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Why I No Longer Use Bellringers

This past trimester has marked a drastic change in my beginning-of-class instruction. I’ve forsaken one of the most commonly implemented classroom and instructional management strategies: the bellringer activity. I no longer am beholden to bombarding students with content demands for all 70 minutes each and every period.

Instead, my students and I take 4-5 minutes at the start of every class to practice mindfulness with a simple breathing meditation. And so far, I’m happy with the results of replacing instant work demands with the expectations that students simply be.

I’ll admit not every student is on board, but the vast majority are. I’ll also admit I felt a little strange making this shift, as I’m the lone wolf in our school--heck, maybe even district--trying this out. But anecdotally, student participation is up and class disruptions are down. The latest batches of student writing were amongst the most stellar I’ve had in years. The one time I planned on skipping mindfulness practice, several students immediately convinced me to stay the course.

Here are some reasons why I’ve decided to bypass bellringer activities in favor of mindfuless practice:

Student Cognitive Development Isn’t Just About Content Knowledge

It’s certainly the primary focus of schools to help develop students’ academic abilities, but the Mindshift article “Why Teaching Mindfulness Benefits Students’ Learning” challenged me to expand my definition of ability as it relates to our brains.  Patricia C. Broderick writes, “Most of the time, children and adolescents use their minds to manipulate ideas or concepts, to recall information from the past or from their storehouse of knowledge, to imagine future circumstances, to plan, to calculate, or to schedule. These are just some of the important functions of mind that improve as children age and that are enhanced through schooling.” What other functions of mind should we consider? Dealing with stress and learning to focus are just some of the benefits of mindfulness practice. And if you believe in a holistic approach to education, as I do, then think about how your classroom functions. Are you helping to develop student thinking in ways beyond traditional academic skills?  

We All Need A Break From Information Overload

Imagine the typical day for one of your students.  If the teachers in your building have structured classrooms, then kids likely enter classrooms with an academic task waiting from them on whiteboard or projector screen, perhaps an equation or grammar warm-up.  Or maybe a question activating prior knowledge from the previous day or for a new topic. Each class period forges ahead with instruction, guided practice, and an exit card. Repeat, repeat, repeat, with class exchanges and lunch built in. The constant barrage of doing--for both teachers and students--is intense, and it’s exacerbated by our digital connectivity. Students constantly seek to connect with each other on their phones while paying attention (maybe) to their lessons, and many of us teachers are expected to check e-mail throughout the day.  We all need to allow for some quiet for teaching and learning to sink in in preparation for the next task.

Students Are Stressed Out

From caring for siblings to social struggles, to upcoming tests and family dysfunction, American teens are  pretty darned stressed out, according to a recent report from the Washington Post.  83% of teens reported school as a source of “somewhat or significant stress” and most of our students are unsure about coping strategies. Exercise is great, but students often turn to sedentary activities such as video games, TV, and social media as ways to occupy overloaded minds. Providing simple mindfulness practice at the beginning of class surely helps chip away at student stress levels, ideally leading to greater academic  engagement and well-being.

We’re all urged to maximize instructional time and are tasked with significant demands relating to content and standards. But I’m more interested in testing out ways to improve the quality of time spent on academic work. For now, that means giving students a chance to simply be, to take a quick breather, and to avoid (hopefully) the urge to check their latest tweets and instant messages.

Let's acknowledge that a well-rounded, healthy educational experience for students and teachers should be more than the status-quo of instruction around the clock.  

45 Comments

Lynn-Del commented on February 20, 2014 at 7:00am:

Always good to read your

Always good to read your thoughts on what is one of the most, if not the most challenging, professions which you have so outrageously and successfully been called to undertake!

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:26pm:

The challenge keeps me going...

Lyn-Del,

One of the things I appreciate--or perhaps embrace--most about this job is the ongoing opportunity to reflect, revise, and try again.  Teaching and learning is such a complicated, messy process!  Thanks for dropping by CTQ!

Phil Browne commented on February 20, 2014 at 9:47am:

Mindfulness instead of Bellringers

Paul - impressed as always with your mindful erudition.  Twenty years ago when I took yoga teacher training with Tom Sherman, and would see your Mom in some of the other yoga sessions I shared with Tom, we learned about mindfulness meditation.  I do my yoga asanas every day but only occasionally do I remember to practice a true mindfulness meditation.  Practicing this with your students for 3-5 minutes is not only brilliant on your part, but it allows the students to practice "Nothing."  For those few moments, their only challenge is to want nothing - their body's energy factory will supply all their needs, do nothing - let go of all thoughts that come into their mind, constantly returning their focus to slowly and deeply breathing in and out, and most importantly be nothing - when they are focused only on their breath in the moment, it matters not whether they are young or old, rich or poor, popular or pariah, they are experiencing the joy of their own existence on this beautiful planet Earth.  Namaste friend.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:30pm:

Wanting and Doing Nothing

For students who are so used to connectivity and instant gratification in a variety of forms, I'm glad to give them a few minutes to consider other ways of being.  Some students say they are "bored" and I challenge them to test themselves to be able to be content and in the moment no matter their situation which, of course, is easier said than done.  I hope the mindfulness practice is enriching them in ways beyond being ready to complete my next assignment or test.

Evelyn Krieger commented on February 20, 2014 at 10:24am:

Bells

Bravo. Imagine having bells in a professional workplace such as a law firm, graphic design compnay, or research lab.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:33pm:

It's hard to imagine a school without bells.

Because many schools are so big, the regimented bell schedule is a logical organizational pattern.  That said, it does seem to lead to valuing time in class as something that must be uber-productive in the academic sense, no questions asked.  I'm glad this post seems to be resonating with some folks!  Thanks for the comment Evelyn.

Jeff commented on March 7, 2014 at 11:30am:

Bells and Ringers

Great post, Paul!  Our secondary school does not have bells (of any kind). Students recognize that it is part of the culture of the school but like work and other obligations tardiness is just not an option. Yes, we still have absenteeism and lateness issues but all in all kids respect the protocol. Also, two of my kids go to a school where 'mindfulness' is a key element everyday. Usually twice a day the kids engage in meditation. At first there was the nervous laughter, but now the kids are expecting the sessions as part of their day and learning. It's pretty cool. Stick with it!

Pamela commented on March 6, 2014 at 7:14pm:

Mindfulness in the classroom and workplace...

Even better - imagine having mindfulness meditation in a professional workplace.

I can really imagine how five minutes of meditationat the beginning of a meeting could transform the tone and outcomes...

Karl commented on March 7, 2014 at 10:27am:

Wasted Time

No imagination is needed.  It would be 5 wasted minutes.  Before New Agers got involved it was called day dreaming.

Lauren Stephenson commented on February 20, 2014 at 1:06pm:

Quiet mind = disciplined mind?

Fascinating post, Paul. I can see why students embrace the opportunity to take a quiet moment from the hectic demands of the day.

The process of learning to quiet your mind can actually make you pretty disciplined-- it makes you more aware of your body and thoughts and teaches you to focus on the present moment. This has useful applications in the classroom and beyond!

Congratulations on having the courage to try something different in your classroom!

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:37pm:

It does feel different.

Lauren,

I've wondered if what I'm trying wasn't an outlier but the norm.  Would school "feel" substantially different?  Would student learning outcomes improve?  One student told me today he would appreciate being able to do this at the start of other classes.

It frustrates me that popular reforms aren't including more holistic approaches to teaching and learning.  I'm all for longer school days, for instance, but only if the extended time feels and is different for students in order to try out some alternative methos and activities to meet the needs of all students.

Kristoffer Kohl commented on February 20, 2014 at 3:50pm:

Mindfulness getting increased attention, thankfully.

Paul, Thank you for yet another thoughtful and essential post. 

The topic of mindfulness seems to be recurring in education discussions, as well as the mainstream media. Just a few weeks back TIME ran a cover story about the increased prevalance of mindfulness courses. In an era of constant connectivity and overwhelming information, students are fortunate to have teachers who encourage them to reset and restart internally at the beginning of each day or each class.  

I've heard of programs in several California districts that have formalized yoga instruction and seen significant academic and behavioral improvements from the mind/body connection that is encouraged. 

John Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living is on my shortlist for must-reads this year. Looking forward to sharing some gems for classroom.  

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 21, 2014 at 12:05pm:

Timing!

I read that Time article right after I started this in the classroom!  I've noticed more awareness of the topic/practice as well.  I wonder how many educators out there would be unwilling to try this out due to one of the following reasons:

a) no personal experience with mindfulness/yoga/meditation/related activities

b) fear of trying something completely different.

 

Sarah Yost commented on February 25, 2014 at 8:58pm:

ELA

And of course, c) fear of losing (i.e., wasting!) precious time when the kids are so far behind.  Unfortunately what many teachers (me!) might not realize is that sometimes less is more, as you point out so well with your note on quality vs. quantity.

That's definitely something I've only begun learning this year, as colleagues in my PLC saw more growth when they slowed down and delved more deeply into texts, rather than racing through all the texts we'd set out to teach.  I've been nervous to try pre-class meditation, not because it's completely different, but because I am ulitmately an impatient person.  It's very hard for me to sit still in silence when we have so much to do, so much to learn!  Taking the time to be mindful could therefore benefit me, the teacher, for just this reason and ultimately focus and improve my instruction, just as you suggest with students' learning.  Ah, the interconnected universe of the classroom!

 

Great post, Paul!  It's going to stay with me.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 26, 2014 at 4:50pm:

Sarah,

Sarah,

I'm glad this post has got your gears churning!  One of the toughest ongoing challenges we face is figuring out how much control we can--and should exert--over our classrooms, which often relates directly to how time is spent.  I've come to the realization that less true instructional time seems to be leading to a happier, more energized teacher (me) and an environment that starts off with calm focus, can lead to learning results on par with simply going full-throttle all the time.  It won't fit all educators' and students' styles, but that's one of the beauties of our profession.  Despite uniformity in plenty of our expectations, standards, etc, there are so many ways to engage in the process of teaching and learning.  I value the experimentation.

Christina McDermott commented on February 21, 2014 at 1:18pm:

Mindfulness and bell ringers

Hi.  In my elementary school we have two breathing breaks during the day.  At the start of the day, and right after lunch.  It only takes a few minutes, and it seems to be paying off in student behaviour and improved working on task time.  I know it helps me centre as a teacher and ready myself for the coming block of time.  that being said, I had been using bell ringers to maximize learning time.  Your post has given me food for thought.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 24, 2014 at 1:43pm:

Taught to maximize instructional time.

I think we're all programmed by our teacher-ed classes and own schooling experiences to have a fairly narrow vision of what constitutes productive time in school.  It'll be interesting to see if this field of mindfulness practice catches on more in schools!

Braden Welborn commented on February 21, 2014 at 5:43pm:

Another great piece on mindfulness!

Enjoyed this, Paul. You do a great job of exposing classroom realities while posing new possibilities for how teaching and learning can look.

For teachers seeking how-tos on mindfulness, here's another tips-packed piece from CTQ Collaboratory member Brett Bohstedt:

http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2013/11/05/ctq_bohstedt_mindfulness.html?tkn=SQSD5yJdkxotaQwBIvZC7rIt0%2FhV4StYaWUY&intc=es

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 24, 2014 at 1:58pm:

Thanks for the compliment and

Thanks for the compliment and link Braden!  I'll check out the article and pass along to some folks who have asked me about implementation.

Leah Kalish commented on February 21, 2014 at 7:21pm:

self-care tools to support mindfulness

If you are just getting started and want to help students - even young ones - sustain well-being and mindfulness, Move-with-Me.com sells a great set of self-care cards with simple breath and mind-body techniques for calming, focusing, managing emotions, de-stressing and energizing.  Really empowers kids to have something they can DO for themselves - to redirect and self-manage - so they can do their best thinking and more compassionate behaving.

Bill Younglove commented on February 21, 2014 at 9:18pm:

Mindfull[sic]ness

While it may not sound/seem like the same thing, Sustained Silent Reading can also have a calming effect. I have seen post-lunch/bell middle schoolers go from hot, sweaty, and energetic to cool, calm, and collected after 15-20 minutes of being absorbed in a book of their choice...

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 25, 2014 at 8:25am:

Bill,

Bill,

I'm envious you seem to have energetic readers!  I teach high school, and unfortunately I'd guess less than 25% of my students read novels on their own.  I've seen SSR have a similar effect in the past, although it's still engaging the brain in a way that's different than simply noticing thoughts and breathing.

Trisha commented on February 21, 2014 at 11:48pm:

.Be project

Hi, I am thinking of starting this myself (in a disruptive middle school class) but as I am at a new high school, I am a bit concerned by what my colleagues will say.  I have been researching mindfulness in schools and am keen to get some accreditation that will support its practice.  See http://mindfulnessinschools.org/

Thank you for highlighting the positive academic consequences, it has renewed my determination to get this going in my classes!

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 25, 2014 at 8:27am:

Don't worry about what your

Don't worry about what your colleagues will say. Go for it.

Susan Ferrell commented on February 22, 2014 at 7:33pm:

How to start?

Paul, I am new to this forum and would love to try "Mindful Moments" at the start of each class (my 7th grade students rotate in and out of the classroom; I see each group twice a day).  I would like to incorporate a few minutes of mindful breathing at the start of each period.  Since I'm not a yoga student, I'm not sure where to begin.  I'm assuming students are sitting at their desks.  Should students sit a certain way?  What about the placement of other body parts?  Should their eyes be closed?  Should they focus on anything other than breathing? Any specific guidance would be appreciated!  I love this idea.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 24, 2014 at 8:03pm:

Thanks for stopping by Susan!

Thanks for stopping by Susan!  

I started by explaining to them why we'd be changing our routine, then admitted it will feel and be different than what they're used to. The first two weeks I found some basic breathing meditations on YouTube, but I decided that if I found a script online, changed it a bit, then recorded my own voice it'd be closer to what I'm looking to implement.  Mixed in some meditation music I found on iTunes.  

Still a work in progress, but an encouraging start:)

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 24, 2014 at 8:03pm:

Thanks for stopping by Susan!

Thanks for stopping by Susan!  

I started by explaining to them why we'd be changing our routine, then admitted it will feel and be different than what they're used to. The first two weeks I found some basic breathing meditations on YouTube, but I decided that if I found a script online, changed it a bit, then recorded my own voice it'd be closer to what I'm looking to implement.  Mixed in some meditation music I found on iTunes.  

Still a work in progress, but an encouraging start:)

Bill Ivey commented on February 23, 2014 at 6:53am:

A few thoughts

Your post makes me hearken back to when I was a TA in the French department at UMass, and one of the professors began each class of Intermediate French with 20 minutes of meditation. It was commonly thought that it must work because his students did just as well on the commonly-written midterms and finals as other people's students.

I have actually never once used a bellringer. My own class comes together every day by reading aloud - Mondays, they read from the independent writing work, and other days I read from a novel or memoir related to our current unit. I think, along with the idea of beginning class with an in-common experience, some of the benefits of relaxing and focusing also come from the practice.

In addition, Tuesday is "Meditation Day." After the group read, I play a recording our school counselor did for them of a guided meditation. Some of them clamor for it, others groan, still others say it isn't "real meditation." Two or three don't really get into it, though they don't spoil it for others. But those who do find it really benefits them. And when I can relax to the point of doing it myself, I find it really benefits me!

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 24, 2014 at 8:05pm:

Community Building

Bill,

Wonderful idea to have students read their own work aloud to help set the tone for a collaborative community.  How long until kids are comfortable doing this?

How long is the meditation on Tuesdays?

Bill Ivey commented on February 24, 2014 at 10:04pm:

Thanks!

There are usually a few fearless kids who go the first week, and since that usually goes pretty smoothly, it paves the way for others. We do talk about what feedback was helpful and why. I nudge but don't compel any individual kid to read. I have the instinct, by the way, some of them are already used to this approach, at least those who come in from two particular feeder schools.

The Tuesday meditation runs around 12 minutes. Only, it's now a Monday meditation. They were nearly unanimous in a vote that they needed it more Monday morning than Tuesday afternoon. :-)

Susan Graham commented on February 23, 2014 at 2:13pm:

Think Time/Wait Time

Now that I have time to think about it, it is interesting that so many of the same people who advocate  "bellringers" that put atudents to work the minute they enter the room are also big proponents of "wait time" and suggest that unwillingness to wait until it is uncomfortable for student, the teacher, or both teacher is indicative of lack confidence in the student or on the part of the teacher. 

More than once I've heard "wait time" and "think time" used interchangeably. 

But this discussion has made me think about the difference in "wait time" and "think time" and this is what occurs to me. "Wait time" assumes the teacher provides time for the student to formulate an answer to the teacher's question. "Think time" gives control to students and presumes that whatever students are thinking has value.

Are bellringers and wait time reflexive while think time is reflective? I need a little time to think about that! :) 

 

Steven Petoskey commented on February 23, 2014 at 2:31pm:

Bellringer

I appreciate your thoughts and sharing on using an Industrial Age tecnique. A few years ago I attended Kagan Training that was all based on timing and signals. When I reflect on that strategy, I think of it being possible for the auditory learner. The problem is: not all students are auditory learners. I hope that we don't start copying IT by using flashes and lights to inspire students...Thanks, Steve

Mary Robbins commented on February 23, 2014 at 3:37pm:

Ancient World History

This aricle caught my attention because I do not like the term "Bell Ringer". I relate ibell ringing to the feeling in my head when it makes contact with the I-beam in the storage area of my home and not to the beginning of my classes. I find this term harsh and cold, not how I like to get my classes started.

It seems to me that teams need to do some talking about how each one begins classes so our middle schoolers get diversity in education. The beginning is always important. In my building ELA classes are 84 minutes and all other classes are 42 minutes. How these classes begin should be different.

Mindfulness time is always important, the time just to think about all the inputs we recieve in any given time. I do believe it needs to be practiced and some times learned. As I watched olympians just before they began events, most took time for mindfulness before their task.

I don't like "bell ringer" but I do like "warm-up" because it is like a cup of tea or hot chocolate on a cold day. And I do like "mindfulness". Maybe teams can talk about how they begin classes and why they each choose what they choose to do to get a class underway, think about what the students see in all their classes and then decide how to begin their classes with the whole child in mink and not just the child that walks into class.

Nice article, just don't aways throw the baby out with the bathwater. Improve what you do.

Shari Daniels commented on February 23, 2014 at 9:59pm:

Inner Peace Time

Loved your article and could not agree with you more on it's importance in the classroom.  I've done deep breathing with kids to ease anxiety, transitions and to get ready for learning and honestly, it seriously works.

I read some comments on the Oprah/Deepok meditation site awhile back and a classroom teacher was using their meditations in her classroom and calling it "Inner Peace" time.  Whenever they ran out of time and not be able to do it, the kids would ask her, "Hey! What about Inner Peace time!!!"  

We all crave some of that~

Shari :-)

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on February 26, 2014 at 4:54pm:

Shari, I have no doubt that

Shari, I have no doubt that many of our students--especially ones who are rough around the edges--benefit from the practice and are more likely to ask for the quiet time if it's taken away!

Cheryl Suliteanu commented on February 28, 2014 at 10:03am:

they're children not test subjects

I am going to head to work soon, and plan to try your idea with my fifth graders this morning.  We have had a busy week, field trip, today is our big family "read in" for Dr. Seuss day, and here in the San Diego area, it is finally raining... a little calm, quiet meditation practice will be a great thing for all of us.

The statement you made in one of your responses above Paul, is one of the most significant issues I have with education.  So let's do something about it! 

"It frustrates me that popular reforms aren't including more holistic approaches to teaching and learning."

Let's all who are reading your blog, start implementing more holistic approaches into our classrooms so that we can teach students some essential life skills: stress management, calming routines, positive thinking, visualization, etc.  

Far too many children are on prescription medication for "hyperactivity" - what if we taught them skills to focus their energy and calm their minds before telling them there's something wrong with them?  As adults, this translates into prescription medication for anxiety - we all could stand to benefit from adding time for peace and quiet, meditation in our days...

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on March 1, 2014 at 9:12am:

I'm encouraged.

So many people seem to realize that our hectic lives need to slow down, and this is a good place to start.

Cheryl, I'm guessing we are on the same page regarding many issues (problems) with ed. policy and reform today.  If it (a system, teaching method, assessment) can't be easily quantified, then we aren't encouraged to try out better ways to reach the whole child.  So frustrating!  

Do you have experience with yoga/meditation?  It seems to me that for some teachers who don't carve out quiet, focused time in their own lives, brining this into the classroom is perhaps a non-starter.  How did it go with your fifth graders?

 

Mort Sherman commented on March 5, 2014 at 5:18pm:

Habits of MInd

Paul, 

So good to read about your efforts to bring calm and focus to students.  You might want to take a look at Habits of MInd, Costa and Kallick, as a way to structure what they call the 16 Habits which help to shape school culture and student learning and behavior:

http://www.habitsofmindinternational.com

Please let us know if we can be of any support to you or others.

 

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on March 6, 2014 at 3:46pm:

Hey Mort,

Hey Mort,

A colleague in Louisville, www.teachthought.com founder Terry Heick, has told me a little about Habits of Mind.  I need to do some more investigating.  Thanks for the link!

Hardworking Teacher commented on March 6, 2014 at 9:19am:

Mindfulness vs Bellringer work

Some teachers have work waiting on the board for the students to do when the bell rings because they are simply following orders. Many districts requrie it and a teacher doesn't want to be written up for insubordination.

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on March 6, 2014 at 1:38pm:

Wow

To write up a teacher for helping students relax and focus is mind-boggling!  It's that type of micromanagement that makes teachers leave the profession--we've got to be allowed some autonomy (within reason, of course).

Bob Williams commented on March 6, 2014 at 1:32pm:

Mindfulness

~~Paul,
As a special education teacher of more than twenty years, twelve of which were working with emotionally disturbed students with behavioral issues, I certainly understand the need for students to have some respite time to decompress before starting class. To that end, you and your students are practicing “mindfulness”, and apparently with good results.
My question is this: How are you able to do this without violating the establishment clause  of the constitution? Obviously the practice of mindfulness is a part of yoga, which is rooted in, and is an important part of the Hindu religion. So, isn’t  leading you class in in the practice of mindfulness tantamount to teaching the Hindu religion?
“We must remember that the roots to modern day yoga comes (sic)  from Vedic Yoga.  The same Vedic Yoga that is the authority of Hinduism.” http://creative.sulekha.com/there-is-no-christian-yoga_184977_blog
Would it be okay for me to begin my classes with “Our Father who art in heaven…?”
I’m certain that if I did I would be written up for doing something that I consciously knew was against the law, as well I should be. So, how is teaching impressionable students components of Hinduism any different. Is it simply because most of the population is ignorant to the religious implications of such a practice?
 

Paul Barnwell Paul Barnwell commented on March 6, 2014 at 3:41pm:

Not an establishment clause issue.

Bob,

To implicate stress reduction and breathing exercises as an establishment clause issue is a major stretch, since this type of voluntary practice has never been deemed religious by the US Court System.  The practice isn’t mandatory.  The practice is science.

Just like the voluntary nature of the beginning of my class, are you aware that the Pledge of Allegiance is voluntary, too?  Some people (not me) opt to bypass recitation of the pledge due to the phrase “under God,” among other reasons.

If a student isn’t comfortable practicing focus and deep breathing, then that’s fine with me. 

Insectman commented on March 7, 2014 at 9:26am:

Mindfulness Decption

Mindfulness is a way to insert New Afe religion into "public" schools.

Please see http://www.insectman.us/misc/creation/common-thread-mindfulness.htm.

Shane Hennessy commented on March 10, 2014 at 9:22pm:

Relief Teaching and Mindfulness

Paul

Great original article with many comments that just prove the astounding diversity that exists within the teaching profession.

As a relief teacher across a number of schools I have been looking for a start to lesson traffic calming exercise that can be applied. I really like the idea of quiet, breathing time. As I have worked in the health system for quite a while, I accept the overall benefits of quiet contemplation. I will try this on my next teaching day.

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