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Monday, August 10, 2015

Bell-work for the Strings Class

Our district has been really focusing on student learning objectives and  teacher/student goals.  As part of this process, we have had quite a few trainings about 'checking for understanding,' and I believe this concept really helps improve teaching and student growth.  I remember a time during my first year when I taught a new concept - low 1's, and then gave a playing test at the end of the week.  As I taught the lessons, I thought my students were getting it.  They sounded in tune - at least in the front (we know how that goes).  At playing test time, it was pretty discouraging to learn that most students were not understanding the skill and they were extreemely out of tune.  I should have checked for understanding earlier in the week so that I could have targeted my teaching to what my class needed.  Students could have then had the experience they needed to do well on the playing test.

Now, I try to check for understanding constantly.  One way I do this in my beginning strings class is to have bell-work that students complete every day.  An added bonus is bell-work gives students something to quietly focus on during tuning. Here's what's been working for me:

6 Tips for Implementing Bell-work:

1.  Establish a routine.  From the first week of school, teach students to always read the board where you will have instructions about bell-work.  Students should enter the classroom, set up their instrument, get it tuned by the teacher, then complete bell-work.  The student must be finished with bell-work BEFORE the teacher is done tuning.  When bellwork is finished, students place the paper on their music stands in full view for grading.  Students who do not finish do not get points and there is no way to make-up missed bell-work assignments.

2,  Keep stacks of staff paper (half sheets) and blank paper (half sheets) on hand so you can write directions for bell-work on the whiteboard and students answer on one the papers. Then, you never have to hunt for specific worksheets or make copies.  (I do use my 'Be An Amazing Note-reader' workbook pages for bellwork during the first few weeks of school.)

3. Don't stress about creating bell-work assignments - it's easy!  As you think about what students learned the day before, what could you ask them to check for understanding?  What it essential that you want to make sure students understand? It can be short, simple, and easy.  Possibilities are endless.  Here are a few examples;

Note-reading        - draw 10 notes on the staff
                             - draw your clef 10 times and circle the best one
                             - divide the staff into 4 measures and draw 2 half notes in each measure
                             - draw one note on every line of the staff and label the note names
                             - draw the notes for your open strings

Rhythm                - music math
                             - copy a rhythm and label the counting
                             - draw a dotted half note. How many beats?

Skills:                   - what should your thumb look like when forming a proper bow hold?
                             - Show your bow hold to your stand partner.  Write about anything you                                                   see that is good, or that should be fixed.
                             - What are the notes on the D string?
                             - How long did you practice last night?
                             -  List anything that was hard for you to play yesterday?
                             -  How do you play F#?

4.  Keep grading simple.  During warm-ups, you can walk around the room and look at the papers on the music stands to see who has done their bellwork.  Give every student points for completing the work, and collect only the ones where you see the student needs help.  Then, you can spend time at the end of class re-teaching the students who did not understand.

5.  Consider investing in clear pockets and fine tip white-board markers for quick bell-work assignments.  It saves paper and they are very convenient.

6.  Be sure students know what to do with bellwork papers at the end of class.  You don't want little papers left all over your classroom. You can have students hand them in or throw them in the recycle bin on the way out the door.


  1. Marie in Williamsburg VAAugust 10, 2015 at 5:00 PM

    Angela thank you so much for your inspiration. I am going on year 2 of teaching middle school strings and this assignment is the first time in my 25 years of teaching I have taught JUST middle school strings....and I LOVE it! I am always searching for new ideas and fun ways to teach technique and skills and make it FUN. As for the "Bellringer" activitiy, I was actually just contemplating this very thing since our school division has been placing emphasis on "differenciation"....HA! I love how it takes the rest of the academic world to catch up to the arts and put labels on things that we do all the time! Keep sharing!

  2. Thank you, this helps a lot as my school has decided that bell ringers are a 'non-negotiable' this year.