3-8 power standards or priority learning standards for the school year. Students write their name on a sticky note and place their sticky note at their level of understanding after each bellringer. As they work on bellringers for that standard, they move their note to reflect their growing understanding. Create a culture of learning and growth mindset where it's okay to maintain the same level of learning for a few lessons, it's okay to realize you're not as far as you thought you were, and it's celebrated when you notice your learning grow.

  • Fist to Five: In Fist to Five, students hold up their hands using their fingers to indicate their level of understanding after they complete their bellringers. It's a quick and easy activity, and it will give you a strong understanding of students’ levels. Remind students to maintain a positive, supporting atmosphere and to think with a growth mindset.

  • Student Tracking: My students use a simple data-tracking form that is part of their bellringer journal (see pic). After each bellringer, students complete a quick (30 second!) self-assessment rating their understanding. I love this method because students become much more aware of their growth. They can see it happening as they track it in their journal. My goal is that the external tracking becomes internalized and students grow more aware of their learning overall.

5. Allow Students to do the Work of Learning

We should never find ourselves doing the most talking, activity, or learning in our classrooms. It is the job of the student to do the work of learning and the teacher facilitates that with his or her expertise. Confession: my greatest fault as a teacher has been talking too much (exhibit A: the length of this blog post!).

With bellringers, let your kids do the work of learning, then let them do the talking about it. Circulate and listen, then allow students to share their answers and guide each other through the exploration of the question.

I love using Write, Pair, Share with bellringer responses. Students simply complete their bellringer independently, then share their response with a student partner. Once conversations die down, I cold call on students to share their response with the whole class. Giving students the opportunity to share responses with a partner BEFORE whole class sharing allows them to adjust their answers and think through answers more thoroughly. Cold calling students reminds me to stick to calling out names and maybe guiding some response or prompting the discussion further, but I aim to talk the least out of everyone in the room.

What are your favorite ways to build routine from the start of the school year? Do you have a method of implementing bellringers that will knock our students' socks off? Please share in the comments section below. Happy learning!


Standards Based Bellringer Journals for Grades 6-8 ELA

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