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Dr. Fred Jones's
Tools for Teaching

Beginning the New School Year:
Bell Work


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In the hall, students laugh and joke and flirt as they pass from class to class. This is normal behavior for the hallway. The classroom, in contrast, is a work environment. Students would love to bring their social environment from the hall into the classroom. They would love to spend the first part of the class period finishing their conversations. And they will, unless you clearly structure a change in behavior.

Do everything you can to define the entrance into your classroom as a doorway between two different worlds. Clearly separate the social world from the world of schoolwork.

You can only define a work environment through work. Stand in the doorway, greet the students warmly, and, above all else, give them a job. But what job will you give them? This brings us to the topic of "Bell Work."

BELL WORK

Bell Work, as the name implies, is the schoolwork that students are doing when the bell rings. It is always the first task of the class period. When you describe Bell Work to your students on the first day of school, instruct them never to ask you whether there is Bell Work today. There is Bell Work every day. It always will be posted in the same place on the chalkboard. Tell students, "As soon as you reach your seat, look at the board for today's Bell Work, and get started."

Bell Work, as you might imagine, is a bit of a misnomer, because many students enter the classroom minutes before the bell rings. Say to students, "If you want to talk and socialize, stay out in the hall. That is what halls are for. When you are ready to work, come in."

Bell Work consumes the first five minutes of the class period. Consequently, students who arrive early might have eight or ten minutes of Bell Work. Structuring work at the beginning of the class period eliminates the problem of settling in.

BELL WORK AND SETTLING IN

A typical class period is not on task until five to eight minutes after the bell rings. Teachers take roll, and students talk, sharpen pencils, and listen to announcements over the P.A. as they amble toward their seats. This daily ritual is called "settling in." Settling in is so ingrained in the daily life of the classroom that few teachers regard it as a problem. It is just the normal way of starting a class period. I regard it as a problem, though - a big problem.

If a class period lasts fifty minutes, and you take five minutes each day for settling in, you consume one-tenth of your total instructional time for the entire year. That's a high price to pay for the privilege of settling in.

But, what if you try to start on time without a plan? When are you going to take roll? At the elementary level you don't just take roll -- you collect lunch money, milk money, book club money, and money for the field trip on Friday. The district should issue you a cash register. In addition, there are the announcements over the P.A. that interrupt just as you are getting started. And then a student comes in late with a note from the nurse.

The school district is not organized to start when the bell rings. That's why nobody does it. Try starting on time, and see how far you get. How many days in a row can you juggle all the distractions listed above before you say, "Oh, forget it! Let's just settle in." The fact of the matter is that you do need to take roll and collect lunch money, milk money, and so on. The question is, how can we do that without wasting the first five minutes of instruction? What you need is a meaningful learning experience that does not require your active teaching. You need Bell Work.

WHAT DO YOU DO FOR BELL WORK?

First, keep it simple. Second, make sure it serves a purpose in getting the day's instruction started. Use it as a warm-up activity. It probably incorporates the review that you would have done anyway -- after settling in.

If you are a science teacher, how about four questions from yesterday? If you are a math teacher, how about four problems from yesterday? Make them doable. This is not the midterm exam. If the students were here yesterday and were paying attention, they can start answering those questions or doing those problems.

But review is just one of many possibilities for Bell Work. Some teachers use journal writing or silent reading. Others put word games or mind benders on the board. I remember one teacher who had a student read to the class from a library book while he took roll. The sky's the limit as long as it makes sense in terms of your classroom.

Finally, Bell Work should not saddle you with an extra stack of papers to grade. Some teachers flip through Bell Work quickly and put an "X" in a column of the grade book for those students who gave it a decent try. Other teachers farm out the job to students who are on the "clerical work committee" that week. Some teachers collect the papers with due seriousness, glance over them, and then drop them into the circular file after school. After all, the purpose is to start kids thinking, not to assess performance.

BELL WORK ON DAY ONE

What can you do for Bell Work on the first day of school? You will need something. You might already have a routine that works for you. I have seen, for example, social studies teachers get off to a quick start with a political opinion survey or questionnaire. I know primary teachers who have the children draw pictures of their families, sort blocks by color, shape, and size, or assemble a puzzle.

You also might consider handing out 3-by-5 cards as you greet students at the door. On the blank side of the card is a seat number. All the desks have numbers taped to them. Greet the student and say: "This is your seat number. Find your seat, and then turn the card over and fill it out according to the instructions on the chalkboard." On the board is a picture showing students how to fill out the card -- name, birthday, home address, home phone, parents work phone, and so on. It might sound basic, but at least you put the kids to work. And they get the message that can only be conveyed behaviorally: When you enter the room, expect to get right to work.

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  • This article is condensed from Dr. Jones' award winning book Tools for Teaching. Illustrations by Brian Jones for Tools for Teaching.

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