We’ve all experienced it recently. That awkward first 2-3 minutes when you launch your online class or meeting and you’re waiting for everyone to log on. As a teacher, this is somewhat similar to that time in the morning or in between hallway transitions when your students first make their way into your class. When I was a classroom teacher, I always had some sort of prompt or “bell ringer” activity on the screen (using an overhead projector…that shows my age). This helped my classroom have a “soft start” to the day and prepare them for whatever activity or learning we’d be doing that day. It could be a math problem, a science question, or some sentence correction, and eventually it became a routine.
Bell ringers and soft starts in a remote environment can be a little different but the premise is the same. The goal is to engage your students’ minds the second they log on. In a remote environment it can also have a secondary purpose of building a sense of community as these activities can be social in nature and allow you to get to know your students as they get to know each other.
With all that said, here are 17 “bell ringers” to get your students instantly engaged for your next online class. I’ve added a free infographic at the bottom of this post for you and feel free to drop your bell ringer ideas in the comments below.
1) Song of the day
If at all possible, have some sort of music playing as students come online. This is good for several reasons, but the main two are it let’s students know they audio is working properly and it can set the mood and tone for the class. I begin all my online PD sessions with music, often taking requests from my attendees. If you want to really increase student involvement, let you students choose the song of the day (appropriate lyrics of course). Research shows that students are more engaged with learning if they have some sense of control of their environment.
Technical tip: Depending on video conference platform, try to play computer audio directly into the platform, not through your speakers into your microphone. It’s better sound quality but might mean you have to share your screen (like in Zoom) to make this happen.
2) Question of the day
Having a question prompt on the screen while you are playing music with directions to have them enter their response in the chat can be part of your regular daily routine. Mix in some fun questions along with academic ones keeps students on their toes. These can be anything from “If you were stuck on an island and could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” to “What’s your secret super power?”
Technical Tip: Use a slide (google slide, powerpoint, keynote) with the question posed on it so you can share your screen and your audio (for music). Or use a tool like Classroomscreen.com to write your question on the virtual board.
3) Word Jumbles
You’ve all seen them. You are scrolling on Facebook when someone posts an image with a bunch of letters. Usually these are like low-level personality tests where the first word you see defines your personality. However, these can be fun ways to see differences within your students and to kick off a conversation about how we all view things from different perspectives. Here’s one I often use and ask whenever I begin a session with older students or adults:
4) FlipGrid Response
Taking the question of the day to the next level, you could have a link to a FlipGrid posted when the students enter the class with a prompt to verbally answer their question on the FlipGrid. This takes a little more set-up but does let you hear student voice more so than the chat response.
Technical Tip: FlipGrid now allows for whiteboard recorded response rather than just a video. Students could draw out responses while narrating as well!
5) Escape Room Clues
Last summer, my wife and I were captivated by a series of Instagram clues put out by one of our favorite restaurants in Chicago. It was a clever way of the restaurant introducing their new concept and menu via coded messages and images created by the company called “The Mystery League“. Taking this same concept to the classroom in the form of a bell ringer invites curiosity and competition. You can either come up with the clues yourself (maybe placing a hint in an image, or using certain letters in a message) or use a tool like BreakoutEDU to create an atmosphere of trial and error/risk and failure. The teacher drops a different hint/problem each day for the students to decipher, revealing the solution at the end of the week or the end of the unit.
Technical Tip: This could also be a good use of break-out rooms in your video conference platform where students can chat to discuss their guesses for a few minutes (in turn, getting to know each other as well)
6) Quick poll game of “Either/Or”
Getting to know your students can be challenging when you don’t get to be around them physically in the classroom. We have to manufacture ways to get to know their interests and likes. One game I use a lot in professional learning is a “Game of Either/Or” using polling software. In this game, students chose which of two items they prefer (Pepsi vs. Coke, Mountains vs. Beach, etc). I usually do 5-6 of these as they are logging on then when class officially begins I ask them to predict what the whole group thinks while slowly revealing the answers to each poll. I go into greater detail and demonstrate this activity in my online course if you want to learn more.
Technical Tip: Use an online poll (like PollEverywhere.com) that you can zoom in on in the browser and not reveal the results right away when you are sharing the screen.
7) Quotes that Speak to You
If you’ve been on Pinterest or Instagram in the last several years you’ve probably seen some sort of inspirational quote with a beautiful and poignant background. One idea for a bell ringer is to show an inspirational quote with students and then have them share what it means to them either in the chat or in small breakout groups. These quotes can tie into a lesson that day or week, or just be fun like this one I made for instructional coaches struggling with getting teachers to try new things. For older students, challenge them to come up with the quote of the day to share in a future class using tools like Keynote or Canva.
8) Meme All About it!
Memes have become a permanent part of our culture whether we like it or not. One need only look to two weeks ago when Bernie Sanders went viral with his inaugural mitten look. Like hieroglyphics, images call to us and help us with memory and storytelling. For this bell ringer, we’ll put the kids to work. Using a tool like Google Slides, create a “meme template” and share it with students as they join the class. Then at the end of class, share some of their creations. To ramp it up, have the students create a meme based on what you are studying or researching at the time.
Technical Tip: Don’t feel like you have to start from scratch. There are a lot of good resources out there for memes in education. One of my go to sources for memes (and Tik Tok) is Tana Ruder. Here’s a slide deck of a presentation she’s given at ISTE and other events about how to get started with memes in your class.
9) Categories Game
This game can be done several different ways. The premise is, students list as many items as they can of a particular category in the chat. For younger students, you could call on them in a particular round-robin type order. Categories could be as simple as “Names that begin with F” to “characters in the Harry Potter series”. You can also play the “person, place, animal” version where the student has to list all three items that start with the same letter. (i.e. for “L” they would put Larry, Lansing, Lemur)
Technical Tip: Use a random name picker like the one at ClassroomScreen.com to keep a know-it-all from taking over the game or set a timer and split into groups of 2 or 3 per breakout room to see how many they can come up with.
10) Dropping Lyrics
I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us– Nirvana
Have you ever wondered what a lyric’s meaning was? Or tried to guess a song based solely on a lyric? Music and lyrics can be a great jumping off point for studying poetry and figurative language. Start off a class by putting a lyric on the screen for them to interpret and have them share their thoughts in the chat, on a Padlet or a FlipGrid.
11) #1 song
For a little fun and practice internet researching, have students find which song was the #1 hit on their actual day they were born (or when they were 5 or 10). Then have them post how that song defines their current reality in the chat. (Mine is “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” by Tony Orlando and Dawn…not sure what that says about my current reality)
Here’s one I use when I do professional learning for educators. This is a fun one to do in-person as well as online as it always gets people laughing and you can quickly tell the variety of age ranges based on responses.
12) Matching Game
Growing up as a kid, I loved playing the matching game called “memory”. There are various websites out there that can help you create your own, but I have found that the one built into Nearpod is super simple to create and you could really use it for any subject. Some ideas could be having students identify science terms and match them with pictures, words in a different language matched with their english counter-part, or even matching a math equation with it’s solution. As an added bonus, if you have them in Nearpod already, you could go straight into your lesson using it as a tool to gather feedback and guide the conversation. Here’s a self-paced example of a matching game I made using emojis and movie titles (see image below).
Technical Tip: Whenever I use Nearpod, I usually open up a separate browser and log in as a student so I can share that view with the class when I’m doing my screen share. It helps me see what they see as well.
13) Emoji a Sentence
Like memes, emojis are also now a part of vernacular and culture. Like the Nearpod example I shared above, they do have some useful purposes when it comes to getting students to think about how they can represent words in a picture. For this challenge, have the students create a sentence, phrase, lyric, or famous historical quote using only emojis when possible.
Technical Tip: If your students are on Chromebooks, they will need to pull up their on-screen keyboard in settings to find the emojis. This is an accessibility feature that they have to enable in their settings or by two-finger clicking on the mouse pad.
14) Virtual Movie Scene
Virtual backgrounds can either be a distraction or a great way to engage students right off the start of class. In this bell ringer, students choose a virtual background (either photo or video) of their favorite (appropriate) movie scene. To make it even more engaging, have students research a favorite line from the movie and have them act it out while other students try and guess the movie. This can be done in breakout rooms or in a whole group setting.
15) Would you rather?
You could play this game with polling software or just ask the question to the group. Step it up a notch by posting the Would You Rather on a Padlet wall and have students make a case for why they like “basketball over football” or “ice cream over nachos”. There are a ton of these on the internet too, so if you aren’t feeling that creative, let google be your friend and check out lists like of 100 Would You Rather Questions for Kids. You could also use this or the polling activity as a way to break the students into groups.
16) Riddles and brainteasers
I’ve always enjoyed a good riddle and with the internet, you can look up thousands of riddles that can vary based on age. Riddles can be verbal like “What has a face and two hands but no arms or legs?” or even visual like the one below. Set a timer and have students send you their answer privately in the chat so no one spoils the answer.
17) Journal Reflection
With the students and adults already living in a heightened sense of uber-connectedness, sometimes we need to create opportunities to stop and be mindful of the moment. While reflection is usually an activity reserved for the end of class, it can also be a powerful way of getting students to focus on the present before the start of class. Starting with a prompt like “how are you feeling today?” or “describe something that makes you upset” can help get students in tune with their feelings and help them express them in the written form.
Technical Tip: Give the students their own private space to do this. It can be in a notebook, on a google doc, or something more long-form like a bulb portfolio that they keep private.
These bell ringers and soft starts to your class can help students “lean in” to what ever you are teaching that day. Some of these can be repeated on a weekly basis (“Lyric Drop Thursday” or “Riddle Wednesday”) but you’ll also want to mix these up as the year goes on and encourage students to create their own to increase the level of ownership with their learning.
If you enjoyed these and my post on 25 Strategies to Engage Students on Your Next Zoom Meeting post, be sure to check out my course “The Remote Learning Coach” where I have these strategies and much, much more!