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Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Jul 28, 2021

What if we DIDN’T teach bell-to-bell?

By Whittney Tomczyk

Gr 3-12 Teacher

What if we DIDN’T teach bell-to-bell?

By Whittney Tomczyk


There is no greater collective-sigh-inducing topic among teachers than professional development.

Whether you’re an electives teacher sitting through a mandatory training on math standardized testing or an ELA teacher being told how to raise reading scores using a brand new test prep booklet just purchased by the district (without any teacher input). Anyone who has spent any time in the classroom can create a list of this could have been an email meeting or I wish I were spending time in my classroom right now professional development trainings.

Most of these are well-intentioned. Creating a calendar of meaningful topics that apply to all teachers is a monumental task— which is why I think it must be more personalized to each teacher. Just as we know that individualized learning works for students, why would it be any different for teachers, if we are not all just perpetual learners? These one-size-fits-all developments fall into a trap that we see in the media all the time, which is that of the “motivational sound bite.” Most of what is important, in education and in life, cannot be reduced to a simple phrase, as we are all living in the gray area that is working in the business of human relationships.

Let’s take a look at the “Professional Development Platitude” of teaching bell to bell.  This is a lovely theory that comes via many names, but essentially, we have all heard the idea of making every minute in our classroom count.  The possibility of doing this; however, is a myth— or at least it is at face value.  For our purposes, I am using the term myth to refer to something that has been repeated over and over again so that many believe to be true in some form or fashion.  The mythology behind this particular idea is the belief that what “counts” looks the same to every teacher at every school to every student population, and it simply does not.

As a professional, I cannot recall ever utilizing every minute of an entire day dedicated only to what others might consider “work,” so how would I expect my middle schoolers to do so for all of their seven classes every day?  If sharing with my students the latest antics of my dog, Roger, is not considered making every minute count, then I want no part of it, to be honest.  The greatest issue with this being that, when I have students visit me the following year, or in many cases, several years later, they ask me about Roger, about my son, and about life in general, not just if I am still teaching research writing the same way. After coming to terms with the fact that this goal of teaching every moment of the day, or what that even looks like, is a myth, we now have the freedom to think about how to actually utilize some of those minutes to serve both us as teachers and our students as learners in the best way possible.

Today, I will challenge you to do that by rethinking the “bell ringer,” the “warm-up,” or the “bell work” (or whatever term works for you).  This is an oft-discussed component of making our minutes count, and I don’t even disagree with the theory that it helps students get into the mindset of your class and prepare for the day.  I do disagree with the sometimes busy-work feeling of its implementation when there are so many awesome things we can do with these ten(ish) minutes.  I want you to think about the skills you really value within your subject area.  The ones that, when you’re planning, you know you want to incorporate because you are passionate about them and they matter in the long term, and yet you sometimes find yourself struggling to implement them because of how full your plate is.

For me, when teaching ELA, that is the absolute joy of reading.  It may be hard to believe, but I did not become an ELA teacher to preach about the subjunctive mood, though I will do so when necessary. I truly love ELA because I truly love stories of all kinds, and I love seeing students find themselves in those stories.  Recommending books is my calling of the highest order.  And yet, choice reading, despite the research behind it, seems to fall by the wayside in lieu of things like types of pronouns that I simply must hit before state testing.

All of this, plus my need to be somewhat rebellious within the walls of my classroom, led me to institute a non-negotiable twelve minutes of choice reading every day, no matter what. I end choice reading however I want on a daily basis, and this might be a turn and talk, a ten work journal entry, a stick figure drawing— one never knows what I might as at the end of twelve minutes, but I never take it away for something more important.

Now, you might be asking how this fits in with teaching bell to bell, and that is because I think at the root of the “use every moment” philosophy is that of engagement, and I can promise you that once the standard has been set, the enthusiasm shared, and the white noise turned on, my students are engaged. Not only that, but I have twelve minutes to visit with my book browsers, my “I’m not really a reader”s, my “I’ve read everything”ers, and my “sometimes I pretend to read”ers.  All of those twelve minutes are used to engage and to build my relationships. There is nothing I like better during my day than those first twelve minutes.  Also?  This requires no grading and no copying (is there anything better?).

I understand that you may not teach ELA, so let’s really get to the heart of the matter.  When I taught math, this looked like logic puzzles of all kinds that students worked on together. When I taught elementary ed, this might have looked like a ‘mystery from history’ for students to discuss or a ‘What’s Going On In This Picture” from the NYTimes Ed Blog.  When I taught Home Economics, this looked like a “Game of Life” question each time they walked in to get them to think about their futures in “the real world” (whatever that means).  The underlying point to all of these options was that I used those ten or twelve minutes to just be a person with my students, and that proved more effective for my relationships, my classroom management, and my overall happiness in my career than any bell-ringer worksheet I ever used, and it also took less prep time.

Imagine what different classrooms could look like if we gave up this notion and just decided not to attempt teaching “bell to bell.” My hope for you is to find something that you can quite literally implement tomorrow, or this afternoon if you happen to be on prep right now, that speaks to that core value you know matters more than any teaching myth and is the reason you took this job, and that you create a new definition of making every minute count. I promise you will not regret it.

Whittney Tomczyk

Gr 3-12 Teacher

Whittney has certifications in both elementary and secondary education with endorsements in English Language Arts and Gifted Ed with experience in grades three through twelve.
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  1. I often take time to build relationships with my students or partake in student driven learning where I am a support person instead of the director of an activity. The learning can wait. My students are people first. Relationship building will lead to learning! Thanks for this great read!

  2. What a great shift in mindset! “Bell to bell” even looks different day to day because as we know our students and know our content, how we use every minute we have with students can be learning opportunities.

  3. I agree that building those relationships is just as, if not more, important than a worksheet of review problems. I think sometimes these sound bite PDs forget that we work with little humans, each with unique needs that a bell work activity might not meet. But using that time to make those connections will ultimately be a worthwhile investment.

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