Building Relationships and Writing Stamina with Bellringers

Bellringers have been around since Saved by the Bell was still making new episodes.

We all know about them. As teachers (yep, I’m apparently keeping with the 90s thing), we know bellringers are super effective in starting the class and getting all of the students focused and ready to learn.

For me, and probably for you as well, I typically used bellringers as a review. We went over standards based questions with our novels, reviewed grammar and vocabulary, or did some type of journaling. It was never anything that was outside the norm. The students came in, they got out their notebook, and started on the bellringer for the first 5 minutes. Nothing crazy. Nothing The Fresh Prince would be impressed with.

As weird as it sounds, my approach to bellringers changed when the shooting happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was all so devastating and just hard to understand and comprehend. I knew my middle schoolers needed an outlet to get their feelings out of their head, so I provided that opportunity through a freewriting journal activity. I told them they could write about their thoughts, feelings, reactions, questions, whatever they wanted. I told them to keep writing the entire time without a filter. Ever since the shooting happened the Black Eyed Peas song, Where is the Love had been playing in head on repeat, so on a whim I played it while they were writing to provide some background noise. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, It was one of those moments that shaped me as a teacher. I remember looking around the room and my eyes landed on Wyatt. His blond hair was falling forward, so I could not see his face. What I could see, though, was him nodding to the music and letting his writing flow. I was shocked. I could barely get a one sentence constructed response out of him, but here he was writing with intensity and focus.

I think there are several things at play. Of course the topic was something they all wanted to discuss, but it was also the fact that Wyatt, someone who struggles with spelling and confidence, didn’t have to worry about being judged. I told them not to worry about spelling, punctuation, and paragraphs. I told them it could stay private. I just wanted them to write what they were thinking, and they did!

After that moment, I would do it occasionally, and every time I had the same results. The students were just into it. They loved the songs, they loved the topics, and they loved being about to write without fear of judgement.

After that year, I did Question of the Days, freestyle journal entries set to music, as my bellringers almost everyday, and saw great success with students feeling more comfortable with their ideas and the process of writing. As a bonus, when I read their journals, I learned so much about them which strengthened relationships and connections.

This type of bellringer is great with a class that struggles with and has a negative opinion about their ability to write. It takes a little bit of prep, but I think it’s totally worth it.

Steps to Developing Question of the Days:

  1. Find songs students connect with. I use a combination of genres from various time periods, although I do try to keep most of the Question of the Days based off of recent songs. Although, I do have to say they love it when I throw in a little pseudo 90s rap. I wish I was a little bit taller. I wish I was a baller. I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her…

  2. Read through the lyrics and write a journal question based off of the song. For example, with the song, Good Old Days by Macklemore, the journal question asks students to describe what the miss about the past.

  3. Students answer the journal question while the song is playing through a freestyle writing process.

Expectations and Procedures:

Before I start with the first Question of the Day, I set a couple of expectations and procedures to ensure everyone gets the most out of the activity.

  1. Students can not start writing until the song starts to play. I have them copy the question in their notebook and while they are waiting for class to start, I want them just thinking about the question.

  2. The reason for the first expectation is because I want students to write the entire time in stream of consciousness style. I have found that if students start to write before the song starts, they ‘finish’ before the song ends and they are just sitting there not getting the most out of the activity.

  3. Since it is stream of consciousness writing, I tell them to keep every word on the page so they can not erase or cross out anything they have written. As with almost all expectations, this one is due to experience. I would have students write a sentence, erase it, write another, and erase again. At the end of the song, they would just have a couple of words written because they were not confident in their thoughts and words. I stress that it will not be perfect, and that’s ok. It is more about gaining confidence in the process of writing, and learning to trust our abilities. At the end of the song, I have them reread what they wrote, and most of them are surprise they were able to write that much. As we go through the weeks, their confidence increases and they start to write more and more.

  4. Other items I tell them not to worry about: grammar, spelling, and structure. The goal is to get them comfortable with the writing process. Just like with reading, the more we write, the better we are. During other activities and assignments, these skills are super important and I expect my students to write in complete sentences with punctuation and correct grammar, but this is not the time. By stripping away the rules and fear of judgement, students are more comfortable with writing.

After the song ends, I do open up the floor for students who want to read their responses. This is totally voluntary, and students can chose to keep their writings private. At the end of the week, I take up their journals, read the responses, write a couple of comments, and give a participation grade. Since some of the questions are opinions, I set the expectation for sharing time to show respect for everyone’s thoughts by not making comments while they read and we clap or snap after each person shares.

As I mentioned, students really connect with these types of bellringers. It’s a combination of the pressure being removed, the music playing in the background, and topics that students can relate to.

Because I love this activity so much and since you’ve made it this far in the blog post, you might be interested in trying them out in your classroom…I have the first week available as a free download to get you started! Just click below to get it sent to your inbox!

Happy Teaching,