By Mary McConnaha
Since moving to virtual, hybrid, or socially distanced in-person learning, many of us have had to adapt our tried-and-true classroom procedures to fit these new environments. As a middle school English teacher, I have always enjoyed engaging with my students through my “bellringers”—activities I’ve established for the first few minutes of class while my students get settled. Though it took some trial and error, I’ve found ways to continue these traditions via hybrid and online learning. What’s more, I’ve found it to be more important than ever to engage with and uplift my students through these small routines. Here, I’ll share my favorite ways to kick off my English class, whether in-person or online.
My school is currently operating on a hybrid plan. Once the passing period starts, I am outside my classroom door with a little whiteboard. On the board is a short, silly question, normally not related to the content at all. I’ve borrowed the question “Would you rather fight ten duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?,” which has been asked of President Barack Obama in an AMA on Reddit as well as SCOTUS Justice Neil Gorsuch. But most often the questions are typical get-to-know you fare, such as “What’s your favorite thing to have for breakfast?” A few more of my favorites are “Would you rather be a witch, ghost, or vampire?” (you’d be surprised that hardly anyone says witch!), “What do you know how to cook?,” “Would you rather have arms as legs or legs as arms?,” and “If you could be best friends with a character from our book, who would you choose?” I like this system because I get to know my students right from the beginning of the school year. I learn their favorite sports, favorite foods, least favorite seasons, and who they look up to all in the first couple weeks. I can then take this information and sprinkle it into conversations for the rest of the year. This keeps me up to date with what games everyone is playing and what everyone is watching, and I can also add that knowledge into classroom questions. (This would be great for math teachers creating word problems, I think!)
Now that half of my students are remote, I’ve found that the polling feature on Google Meet is the best way for me to include my online students in this classroom tradition. (The trick here is that all the students need to be in the Google Meet when you write in the chat or put up the poll, otherwise new students can’t see it!) As the students get to know me better, they are more forthcoming in their responses; at the start of the year, only a few of them would give me an answer, and even then they would only type it, not unmute themselves to share verbally. But now that they trust me and their classmates more, they look forward to sharing their responses, and many ask what the question is before their whole class is present online!
The second reason I like this beginning-of-class procedure is that it allows me to get an emotional read on the students before class has begun. For my in-person students, I know I don’t have to worry about them if they walk in the room with their heads up and engage with my question. But if their head is down or they avoid the question, or, as has happened in middle school, come charging past me and say “Don’t care!,” I know to check on them at the beginning of class, or, at the very least, keep my eye on them. I can check in with the other teachers or the guidance counselor after class and see if they know why a certain student was not feeling well. As I become more aware of the importance of social and emotional learning, I appreciate that this activity helps me meet my students’ SEL needs.
Getting this emotional read with my online students can be trickier. While some of my students are really feeling down, others are merely camera-shy or are distracted by what’s happening around them at home. I often have trouble telling which is which: who needs me to reach out because they are struggling and who just doesn’t want to unmute themselves in front of peers? This is more important than ever now that our students have fewer adults checking in on their emotional needs than when they were in the school building with us. I’ve found it helpful to use edTech tools like Peardeck, which asks for an emotional check-in, before the presentation begins. Our school recently had a self-care assembly where students responded to questions with different colored heart emojis: red was good, yellow was okay, purple was really struggling and need help. These tools can, hopefully, help teachers with the social and emotional care of their students while they are home.
Once my students have answered their daily question, I present the directions for their beginning-of-class activity, or “bellringer”—for my English class, this is almost always independent reading. (I like being able to simply point to the words “silently and independently” if students come in talking!) Normally, in class, I like to walk around the desks while my students read. While this helps me to keep students off their phones, it also gives me a chance to see what books they have chosen. This has allowed me to read the same books as my students and keep up with the latest and greatest in young adult novels — which helps when I need to make recommendations to my students! Then, I set a good example by picking up whatever book I am reading at the moment and joining my students in this bellringer activity. I have my virtual students begin the class with independent reading as well; for most, it gives their eyes a break from the screen they are glued to nearly all day. Now that half of the class is outside the physical classroom, I ask everyone to share what books they are reading, so that I can continue to learn from them.
I try to steer my students towards independent reading that will give them broader perspectives on the world and what people their age can do to make a difference. Right now, in book club, they are reading I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, and Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper. Throughout the last couple of months, I’ve tried to recommend highly-engaging books that will help transport them out of their homes and away from the people they’ve seen every day for eight months. My favorite so far has been The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. But during these particularly trying times, if they want to read Manga or Diary of a Wimpy Kid (I teach 7th grade, so it’s a bit young), I let them. My most important goal at the moment is that they are reading books they enjoy.
Starting class with a silent activity sets the stage for an hour of learning. Without the extraneous noise, your very first directions can be given in a calm and measured tone. Before I had these procedures in place, the beginning of each class was a battle for control and silence. Now, these two activities allow me not only to settle down my in-person students, but also to engage with my remote students who may feel disconnected from myself and their classmates. Starting class with a few normalizing routines has never been more important!
Barnhill, K. (2016). The girl who drank the moon. New York, NY: Algonquin Books.
Draper, S. M. (2012). Out of my mind. New York, NY: Atheneum Books.
Kinney, J. (2012). Diary of a wimpy kid. New York, NY: Amulet Books.
Lamb, C & Yousafzai, M (2013). I am Malala: The girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
Stone, N. (2017). Dear Martin. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
Mary M. McConnaha is a 7th grade English teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. In her spare time, she hikes on the Appalachian Trail, knits, and writes about restorative justice and prison programming. She has contributed to Education Week and America Magazine. You can read more of her work at mmmcconnaha.com and get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.