Special grant helps a school discover ringing amid continuing pandemic

by Gillian Erlenborn

Gillian Erlenborn teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade choir and musical theater at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown, New Jersey. This past year, she has been implementing handbells into her choral curriculum with great success. In addition to her school position, Gillian also directs the handbell choir at Middlebush Reformed Church in Middlebush, New Jersey. She has been ringing since the third grade and is so grateful to be able to encourage and foster the love of handbell ringing to those she serves. Gillian is honored to serve on the national board of Handbell Musicians of America.

I teach at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown, New Jersey. Like many other teachers during the Spring of 2020, I had spent every night since March 13th adapting lesson plans for a virtual world. I was teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade choir online, but I was also trying to teach 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds how to navigate a pandemic—while learning how to do so myself.

The end of the 2019–2020 school year brought a variety of emotions with it: disappointment for ceremonies and school trips missed, pride that my students had made it through, and shock that I had made it through. The list goes on and on. One of the strongest feelings I had was relief: relief that a much-needed break had arrived.

Summer break gave me time to reimagine what the next school year could be. As the days went on, scientific studies and governmental policies started to shed more light on what things would look like. Masked up, six feet apart, mornings in the building, afternoons virtually from home, no singing, no after-school clubs, no lunch. It was becoming increasingly evident that it would be a very tough year ahead.

My district would be lucky enough to open in person in the fall—but only for half of our student population at a time. While some of the students would be masked during in-person learning, their classmates would be watching us online and absorbing what they could from the lessons. I had already seen how difficult it was to keep online learners engaged when cell phones, snacks, and their beds were all so nearby. I knew I needed to do something awesome. Luckily, I had been ringing handbells since 3rd grade and had a pretty strong hunch that my students would fall in love with the instrument just like I did.

Obviously, a new set of handbells or handchimes is not cheap. Many schools and programs borrow equipment from churches which are not using their sets or get in contact with their HMA Area representatives who sometimes have bells or chimes to lend out. I turned to a non-profit organization called the Morris Educational Foundation to help me. This organization is a staple for our community in Morristown. They hold annual fundraisers and use the money they raise throughout the year to help fund projects that better our school district and provide new learning opportunities for our students.

Before completing any paperwork, I first called the foundation to talk through the grant with them. It was extremely helpful to hear from a member of the organization about what sorts of projects they fund, what they like to see in an application, and what their budget for grants are. If you find yourself applying for a similar grant, I highly suggest making a personal contact with the granting organization! My project was far outside of their usual budget’s allowance, but, during my phone conversation, I found out that the organization had some money left over from projects and events that were canceled at the end of the 2019–2020 school year. The conversation also gave my contact an opportunity to talk to the full board about my idea before they saw the official application. In just a few weeks, I had learned that my grant was approved: I was able to order a 3-octave set of handbells, 2 octaves of handchimes, tables, foam, covers, folders, gloves, music—the works! I was heading into the 2020–2021 school year with new equipment, a new plan, and new hope.

I was so excited when the students arrived. They loved watching videos of handbell choirs and imagined what it would be like when they reached that level. We began with basic technique and rhythmic pattern reading, moved to playing along with Boomwhacker YouTube videos, and eventually they were ready to ring from a full score. The students would come into class and wipe down the handles for their two bells before heading back to their seats. We read music from the projector screen so that they didn’t have to share folders, and we rang without tables or gloves. When at home, virtual students played along with the score or video using water bottles, remote controls, hairbrushes, etc. All of my students were enthralled. They were doing something collaborative and communal again.

As the students improved and even excelled, I introduced them to the Google Chrome Music Lab’s Shared Piano, where each letter of their computer’s keyboard acted as a key on the piano or, in their case, a bell. This way students at home could play along with our music in the classroom and have their Chromebook act as a pitched instrument. They could hear their mistakes and learn from them. They could also share the link to their piano with classmates, collaborating and playing together in real time. They could record their work and send it to me for assessments and check-ins. It kept morale and excitement high when the glamour of “ringing” water bottles died down. Both the in-person students and those at home recorded several videos as the year went on, which made the prospect of creating our own virtual concerts MUCH more attainable. I could not be prouder of the hard work and amazing progress of my students while ringing bells during some of the toughest of circumstances. They finished the school year more musically literate, passionate, and musical than they had come into it.

This summer has been full of much more positivity and hope on my part. I am excited to be able to set up bell tables and teach my students some new techniques. We will be playing around with some resources like Developing Coordination Skills by Michael R. Keller, and Michael Joy’s Foundations series. I have found music that will challenge them in the best way possible, and I can’t wait for them to get excited about focusing on music literacy like they did last year. While I recognize we won’t look like your average bell choir for a while longer, I am ready to welcome all of my students into the building together for full days of school. Above all, I am so excited for handbells to be integrated into my choir curriculum for good and for my students to reap the benefits of our wonderful instrument!

Through pandemic restrictions and virtual learning, getting handbells in my classroom paved the way for collaboration and high-level music-making when my students and I needed it most. Now, I can’t wait to see what the future of handbells in my classroom will look like!