Bell Ringer Exercises | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Because of pressure to teach bell-to-bell -- the pedagogical equivalent of force-feeding geese to make foie gras -- many classrooms now start with bell work, short exercises that students complete while the instructor attends to attendance and other administrative chores. Journal prompts and concept questions can focus students on nutritious academic content and initiate a positive tempo for the next 90 minutes of class.

With the help of graduate student David Fictum, I collected several creative, practical and entertaining exercises that can function as bell ringers or sponge activities. Here they are:


Education über-blogger Vicki Davis writes 20 things she is thankful for in a joy journal, citing research studies indicating that this practice produces greater long-term happiness than winning the lottery -- serious happy. Some of my students volunteered to write joy journals before each class this semester. After five minutes, I ask if anyone in the class wishes to share good news. Each announcement earns a 3-2-1 clap.

Lateral Thinking

Brain Food lists number and logic puzzles. Even better are its lateral thinking puzzles.

Situation: A man marries 20 women in his village but isn't charged with polygamy. How come?
Answer: He's a priest -- he's marrying them to other people, not to himself.

Pop Culture

"Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations," according to TVTropes, a wiki that houses hundreds of these figurative concepts. In the tempting fate trope, for example, the hero says, "At least it's not raining." An instant later, she's drenched. Have students identify horror movie or police procedural tropes, then reveal the answers from TVTropes to see how many they selected.

Challenge students to deduce whether a story is true, a scam or an urban legend, using scenarios featured in TruthorFiction, Hoax Busters and Snopes. Despite video evidence, Bruce Lee never played ping pong with nunchaku -- but he could have.


Like its cousin, Daily Oral Language, Education World's Every-Day Edits features a new error-filled text for students to diagnose and rewrite every day of the school year. An answer key is included. Animals A to Z is the primary grade version: "The skills emphasized in the series are those found on all standardized tests in grades 2 and 3: simple word usage, end-of-sentence punctuation, comma placement in a series, basic spelling, and others."

Reading and Writing

For an entire school year, ninth graders in Sarah Gross' and Jonathan Olsen's humanities classes at High Technology High School in New Jersey started each day by reading The New York Times and composing current event essays. Watch the students in this inspiring video talk about how much they learned from the experience.

Student News Daily posts contemporary articles from a variety of newspapers. Comprehension questions ("How has the Obama administration been able to get around usual requirements for individual warrants to access the records of millions of Verizon customers?") follow each report. Sign up here to have articles, questions and answers sent to your email every morning.

On the hilarious Writing Prompts That Don’t Suck Tumblr blog, prompt #570 challenges students to write "a story about a massive cat colony and the one human who knows about its existence." In contrast, WriteSource categorizes more orthodox writing topics ("the hardest thing I've ever done") by grade level.

Geography and History's geography questions for grades 6-12 align with the Common Core State Standards. Citing the Common Core's emphasis on cultural literacy, the site also offers short cultural literacy quizzes for every day of the school year. History questions abound. (Classical civilization hangman, anyone?) contains blank outline maps of every country, province, state and territory in the world.

Clever Bell Ringer Procedures

The Pennsylvania State Education Association describes a novel way for students to sign into class. "Write each child's name on a strip of tag board, laminate it, and glue a magnet to the back. Each day, post a question and possible answers on a whiteboard. Students can 'sign in' by placing their magnets in the appropriate answer column."

Patty Kohler's round table review requires minimal teacher effort. "I have students get out a sheet of paper and write a list of numbers from one to ten. Then I instruct them to put one important idea from the previous lecture on the first line. The paper is passed to the person on the left. Each time the paper is passed, the person receiving the paper writes a different idea. After a few minutes I call time, and the papers go back to the original owner. This represents a collection of ideas for future review and study."

Finishing Touches

Play Chopin to signal that your classroom demands different behaviors than the hallway. Always locate bell work instructions in the same place. Save the ones that students appreciate the most, the ones that they'll be glad to remember.


Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ray Tolley's picture

Yes, 'Bell-work' as we call it, has been a feature of most of the recent schools that I have worked in. Where larger (Secondary) schools have students arriving from various previous classes around the school it is not uncommon for children to arrive 3,4 or even 5 minutes after the first have arrived. It is imperative that this time should not be wasted for those who arrive promptly. Interesting, fun exercises, preferably related to the main work of a lesson, make for a good incentive for the stragglers to arrive promptly. When all have arrived, then a quick re-cap of what they have learnt can help as an introduction to the main lesson.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Ray, I'm not always convinced that more is better (homework isn't, for example), but bellwork seems to make sense. The re-cap is a good idea. Thanks!

Tim Sinnaeve's picture

Bell-work can be a productive option at the beginning of class as mentioned. I can relate to the fact that getting attendance taken and students arriving late, an educational activity can fill this time. Some teachers may begin their lesson right at the bell, but personally, I wait five minutes before beginning. The activities you provided are all excellent ideas, particularly lateral thinking and journaling. Both will allow students to further develop their 21st century skills while assisting with their critical thinking and writing. I am going to try the lateral thinking activities in my class.

Michael Gatton's picture

Student News Daily is either incompetent or biased. Look at their liberal vs conservative comparison and pay attention to the loaded language used to describe the positions of the two schools of thought - negative liberal stereotypes (BIG GOVERNMENT!), warm & fuzzy conservative positions (FREEDOM!).

They also reprint articles from biased sources and present the content at face value, asking students questions that assume the content is accurate/unbiased.

Faith Smith's picture
Faith Smith
English educator, secondary level

Thank you so much for the great links. I use AOW (articles of the week) activities every week, and the student news link is awesome. I am going to be printing the article tomorrow.
You have many great ideas for the English classroom.

Faith Smith's picture
Faith Smith
English educator, secondary level

According to NewsTrust, The Guardian, the paper from which the article about the NSA is taken, is a good source. I will be careful to check the sources before I use any of the articles, though.

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