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3 tips for using bell ringers to engage students and help them master the standards of ELA

Sure, middle schoolers have the potential to devour their teachers whole if we let them, but with the right routines in place, lots of learning and exciting adventures in the middle school classroom are possible (I promise!).

My number one secret after over twenty years in the 7th grade ELA classroom is bell ringers. Bell ringers are not new but there are different variations, and I’ve found the best bell ringers work to frame each lesson. Bell ringers are a great way to start your class and get middle school students engaged in standards-based learning. They can also help create routine and structure in your classroom.

Here are some additional tips for using bell ringers effectively:

1. Make sure bell ringers are aligned with your lesson plans.

Using bell ringers that are standards based is key! This means that the bell ringer should be related to the topic that you will be teaching that day. For example, if students are working on citing text based evidence, choose a bell ringer that helps students either define or practice this skill.

Notice how the bell ringers below are based on standard RL.2 and could easily connect to a lesson on that skill:

The best bell ringers work as warm ups to student learning by tapping into prior knowledge, working to build on it and make connections. Show students how the bell ringer is relevant to their learning by displaying the standard and discussing how the bell ringer connects to that day’s work.

A closer look:

You can check out the standards based bell ringer journals I use with my students for free here.

2. Make bell ringers a routine.

Start each class with the expectation that students get to their seats and begin their bell ringer. Use a timer to keep kids on track. Keep bell ringers short and to the point, no more than 5-10 minutes long. If your classes are short like mine (42 minutes!), sticking to a five minute bell ringer is key. Add timers to your bell ringers (these Google Slides bell ringers for middle school ELA have built in timers) or display a YouTube timer. I like the ambiance timers here, here, and here. This timer is "groovy" and fun for a little change!

Make the expectation clear that students must try to complete the bell ringer by the time five minutes is up. If students are confused with the task, create an atmosphere where students can ask for help rather than stare at a blank page. Encourage reluctant students by reading them the bell ringer aloud and making sure they understand what to do. Provide modeling, examples, and even sentence starters. Fast finishers can also help students who may be reluctant.

Using the think, pair, share model is also a great tool to get all students involved. Here’s how it works: After the bell ringer timer goes off, instruct students to share answers with a peer sitting next to them. Explain that after sharing, ALL students must have answers to share (either their own or an answer they learned from working with their peers). End the bell ringer by sharing answers as a whole class.

You might choose to collect bell ringers every now and then to check individual student progress (I never grade them as a summative, but I do leave feedback to let students know if they need to work to improve).

3. Use a variety of bell ringers to keep students engaged OR use the bell ringers you have in new and interesting ways.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Sticky note bell ringers: To get kids on their feet, have them write their bell ringer responses on a sticky note and post it to the Smart Board or another location at the front of the classroom.

  • Fist to Five: After students complete their bell ringer, ask them to share their understanding using fist to five. Students hold up their hands using their fingers to indicate their level of understanding. This will give you a strong understanding of students’ levels. Remind students to maintain a positive, supporting atmosphere and to think with a growth mindset. Ask student volunteers to share their rating and questions/feedback they have.

  • Musical Shares: After answering bell ringers, play music. Students will walk around, dance their way through the room. When the music stops, they find the closest partner and share their answer to the bell ringer.

  • Sticky Note Data: Students write their name on a sticky note. They place their name on a bulletin board that you create ahead of time labeled with the standard students are working on. Students place their sticky note at their level of understanding. As they work on bell ringers for that standard each day, they move their note to reflect their growing understanding.

Using a variety of bell ringers will help to keep students interested and engaged. Here are some bell ringer ideas to engage students in new ways:

  • Make bell ringers social and interactive! Try this: when practicing a skill, task students with doing a quick write for their bell ringer. For the next day’s bell ringer, task students with exchanging quick writes and writing one thing their partner did well and one question they have.

  • GoGoMo: For one bell ringer, task students with writing a list of ideas related to a topic. For the next day’s bell ringer, task students with getting up, giving one idea to a partner and getting one idea from a partner to expand their list. Repeat over and over for five minutes so students can build their lists.

  • Collect data on how students are responding to bell ringers to make sure they are effective. My favorite way to collect bell ringer data is to have students rate their own understanding each day during the week. On Fridays, I ask them to circle their best bell ringer from the week for feedback. I collect the whole week of bell ringers along with students’ self assessments.

Bell ringers should only be a formative assessment of student learning, but they can provide important information about how much students understand and how their understanding is growing as they work to master a specific skill or standard.

Bell ringers can be a great way to help students master the standards and create a healthy routine. Free up cognitive space by letting kids know exactly what to expect each day. By following these tips, you can use bell ringers to create a positive and productive learning environment in your classroom.

Grab The Ultimate Standards Based Bell Ringer Journal for Middle School ELA here. Try a free sample of standards based bell ringers here.

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