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Use Bell Work As Student Therapy

John Davis Jr.

Use Bell Work As Student Therapy

Two main roadblocks to productive learning are students' lack of focus and students' struggle to understand their thinking.


My experiment in using bell work as a therapeutic exercise for students knocked down these roadblocks, resulting in student success in my classroom.


Clearing a Path for Student Understanding

When I was in graduate school, education professors made a big deal out of metacognition. “You must get students to think about their thinking,” they would inevitably say, without so much as hinting about how to do that, exactly.

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So, as a younger educator, I designed lesson plans and activities that would give my students the opportunity to understand their cognitive selves better. Lots of introspective “why” and “how” questions were used, and my tenth graders were expected to identify and use their learning strengths. They completed inventories, surveys, and preference sheets, and I, in turn, used their responses to inform instruction. Everything was very by-the-book.

One problem arose, however; my greatest lessons could always be short-circuited by a single factor – student emotions. If students were angry, sad, excited, or anxious, I could forget about helping them think about how their individual minds worked. Their feelings informed their perceptions, and those perceptions then became decisions:


• “I don’t feel good today, so I’m not going to work,”


• “My dog just died, so I’m not going to read.”


Because I was working with students who had a wide range of learning differences, there was almost always some strong emotion blocking their path to mental clarity.


Addressing Students' Emotional Needs

My hypothesis was, before students could adequately think about their thoughts, they needed to feel something about their feelings. Begin with the heart, proceed to the mind.

To test this theory in practice, I decided to run a mini-research project of sorts. Students always had bell work upon entering my classroom, usually a brief writing assignment intended to get their synapses firing. Prompts for these assignments began to allow students to express their feelings before each class started officially: 


• "Today, I am feeling _________, because…”


• “If my thoughts had a color today, they would be ________, because…”


Similar prompts gave students the fuel they needed to empty out whatever emotions they were dealing with on that given day.


Results: My Focused, Productive Classroom

Most students were able to focus more clearly on the academic tasks expected of them. Once they had received the chance to vent, then their neural pathways were cleared for more intellectual endeavors.

The bell work scheme did not necessarily work for everyone, however. In some instances, I had students who needed to draw or do something physical to get their drama out of the way, a la Howard Gardner or Albert Cullum. I accommodated them, integrating projects and exercises into our routine so that minds could be refreshed and revived for the more serious work ahead.

By addressing the meta-emotional needs of my classes, my job was made significantly easier. Our discussions and activities were more productive, and my students’ senses of safety and security were enhanced. The lesson I took away from my efforts is reinforced by the critical theory presented by my professors: Something as simple as bell work or ball-throwing can often make the biggest difference inside the classroom, and often beyond.


What strategies do you use to help meet the emotional needs of students? Share in the comments section!