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Homework-Centered Classroom or Bellwork-Centered Classroom

November 3, 2011

It’s been an interesting week since I posted my first quarter reflections – I’m glad people have found meaning in my brief unloading of first-year mistakes and wisdom. Jason Buell was grateful enough to mention me in his ‘Needs more Traffic’ post, alongside another new teacher: Molly Kate, who blogs at Mathemagical Molly. Reading Molly’s blog is like looking into a time machine of where I was six months ago as I was student teaching as well – it’s crazy. You should check her out too.

Anyway – I was reading the backlogs of Mathemagical Molly’s blog and found a post regarding the relationship between Homework and Warm-Ups (what I tend to call bellwork). This is something I’ve thought a lot about as well – going into my own classroom, the biggest pressure I felt was creating a system of homework that was efficient and fair to my students, as well as a grading scale that held them accountable but let them recover from mistakes. You can see some of this in a comment I made on the Building our Classroom website way back in July about how grading scales affect a student’s perception of homework (scroll to the bottom for my comment). Reading her post made me revisit a reflection I wrote earlier but never posted (although I can’t remember why I didn’t).

In my own observations and reflections, I get the feeling that there are teachers who are bellwork/classwork-centered and teachers who are homework centered. About a month ago, I was struggling with figuring out what kind of teacher I was. I still haven’t quiet figured it out, but I’ve struck some sort of balance that I’m comfortable with. What follows are thoughts I had a while ago about this relationship between homework and bellwork in the classroom and how it affects a student’s motivation in and out of the classroom:

New Teacher Homework Pressure: I should assign homework because it gives students extra practice and every teacher does it (remember: I’m a new teacher, so I still sometimes feel that ‘every teacher does it’ pressure). Students need to get used to viewing homework as practice because beyond high school, homework is for the students benefit, not the teachers. They need to develop self-discipline and a sense of work-ethic outside of the classroom. They need to take responsibility and ownership of their learning, which means doing the homework I assign them and recognizing that the homework helps prepare them for their exams, which is where the real points are. Also, homework is practice and every student needs practice.

Other New Teacher Bellwork Pressure: I should have bellwork because it gives students a structure when class starts so I can take attendance, take control of the class, do formative assessment, and every teacher does it. Students need consistency and a routine in their classes – they need to know that the class they walk into will start the same way most days (and  if it doesn’t, it means something special is happening). For me, it is a form of formative assessment – I can accurately measure the things my students do in my presence in my classroom. It can also be an activator/’anticipatory set’ for whatever it is we’re about to learn – maybe I throw a question on their about fractions to refresh their memory because they’ll need fractions in today’s lesson (this, however, means I will spend 5 minutes refreshing their memory on fractions as a result of a single bellwork problem). Also, bellwork is practice and every student needs practice.

I feel pressure to have these things not really from any tangible external source – more like an internal struggle in trying to compare my classroom to the typical math classroom (which may not always be what I should be doing). I’ve also seen both of these methods work well in certain classrooms, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen both methods executed well in the same classroom.

If you emphasize homework, the checking of  homework, and the asking questions of homework – does that means your bellwork is short and sweet and straight-forward? Do you even have bellwork, or does checking homework replace that? If you emphasize bellwork and talking about bellwork, using it as a segue into the lesson, or as a way to spiral back in the curriculum – does that mean you just have students check their answers to the homework without necessarily talking about them? Are your homework assignments short and straight-forward?

If you emphasize homework, does that mean you grade bellwork for completeness? Maybe at the end of the week? If you emphasize bellwork, does that mean you quickly grade homework for completeness? Maybe at the end of the unit?

If you emphasize homework, does that mean your lessons are short and concise so you can use homework as that practice and a place for feedback? Are your lessons bookended by homework – checking it at the beginning of class, then using it as practice at the end of class? Does that mean some of your homework problems require your students to ‘reach’ a little bit, and you usually end up talking about them the next day (and maybe even leading into that day’s lesson)?  If you emphasize bellwork/classwork, do you pepper example problems and time to practice throughout the lesson instead of putting them all on the homework? Do your lessons run all the way to the bell and sometimes have an inquisitive/guided practice aspect to them? Is homework seen as ‘extra practice’ rather than a necessity to pass the course?

Does every teacher eventually fall into doing one or the other? Maybe it’s just every new teacher? Does checking the homework become the first 10-15 minutes of class instead of bellwork? Or if bellwork is a consistent 10-15 minute activity (as it is for me, which may be one of my problems), does that mean homework becomes sporadic and short and sweet? If homework is direct and straightforward and based on the examples from the class period, does that mean the bellwork the next day has that higher-level thinking problem/reflective problem/word problem/real-world application problem? Or is homework the stretch for the student while the bellwork is the quick and dirty check from the previous day?

I’m still tweaking my classroom routines and policies regarding homework, but they’ve definitely changed several times already (whatever it is I’m doing, it doesn’t match up verbatim with the procedure I outlined in my syllabus).  I know that I need to really be on top of my bellwork problems, since they’re my most accurate form of formative assessment – if I don’t have those problems aligned precisely to my curriculum, my students could have procedural or conceptual holes that I’m not catching. I also know I have a bellwork-centered class and my kids see their homework as that extra practice and a place to get free points, but not something that is absolutely mandatory to pass my class, nor as something that they need to do every night. I still haven’t decided if I like that aspect of my classroom, but I also don’t know how to change it without sacrificing the emphasis on bellwork and without killing myself with grading. So…  I dunno. Anyway – things to think about…

Again, another long post. Thanks for stickin’ with me.

  1. This is strange to me as a dichotomy. It seems like you’re saying classes are arranged as

    bellwork + lecture/socratic session/constructivist thingy/whatever the “meat” of the class is + homework assignment at end
    lecture/socratic session/constructivist thingy/whatever the “meat” of the class is + homework assignment at end partly done in class with teacher guidance

    Is this what you mean? If so, there are lots more ways to structure a class.

    Sometimes I’ve skipped bellwork because I want an austere focus on whatever is the central problem of the day. Sometimes I’ve handed the keys to the students and given them particular problems to teach to the class and I want to remove the “teacher” presence. Sometimes I just don’t have the time. If I also use home/classwork with guided teacher time is a separate issue.

    I _will_ include bellwork if it makes a good segueway — that is, if the new lesson ties neatly into previous knowledge, and I can use the bellwork in a productive way. If the class consists of “figure out what time of day this picture was taken” then there’s not as much a point.

    Also, if the class consists of wild children I will usually dispense with bellwork because too many use it as an excuse to stall class.

  2. Hmm… you’re right – I guess I need to make a distinction in what I’m trying to say.

    Part of this reflection has to do with classroom routines and how they relate to bellwork/homework. I know that I have my idea of what a ‘default’ class is – the procedures I’ve established for students as they enter class, what they will be doing during class, and what they will do as class is ending. I know that my default class is pretty bellwork-centered. I’m with you Jason in that I sometimes throw out bellwork so we can jump into a new lesson, an activity, or initiate some sort of discussion as the class gets underway. But I still have my ‘default’ classes that my students are used to and that I am used to when I plan the flow of my everyday lessons. These are usually the lessons where I am really having them practice, or introducing little bits of new material that builds on some heavy foundation I’ve laid earlier. For example: if I spent a day or two laying the foundation for the number-line so we could do integer operations and needed a day of practice and fixing small mistakes, what would that class look like?

    I’ve been in enough classes (both as student and observer) to have the opinion that most teachers have these ‘default’ classrooms, and I think most of the time they fit one of the descriptions above. The interesting thing, from my perspective, is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a middle-ground that is (1) consistent and (2) effective.

    In my own journey with routines and what I’ve chosen to emphasize, I’m definitely a bellwork-centered person. My students are trained to do the bellwork when class starts and to participate with practice problems as the lesson goes underway. What suffers is the homework – I collected an assignment today and maybe 4-5 people per class did it the night before (usually 30 kids per class). I understand why that happened too – I haven’t emphasized homework, so it hasn’t been important to them.

    With my particular demographic, I’ll always be torn between emphasizing homework because it’s a study and organizational skill they will need, and emphasizing bellwork because it is an immediate form of feedback and a guarantee that the student is doing their own work right in front of your eyes (no help, no copying).

    Maybe that made sense? Clarified? Furthered the discussion?

  3. I never thought about it quite like this and I must say what a relief! I have honestly been trying to do both bell work and homework and it’s been hard. I think the only thing that has saved my classroom from becoming an absolute chaotic mess is this bell work and my absolute hell-bent-ness on it must be done in 3 minutes or I will collect it for points. This is was the way I finally got students in their seats and working quickly since tardiness, engagement, and behavioral issues are huge problems at my school.

    But homework is another big issue. I guess in my head I feel like I can’t forego homework. How will they get the extra practice? What will be the additional procedural push they need to support the concepts we have discovered in class? How can they measure their understanding if they don’t try on their own? It’s funny because I know that the homework doesn’t even measure those things because cheating and not completing it are both main issues. Do you allow for lots of class time to work on procedural work individually? My students will not shut up and work alone. They have severe learned helplessness and will call myself (or co-op) over to help and just sit there until we come to their rescue. When I suggest skipping problems they just put their heads down.

    Even bell work can turn into a group dynamic too quickly if I’m not there to watch like a hawk and get a true measure of each students understanding. So are you letting me off the hook for homework or do I need to have some serious thoughts of restructuring (yet again). Great post by the way, I appreciate your honesty and reflection; I definitely suffer from the, “Every teacher does it” pressure.

  4. No answers from me, just an observation. One nail I think you’ve hit on the head is the pressure for new teachers to conform to rigid norms and expectations as they are settling into a new school and classroom. For all the talk about honoring the formative assessment and all that jazz, the new teacher induction process has got to be the most rigid, least flexible initiation (hazing?) process I have ever experienced in any organization or profession in my life.

    Everything you’re being measured on depends on conforming your classroom practice into narrow pigeonholes along a pretty dumbed-down checklist: do you have bellwork? do you assign homework? what is your “classroom management” policy? how quickly do you redirect “off-task” student behavior? what are your detention/study hall stats? how many parent complaints/compliments do your administrators receive?

    Etc. Etc. Etc.

    [NB: The one exception to the above is if you are Jason Buell and just say, “Meh. Whatevs.” when you are accused of not conforming.]

    I “get” that it’s hard to figure out how to track and measure new teacher progress, but I’m pretty sure that what you and Molly and I are all seeing and experiencing is *not* the best available set of practices in existence. Instead, I would argue that they are norms that have fossilized in place instead of being living, dynamic, formative assessment systems.

    But they’re the cost of admission to the profession. So we punch our tickets and reflect here on the web and on Twitter, connecting with others who are actually *pursuing* improved practice instead of just talking about it.

    – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)


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