Bell Work Ideas and the Six Principles of "Stickiness."

Why do some ideas take root while others die? How do we improve the chances of our ideas taking hold? The origin story — may be true, probably literary legend — about Ernest Hemingway that inspired Six-Word Memoirs is an excellent example: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The first six-word story. It had all the right ingredients to stick. In their bestselling book, Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath argue that what makes ideas “sticky” (i.e. memorable) can be wrapped up in a simple acronym: SUCCES. (Yes, it’s purposely misspelled. 1000 bonus points to Dan and Heath for being 6 letters.)

SUCCES = Simple Unexpected Concrete Credible Emotional Stories

  • Simple: Simplicity is achieved when an idea is stripped down to its core, to the most essential elements that make it work. Simple does not have to mean short (but it helps).
  • Unexpected: The best ideas represent a break from the everyday, the ordinary, the status quo. Once our attention is grabbed, sticky ideas refuse to let go.
  • Concrete: We must present our ideas in terms of sensory information. Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea means the same thing to everyone in the audience.
  • Credible: Sticky ideas give us a reason to believe they’re true (even when they’re not).
  • Emotions: Strong feelings give your audience a reason to care about your idea. Sticky ideas appeal to our wishes, desires, and hopes, and interlock with our image of ourselves. We are wired to feel most strongly for people, not for abstractions.
  • Stories: Stories open up new worlds to us and widen our emotional reach. Stories act as simulation chambers, allowing us to come to their morals on our terms.

That’s why bell work is such a powerful teaching tool.
It shapes students’ classroom experiences, providing a frame for the day’s activities and creating opportunities for reflection, synthesis, and mindful awareness of learning objectives.

It’s simple. Sticky.

Teachers who regularly use the six word format in their classrooms report that our versatile framework is ideal for bell work.

Here are three bell work ideas for your classroom:


This social science-geared exercise activates students’ critical thinking skills by inviting them to evaluate where they see current social, political, and technological trends heading.

Learning Objectives
  Analyze a sequence of events
  Explore the connection between cause and effect
  Anticipate an outcome based on prior data

  Prep time: 5 minutes
  Task time: 10 minutes

Begin by asking your students to consider a current event or social reality that you’ve been discussing in class. Ask students to share key details that they remember from the discussion. Teach them about the concept of prediction.

Prediction is using past information to anticipate future realities.

Remind them that prediction is different from guessing. Guesses don’t require prior knowledge. But predictions are most powerful when they find their foundation in prior facts. Invite students to put their prediction skills to work. Ask them to write a six word prediction about how this situation or trend will unfold. Do they anticipate that things will improve? Or will they deteriorate?

This six word exercise gets students thinking critically about the world around them and can be used to generate conversation or catalyze independent reflection.

Follow-Up Activity
Pair students and ask them to share their predictions with another classmate. Their classmates can help them evaluate if their prediction is sufficiently backed by facts.


This exercise in literary perspective challenges students to craft a Six-Word Memoir from the point of view of a figure you’ve studied in class. 

Learning Objectives
Compose a concise narrative from another’s point of view
  Consider how age, social location, and historical situation affects a person’s perspective

  Prep time: 10 minutes
  Task time: 15 minutes

Remind students that every text we encounter is written from a particular point of view, and our point of view is shaped by our own experiences and circumstances.

Invite students to consider a historical or fictional figure you’ve studied in your classroom (for example: Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Atticus Finch).

Ask students to write a first-person Six-Word Memoir from the perspective of that figure. Remind students to consider that figure’s social location, lived experiences, and historical setting.

Questions to stimulate student brainstorming include:
  What might this person be proud of?
  What might they regret?
  What would they want us to remember about their life?

This six word exercise helps students analyze historical or fictional settings, draw inferences based on their knowledge, and summarize their considerations in a concise format.

Follow-Up Activity
Ask students to share their words with another student and explain why they crafted the memoir that they did.


This SEL-enhancing exercise helps students learn practical skills to decrease their levels of stress and distraction while improving their ability to focus and retain important information.  

Learning Objectives
Gain skills in naming interior realities
  Learn how to regulate emotions and focus attention

  Prep time: 5 minutes
  Task time: 5 minutes

Invite your students to sit in a comfortable position. Once they’re settled, ask them to take a deep breath in and then to exhale it slowly. Repeat this request until students have calmed their bodies (or until the bell rings…).

Encourage your students to pay active attention to the thoughts that surface in their minds. What held their focus? What got their attention? What created worry or excitement?

After 30 seconds of quiet reflection time, ask students to write down the first six words that come to their minds. Explain that committing these words to paper allows them to externalize and examine what’s happening internally.

Once they’ve written their words, prepare students to return to the work that’s planned next. Remind them that they can consciously direct their focus and pay close attention to what you’ll be discussing because they’ve given the thoughts in their head a place to live.

This six word exercise develops students’ ability to pay attention to their inner world and is foundational to more complex SEL work.

Follow-Up Activity
To take this exercise a step further, ask students to write a short paragraph explaining why those words were at the top of their minds. This follow-up exercise can be used to introduce students to the concept of journaling. To learn more about the power of journaling, we love this article from social-emotional learning organization, Empowering Education.

Written By:

Larry Smith

Big Hair, Big Heart, Big Hurry.

Founder of Six-Word Memoirs

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