As a teacher (and administrator), one of the things I enjoyed most about the beginning of a new school year was creating my daily schedule.  Yes, I know how lame that sounds, but I loved blocking out my day into 60-45 min. periods then creating blank lesson plan templates that I would fill out each Sunday morning to prepare for the week. – I am in a state of euphoria just thinking about scheduling and lesson plan templates!!    

Every year, I would devote the first 20-30 min. as a “bell ringer” activity for my students to complete independently.  This time was “my time”. My mornings ran like a well oiled machine, all students knew the classroom expectations and procedures in the morning and followed them to a T!  As someone who is NOT a morning person, this 20-30 min. allowed me to drink the last drops of my coffee, finish my grading I fell asleep looking over the night before, touch base with my support staff (paraprofessional, Special Education Teacher, Speech, Social Worker…you get the idea), edit my newsletter that needed to go out that afternoon, etc.. While I loved this quiet time for me to settle in and wrap up a few items on my to-do list for the day, this was the most stressful part of the day to PLAN for.

I have tried so many different types of bell ringer activities, with different objectives tied to each, here are a few of “brilliant” (insert a lot of sarcasm) ideas!

  • A Joke of the Day – I would have posted a joke of the day on the board for students to copy in cursive (I had to meet that State requirement somehow might as well make it fun).
  • Content Specific Question – Either as a follow-up to a concept from the day before or as a way to assess prior knowledge on a topic we would discuss later (Great idea in theory assuming no student needed support, guidance, or help with this – if they needed help and support then this wasn’t the quiet settling in time I needed to start my day off)
  • Creative Writing Time/Free Reading Time – Students could come in and write about whatever they wanted or read silently.  (In my mind this was a way I was incorporating voice and choice into my classroom – yes, for 20-30 min. while I expected nothing but compliance and quiet – clearly this was early in my career)
  • Fun Fact of the Day – I would post a fun fact every day for the whole year for them to copy down.  While this did open doors to many cross-curricular discussions, provided many opportunities for topics of interest to be discussed it lacked connection with the rest of my content/day, not to mention it was VERY difficult to find a fact (student appropriate for every day of the year)

Every Sunday as I filled out my beautiful lesson plan template for the week, I would agonize and spend so much wasted time planning for and finding my bell ringers for the week.  So as most educators do in a state of frustration, I started to reflect on my whole morning routine….

I know this to be true: I am a better version of myself when I have had a few minutes to settle in, adjust and have some me time before I start my day (not just at work but at home too). Now, I am sure I am not alone in this  – So why am I asking my students to immediately come in and get to work without giving them the same respect I am needing and asking for??

How we start our morning sets the tone for the day.  I needed to slow down my mornings with my students, focus on self-care, provide them REAL voice and choice in their day and spend more of our “settling in time” building relationships.  For the remainder of the year, I would not spend my Sundays planning busy work for my students to start their day instead, each month I would put together exploratory centers my students could choose from to collaborate, create, and be creative with.

Many of the materials found throughout these explorations were aligned to the thematic unit we were studying; however, I did not have specific directions for what needed to be done at each center.  There were books, legos, art supplies, fidgets, sand, recycled materials, the open-ended materials I provided my students were varied and changed each month. Every day I was surprised and encouraged by what they were creating, questioning, and discussing with their peers.  Students settled in and got to their exploration quicker than they ever got to work on their bell ringer, I was done spending my Sundays on the internet looking for a fun fact or funny anecdote!!  

My mornings were now highly engaging, relevant to real world and curriculum disciplines.  The smiles on their faces were priceless, the dialogues they were engaging in built such a strong sense of community and most importantly, I was no longer at my back table getting my last drops of coffee while multitasking …I was up working and collaborating with students encouraging, questioning and providing support …AND this only took about 1 hour to prep for each month!!

Let’s have a great year …be sure to start it off on a positive tone!

Katie Algrim – Director of Innovative Professional Learning

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