Teaching Writing Try This

Four Fresh Ways of Looking at the Bell Ringer


The 'bell ringer' is one of the most common pedagogical tools. In this resource, Tanya Baker investigates ideas from the blog Metawriting by Morehead Writing Project director Deanna Mascle (aka the writing evangelist). Deanna believes everyone is and should be a writer, and her use of bell ringers reflects that. Drawing on text and ideas from the blog, Baker finds four purposes for the bell ringer. You can find more of Deanna's reflections on teaching writing at metawriting.deannamascle.com. Originally published on January 25, 2023

Bell Ringers are not a new invention—I can remember trading lists of bell ringers even as a new high school teacher in Maine many years ago. They serve a practical purpose for many teachers who create, adapt, or steal a variety of assignments to keep students busy while they deal with attendance and other housekeeping.

The practicalities of bell ringers are to bring focus and fill time and to help students get settled and ready to learn, but of course, they can also be so much more. The ‘so much more’ came to me again as I was reading Deanna Mascle’s blog Metawriting. Deanna, who describes herself as a Writing Evangelist, writes about the way she uses bell ringers to create a classroom writing community with her college-level composition students. The more I read, the more I saw her purposes in using them, starting with building community and writers’ identity.

Deanna on Community Building:

My name is ____ and I am a writer from…
(Borrowed from Richard Louth, founder of the New Orleans Writing Marathon
and Director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project)

For the past three semesters, this is how I begin every in-person class – deploying this simple question. As a community, we write this sentence into our journals (filling in the blanks) and then write. At the beginning of the semester, I offer the explanation that from can be a place or a state of mind; then as the semester progresses as we know each other better I ask:

How are you?
What is heavy on your mind or heart today?

This simple exercise is a powerful move as it grounds us in our purpose (I teach writing after all) and the moment (life offers so many distractions). Then we share what we have written. I expect every student to share although occasionally some will pass if their writing is too fraught, but I offer them choice about how much to share so they quickly progress to sharing more and more:

  • Just share that initial sentence (My name is Deanna and I am a writer from contentment)
  • Share the sentence and selected excerpts or explanation
  • Read the journal entry in full

In most classes (especially at the beginning) I share first to model and help my students get to know me as a person. It also allows me to then focus on my students as we work around the room. I typically share my full journal entry because I am a writing project teacher accustomed to sharing my writing. I know that as a human I usually look forward to these writing sessions and as the semester progresses more and more of my students tell me how much this moment of introspection and community means to them. Listening to a recent interview with Dr. Gabor Maté about his book The Myth of Normal reminded me again of the power of writing to help us cope with stress and trauma. I think that is one reason this practice is so meaningful to us as humans. But as a writing project teacher, I also know there is power in the regular ritual of writing and saying the words: I am a writer.

As a teacher, this simple check-in process is beneficial in so many ways. It allows me to take attendance without taking attendance, but more importantly, it helps me match names and faces as well as learn students’ preferred names. Even more important it helps me know my students. Since beginning this process I have developed a much better understanding of their physical and emotional state (collectively and individually) during the rhythm of the semester and this challenging period in their lives (first year in college). I never regret the time we spend on this practice but, full disclosure, I do teach a 75-minute class so I have the time to do it every meeting. Last, but certainly not least, I love the powerful writing that emerges in these quick writing sessions and being able to point to that writing when students tell me in moments of frustration that they are not writers. This practice not only requires students to say they are writers…it shows them that they are writers while demonstrating the power and magic of writing in human lives.

As I am learning more about my students, they are also learning more about each other. Students discover shared worries and fears, celebrate victories, and connect in countless ways. There is great power in learning that so many of their worries and challenges are shared and there is also a tremendous sharing of coping strategies and life hacks along the way.

Deanna on other purposes for bell ringers

Deanna’s post about community is not the only time Deanna has written about bell ringers. I love that she thinks not only about WHAT students are going to do in those first few minutes, but WHY. And her why’s extend beyond keeping students busy or getting the ready to learn and instead lean into a coherence of purpose across the class. Here are three more purposes Deanna offers that can help you make the most of Bell Ringers in your class.

Create a Focal Point

Kicking off each class with a targeted writing prompt underscores the theme for that day’s class. It makes clear to everyone what we are going to focus on that day. Posting the prompt before the start of class and establishing the practice of students writing at the start of class makes the transition into class time easier for everyone. After only a few classes, students easily fall into the pattern of settling into writing without prompting. Finally, thinking and writing about the prompt helps both teacher and students get our heads into the game. The practice gives us time to gather our thoughts and access our existing knowledge about the topic so that when work began in earnest we were ready.

Fuel Discussion

Bell ringers tie directly to the topic of the day. This strategy means that when the time comes for the class discussion everyone has something to say. Spending time writing about one or two specific ideas or questions before a discussion ensures that everyone has some thought to contribute to the conversation. As an example, ask students to sum up their writing with a six-word story before transitioning from bell ringer to class so students have the option to share selections from their writing or their six-word story (with explanation). As students become comfortable with the bell ringer model I need to prompt less and talk less during our class discussions.

Jumpstart Assignments

Jumpstart writing assignments with two or three successive bell ringers. Students feel much more confident about their ability to succeed with an assignment after they have already written hundreds of words on a topic. Also, there is a lot less struggle about selecting a topic or focus for an upcoming assignment if we have already explored possibilities through bell ringers paired with discussion.