Song Writing Project Promotes Literacy

Marshall Mathers Foundation and Carhartt fund innovative literacy program through MSU’s Community Music School-Detroit.

Exploring music and technology, Professor Mark Sullivan looks on as Detroit youth brainstorm lyrics and explore song structure.
A special auction of the limited edition Eminem Air Jordan IV helped fund "Verses: Exploring Literacy through Lyrics and Song."
CMS-Detroit enrolled 35 youth to participate in the new program focused on literacy through songwriting.
CMS-Detroit faculty member Jon Dixon and MSU Assistant Professor of Music Education Juliet Hess lead a break-out session during which students wrote and performed a short song in one evening.

A collaborative project for underserved youth that explores literacy through lyrics and song started with the sale of high-end footwear.

Last fall, the MSU Community-Music Detroit was the beneficiary of an international online auction of 10 pairs of Eminem limited edition Air Jordan shoes. All proceeds from the auction—held by Eminem's Marshall Mathers Foundation and the Dearborn-based Carhartt—will go to fund the new program “Verses: Exploring Literacy through Lyrics and Song.” The project is a collaboration between the Marshall Mathers Foundation, Carhartt and the CMS-D: the Detroit-based outreach unit of the MSU College of Music.

“This program presents an enormous opportunity for Detroit youth who want to learn to write songs and make their own beats,” says Jill Woodward, Director of CMS-D. “What is incredibly innovative is that MSU has developed a literacy approach to this music curriculum. Through Verses, we can help meet the need for increased literacy skills among Detroit youth thanks to this generous gift from Mr. Mathers and Carhartt.”

The first free 15-week course through the program started in February 2016 and fosters literacy by using popular music styles such as hip hop, spoken word poetry, and music technology as the primary teaching tools. About 35 children ages 12 to 15 are currently enrolled in the CMS-D course that teaches the art of songwriting, composing, music making, performing, mixing and recording. All enrollees have access to iPADs, iDock mixing pads, music apps, headphones, instruments, specialized microphones and other high-tech equipment needed for producing a professional recording of their original music.

Assistant Professor of Music Education Juliet Hess led a cross-departmental group of MSU faculty in developing the curriculum, including Associate Professor Mark Sullivan of the music composition area. Both Hess and curriculum co-lead Assistant Professor of Teacher Education Vaughn W.M. Watson from the MSU College of Education drew on their experiences as former teachers in urban school districts to advance the innovative delivery and instruction.

“Songwriting as a medium allows students to speak to their own realities and provides a profound opportunity for youth to talk about their position in the world,” says Hess. “It’s a medium they’re comfortable with. This class is a way to teach them important skills by meeting them where they are.”

The faculty working with students at CMS-D include a professional poet and Fulbright scholar, an acclaimed Detroit techno artist, a multi-instrumentalist folk singer, and a recording engineer. Mentors and additional teachers will also be available to help students outside of class or to assist with technology lab hours. Students currently taking the course were recommended by a coalition of Detroit public schools, family service agencies, and shelters from across the city.

VIDEO: VERSES, Exploring Literacy through Lyrics and Song
Video courtesy MSU Community Music School–Detroit

College of Music Dean James Forger remarks that the literacy through songwriting project—also known as Verses—has the ability to become a scalable project with increasing educational promise for underserved youth for years to come.

“The Mather’s Foundation and Carhartt have stepped forward to challenge us to look at new ways to use music as a tool to support literacy development. This new and innovative curriculum will serve hundreds of young people,” Forger says. “It’s a great coming together of interdisciplinary teams at MSU, visionaries at Carhartt, and Marshall Mathers—a native Detroiter with a profound commitment to Detroit and it’s rebirth.”

The first Literacy Through Songwriting program supported by a grant from the Marshall Mathers Foundation started February 1 and runs through May 15 at the MSU Community Music School-Detroit. Organizers plan to expand the course to accommodate up to 60 youth come fall, as well as to make the curriculum available to educators in K-12 public schools in the near future.

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