Skip to main content

Join the Community

or Close

Search

Why I No Longer Use Bellringers

This past trimester has marked a drastic change in my beginning-of-class instruction. I’ve forsaken one of the most commonly implemented classroom and instructional management strategies: the bellringer activity. I no longer am beholden to bombarding students with content demands for all 70 minutes each and every period.

Instead, my students and I take 4-5 minutes at the start of every class to practice mindfulness with a simple breathing meditation. And so far, I’m happy with the results of replacing instant work demands with the expectations that students simply be.

I’ll admit not every student is on board, but the vast majority are. I’ll also admit I felt a little strange making this shift, as I’m the lone wolf in our school--heck, maybe even district--trying this out. But anecdotally, student participation is up and class disruptions are down. The latest batches of student writing were amongst the most stellar I’ve had in years. The one time I planned on skipping mindfulness practice, several students immediately convinced me to stay the course.

Here are some reasons why I’ve decided to bypass bellringer activities in favor of mindfuless practice:

Student Cognitive Development Isn’t Just About Content Knowledge

It’s certainly the primary focus of schools to help develop students’ academic abilities, but the Mindshift article “Why Teaching Mindfulness Benefits Students’ Learning” challenged me to expand my definition of ability as it relates to our brains.  Patricia C. Broderick writes, “Most of the time, children and adolescents use their minds to manipulate ideas or concepts, to recall information from the past or from their storehouse of knowledge, to imagine future circumstances, to plan, to calculate, or to schedule. These are just some of the important functions of mind that improve as children age and that are enhanced through schooling.” What other functions of mind should we consider? Dealing with stress and learning to focus are just some of the benefits of mindfulness practice. And if you believe in a holistic approach to education, as I do, then think about how your classroom functions. Are you helping to develop student thinking in ways beyond traditional academic skills?  

We All Need A Break From Information Overload

Imagine the typical day for one of your students.  If the teachers in your building have structured classrooms, then kids likely enter classrooms with an academic task waiting from them on whiteboard or projector screen, perhaps an equation or grammar warm-up.  Or maybe a question activating prior knowledge from the previous day or for a new topic. Each class period forges ahead with instruction, guided practice, and an exit card. Repeat, repeat, repeat, with class exchanges and lunch built in. The constant barrage of doing--for both teachers and students--is intense, and it’s exacerbated by our digital connectivity. Students constantly seek to connect with each other on their phones while paying attention (maybe) to their lessons, and many of us teachers are expected to check e-mail throughout the day.  We all need to allow for some quiet for teaching and learning to sink in in preparation for the next task.

Students Are Stressed Out

From caring for siblings to social struggles, to upcoming tests and family dysfunction, American teens are  pretty darned stressed out, according to a recent report from the Washington Post.  83% of teens reported school as a source of “somewhat or significant stress” and most of our students are unsure about coping strategies. Exercise is great, but students often turn to sedentary activities such as video games, TV, and social media as ways to occupy overloaded minds. Providing simple mindfulness practice at the beginning of class surely helps chip away at student stress levels, ideally leading to greater academic  engagement and well-being.

We’re all urged to maximize instructional time and are tasked with significant demands relating to content and standards. But I’m more interested in testing out ways to improve the quality of time spent on academic work. For now, that means giving students a chance to simply be, to take a quick breather, and to avoid (hopefully) the urge to check their latest tweets and instant messages.

Let's acknowledge that a well-rounded, healthy educational experience for students and teachers should be more than the status-quo of instruction around the clock.  

20 Comments

Lynn-Del commented on February 20, 2014 at 7:00am:

Always good to read your

Always good to read your thoughts on what is one of the most, if not the most challenging, professions which you have so outrageously and successfully been called to undertake!

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:26pm:

The challenge keeps me going...

Lyn-Del,

One of the things I appreciate--or perhaps embrace--most about this job is the ongoing opportunity to reflect, revise, and try again.  Teaching and learning is such a complicated, messy process!  Thanks for dropping by CTQ!

Phil Browne commented on February 20, 2014 at 9:47am:

Mindfulness instead of Bellringers

Paul - impressed as always with your mindful erudition.  Twenty years ago when I took yoga teacher training with Tom Sherman, and would see your Mom in some of the other yoga sessions I shared with Tom, we learned about mindfulness meditation.  I do my yoga asanas every day but only occasionally do I remember to practice a true mindfulness meditation.  Practicing this with your students for 3-5 minutes is not only brilliant on your part, but it allows the students to practice "Nothing."  For those few moments, their only challenge is to want nothing - their body's energy factory will supply all their needs, do nothing - let go of all thoughts that come into their mind, constantly returning their focus to slowly and deeply breathing in and out, and most importantly be nothing - when they are focused only on their breath in the moment, it matters not whether they are young or old, rich or poor, popular or pariah, they are experiencing the joy of their own existence on this beautiful planet Earth.  Namaste friend.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:30pm:

Wanting and Doing Nothing

For students who are so used to connectivity and instant gratification in a variety of forms, I'm glad to give them a few minutes to consider other ways of being.  Some students say they are "bored" and I challenge them to test themselves to be able to be content and in the moment no matter their situation which, of course, is easier said than done.  I hope the mindfulness practice is enriching them in ways beyond being ready to complete my next assignment or test.

Evelyn Krieger commented on February 20, 2014 at 10:24am:

Bells

Bravo. Imagine having bells in a professional workplace such as a law firm, graphic design compnay, or research lab.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:33pm:

It's hard to imagine a school without bells.

Because many schools are so big, the regimented bell schedule is a logical organizational pattern.  That said, it does seem to lead to valuing time in class as something that must be uber-productive in the academic sense, no questions asked.  I'm glad this post seems to be resonating with some folks!  Thanks for the comment Evelyn.

Jeff commented on March 7, 2014 at 11:30am:

Bells and Ringers

Great post, Paul!  Our secondary school does not have bells (of any kind). Students recognize that it is part of the culture of the school but like work and other obligations tardiness is just not an option. Yes, we still have absenteeism and lateness issues but all in all kids respect the protocol. Also, two of my kids go to a school where 'mindfulness' is a key element everyday. Usually twice a day the kids engage in meditation. At first there was the nervous laughter, but now the kids are expecting the sessions as part of their day and learning. It's pretty cool. Stick with it!

Pamela commented on March 6, 2014 at 7:14pm:

Mindfulness in the classroom and workplace...

Even better - imagine having mindfulness meditation in a professional workplace.

I can really imagine how five minutes of meditationat the beginning of a meeting could transform the tone and outcomes...

Karl commented on March 7, 2014 at 10:27am:

Wasted Time

No imagination is needed.  It would be 5 wasted minutes.  Before New Agers got involved it was called day dreaming.

nico commented on August 13, 2014 at 8:16pm:

really?

And yet, class participation is up and class distractions are down, and work quality is vastly improved

Terry commented on September 22, 2014 at 3:26pm:

Good on ya.

Thanks for the mindfulness ideas. No thanks for the troll.

Lauren Stephenson commented on February 20, 2014 at 1:06pm:

Quiet mind = disciplined mind?

Fascinating post, Paul. I can see why students embrace the opportunity to take a quiet moment from the hectic demands of the day.

The process of learning to quiet your mind can actually make you pretty disciplined-- it makes you more aware of your body and thoughts and teaches you to focus on the present moment. This has useful applications in the classroom and beyond!

Congratulations on having the courage to try something different in your classroom!

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:37pm:

It does feel different.

Lauren,

I've wondered if what I'm trying wasn't an outlier but the norm.  Would school "feel" substantially different?  Would student learning outcomes improve?  One student told me today he would appreciate being able to do this at the start of other classes.

It frustrates me that popular reforms aren't including more holistic approaches to teaching and learning.  I'm all for longer school days, for instance, but only if the extended time feels and is different for students in order to try out some alternative methos and activities to meet the needs of all students.

Kristoffer Kohl commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:50pm:

Mindfulness getting increased attention, thankfully.

Paul, Thank you for yet another thoughtful and essential post. 

The topic of mindfulness seems to be recurring in education discussions, as well as the mainstream media. Just a few weeks back TIME ran a cover story about the increased prevalance of mindfulness courses. In an era of constant connectivity and overwhelming information, students are fortunate to have teachers who encourage them to reset and restart internally at the beginning of each day or each class.  

I've heard of programs in several California districts that have formalized yoga instruction and seen significant academic and behavioral improvements from the mind/body connection that is encouraged. 

John Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living is on my shortlist for must-reads this year. Looking forward to sharing some gems for classroom.  

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 21, 2014 at 12:05pm:

Timing!

I read that Time article right after I started this in the classroom!  I've noticed more awareness of the topic/practice as well.  I wonder how many educators out there would be unwilling to try this out due to one of the following reasons:

a) no personal experience with mindfulness/yoga/meditation/related activities

b) fear of trying something completely different.

 

Sarah Yost commented on February 25, 2014 at 8:58pm:

ELA

And of course, c) fear of losing (i.e., wasting!) precious time when the kids are so far behind.  Unfortunately what many teachers (me!) might not realize is that sometimes less is more, as you point out so well with your note on quality vs. quantity.

That's definitely something I've only begun learning this year, as colleagues in my PLC saw more growth when they slowed down and delved more deeply into texts, rather than racing through all the texts we'd set out to teach.  I've been nervous to try pre-class meditation, not because it's completely different, but because I am ulitmately an impatient person.  It's very hard for me to sit still in silence when we have so much to do, so much to learn!  Taking the time to be mindful could therefore benefit me, the teacher, for just this reason and ultimately focus and improve my instruction, just as you suggest with students' learning.  Ah, the interconnected universe of the classroom!

 

Great post, Paul!  It's going to stay with me.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 26, 2014 at 4:50pm:

Sarah,

Sarah,

I'm glad this post has got your gears churning!  One of the toughest ongoing challenges we face is figuring out how much control we can--and should exert--over our classrooms, which often relates directly to how time is spent.  I've come to the realization that less true instructional time seems to be leading to a happier, more energized teacher (me) and an environment that starts off with calm focus, can lead to learning results on par with simply going full-throttle all the time.  It won't fit all educators' and students' styles, but that's one of the beauties of our profession.  Despite uniformity in plenty of our expectations, standards, etc, there are so many ways to engage in the process of teaching and learning.  I value the experimentation.

Christina McDermott commented on February 21, 2014 at 1:18pm:

Mindfulness and bell ringers

Hi.  In my elementary school we have two breathing breaks during the day.  At the start of the day, and right after lunch.  It only takes a few minutes, and it seems to be paying off in student behaviour and improved working on task time.  I know it helps me centre as a teacher and ready myself for the coming block of time.  that being said, I had been using bell ringers to maximize learning time.  Your post has given me food for thought.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 24, 2014 at 1:43pm:

Taught to maximize instructional time.

I think we're all programmed by our teacher-ed classes and own schooling experiences to have a fairly narrow vision of what constitutes productive time in school.  It'll be interesting to see if this field of mindfulness practice catches on more in schools!

Shelley commented on August 16, 2014 at 6:29pm:

English

I agree.  Motion doesn't equal progress.  Students looking busy are not necessarily learning anything.   I have always thought it odd that educators are told to focus on individualization but fall in line for  the bellringer concept.  Can it be possible that first grade reading, third grade math, junior high social studies, and high school American lit. students (including special needs students) all benefit from the exact same teaching strategy every period of every day?

Subscribe to Blogs by Paul Barnwell

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive the latest news and events through email!

Sign Up