Is Bell Work Still A Thing?

I am not sure if bell work is still a thing but I feel inclined to talk about it anyway. Let me cut straight to the point about this delusional educational assumption: bell work is for the cows! I don’t even know what that aphorism means, but it sounds appropriate. Who in their right mind wants to come to “work” and begin “working” as soon as they hear a bell? In adulthood, some people have to. But no one wants to. On top of this, education is moving away from homework and at times it feels like work in general, so how does the concept of “bell work” fit into the re-envisioned idea of progressive education? But wait, there’s more.


If bell work is a thing, that means students roughly between the ages of 8 to 18 get to school, drop their belongings in their lockers, or on their hooks at the back of the room, or desks, and promptly sponge any socialization in for a few minutes before they return to their seats and again promptly attend to tasks, questions, and problems that require quiet, individual thinking. Hold on. I thought we were about “collaborative learning”? I thought we were about co-created success criteria and problem-based inquiry and flipped-classes? How does bell work mesh with that? Oh wait, it gets worse. That is, if bell work is still a thing.


Sorry for drenching this diatribe with questions, but are we supposed to believe that we should be able to hold students’ attention from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., or whatever other daily schedule the traditional school operates on by forcing them to work from bell to bell? At times, I try to be a thought leader or an educational visionary, but in reality I am just a teacher. And in reality, bell work is not reality. If I have an entire morning where my students are perky, alert, engaged, and attentive, that is a win. If I string this dynamic together for an entire day or even a week, that is nothing short of magic. I’ve tried being the stern commander-in-chief to the happy-go-lucky friend and everything in between. In reality, other than morning attendance, no one thing works every single day.


Perhaps I am suggesting such a limited angle on the ideal of bell work that I will be dismissed as dichotomizing. Perhaps the tropes of bell work truly suggest a collection of activities meant to spark students’ curiosity and engagement while setting a routine of practice and expectation that encourages attentiveness from the onset of the school day. “Daily Group Challenge”, “Problem of the Day”, and “Intro Cards” can be all extensions of the bell work ideal. I don’t know if they exist but they sound like, with some thought behind them, they could be interesting for students. With bell work notwithstanding, I work my students hard and make sure they are prepared for whatever next grade they are going to eventually enter. And truth be told, I honestly do not see a benefit in making my students do work for ten minutes after the bell when they are engaged with the other work that I provide them throughout the rest of the day. Actually, I feel like bell work can potentially make students resent school.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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