I was recently at a workshop where the presenter used the term “bell-to-bell teaching.” As a student teacher, I was embarrassed to ask what this means.
—Cory, Mobile, Alabama
Teachers can’t control the length of the class periods, but they can control how they use the time they have. The goal should be to maximize the learning time, from the beginning of the class period to the end (bell-to-bell). When I first heard of bell-to-bell teaching, I worried some teachers and administrators might infer teachers should “perform” or take center stage for the entire class period. This seems at odds with the idea that class activities should focus more on what the students are doing. (It also sounds exhausting.) As I reflected on this, bell-to-bell learning made more sense to me.
All class activities should relate to the learning goals of the lesson and ultimately to the theme or big idea of the unit of study. Consider how time can be diverted away from learning:
- At the beginning of each class period, the teacher takes attendance, returns papers, and collects assignments. He expects the students to wait quietly in their seats until he has finished, sometimes taking as long as 10 minutes.
- In the middle of a class period in which students are engaged in a science activity, the principal announces the winners of a school contest or election via the school’s public address system. It takes the teacher a few minutes to get the students’ attention focused back on the activity.
- The teacher returns a test. She reads each question and provides the correct answer with no discussion. She then announces there is not enough time left in the period to start the next unit, so she tells students to use remaining 20 minutes as a study hall.
Teachers can help students take responsibility for using class time purposefully to meet the learning goals through guidance and modeling. One method I found effective was to post an agenda. When the students came into the lab, they knew what the learning goals were, what activities they were going to work on in class, what needed to be turned in, and what materials they needed (pencil, science notebook, paper, textbook, etc.).
Bell-ringers are brief activities used at the beginning or end of the class period to engage the students and focus their thinking. For example, at the beginning of the class when students enter the room, they could answer a question about the previous lesson, read a brief description of the upcoming activity, or use their notebooks to respond to a visual prompt or current news item. This gives the teacher time for taking attendance or checking homework. During the last few minutes of class, students could write a summary or a brief response to a question for the teacher to check for understanding. This also gives the teacher time to scan the room to make sure lab materials are cleaned up and put away. These exit activities get students to focus and reflect, instead of dashing from the end of one class to another without “packing up” their thinking. For more examples of bell-ringers, see my blog post, Activities Get Students Focused
Transitions between activities can also be a source of down time. Class routines can help students to stay on task. For example, students should have routines for cleaning up after a lab activity, turning in assignments, and moving between group work and large-group activities.
Interruptions and distractions are also obstacles to bell-to-bell learning. Cell phones or other devices should be turned off, unless they are being used as part of the lesson. Teachers often can’t do much about school-wide announcements, but you and the administrative staff could discuss how to communicate without unnecessary interruptions.
The day before a long break can be a challenge, too. Rather than a study hall or video, students might enjoy vocabulary games, a discussion of current events, or a lab activity.
When we complain our curriculum has too much to “cover,” why would we give up valuable class time for study halls, videos unrelated to the curriculum, coloring pages, or other busywork? Let’s make every minute count for learning, from the first bell to the last.