French Immersion Songwriting Workshop
I want to tell you about an incredible music creation project I just completed with a French Immersion school in Fort St John, B.C. I think it might inspire many of you teachers and administrators who would like to do something similar in your school.
The project involved five days of creative collaboration with over 300 students at Ecole Central Elementary School. In the week together we wrote and recorded an original song, filmed a live performance that included everyone in the school and had each class interpret the themes and values of the project through visual art and acting. We had a general assembly on Thursday, where we recorded the live performance elements for the video, Ecoutez Notre Historie.
What’s Involved in a Project Like This?
Songwriting is a very unique (and valuable) creative activity. I just want to be super clear that I actually meant it when I said I wrote a song with over 300 students. I don’t write the song in advance and come to school to teach the students to sing it. This is a creative collaboration where I work with 300+ students to write a song together…from scratch. Because in this project, the process is more important than the finished project. Of course, I hope we end up with a great song, and I will do everything I can to make that happen. But the finished song…or product, is less important than the process of creating an inviting and supportive environment for students to be creative with each other. I’ll get to that in a bit.
The Production Process & Getting From A-Z When Writing A Song
On Monday I meet with all of the classes. In this case, two classes came to the common area at a time and we had 30 minutes per session. I start by asking questions. What’s your school like? Tell me a story about something someone in your class did that made your day better. Tell me a story of something you did for someone else. I want students to know that their stories, experiences, and ideas are valuable and important.
For this project, the school wanted to develop the theme around eight values they had assigned to each class for the year. Things like empathy, cooperation, kindness, and citizenship. So I asked students to explain in their words what these words meant.
After taking notes and listening to their stories all day, I took that information home and Monday night wrote the outline of a song. Or at least the beginning of a song, and then I brought that back to school for day two, where we started to refine and develop it together. In particular, I wanted as much French as possible in this song, and I don’t speak French. So I was constantly asking for teachers and students to help me translate different ideas into French, and then working out the phrasing to make it work with the melody and song structure. In between singing the song, we also talked about ways visually oriented students could represent the ideas of the song through drawing and acting.
Why Do Something Like This?
This songwriting and storytelling project is powerful and exciting for a number of reasons. Creativity involves risk. If we are interested in team building and creating a safe place to try things for the first time, we need a safe place to get it wrong. This is as true for students in a classroom as it is for professional musicians in a recording studio.
But no one starts off being perfect. Every beginning involves risk, and risk takes vulnerability. Pride and insecurity are casualties and killers of creativity. If you’re arrogant, you think you’re better than everyone around you, and you can’t be creative with others because you think all your ideas are better than everyone else’s. That’s not a safe place…no one will try. No one will step out and take that initial risk. In the same way, if you’re insecure then you won’t believe your ideas are as good as everyone else’s. In that situation, you will be too afraid to try. Other people being creative will make you feel threatened…like everyone’s success is coming at your expense. This is the real value of a project like this.
I ask a lot of students in these projects. I ask them to take a risk and share their ideas. I ask them to sing at the top of their lungs. In the case of this most recent song, I had an idea for actions where they would point to people in their school every time they said, ‘You.’
You light the fire inside me.
You should know that you inspire me.
You make me better than I ever thought I’d be.
Vous, vous, vous, vous…whoo!
So I asked them to point at each other, including their teachers, as they sang. I wanted to make singing the song a physical experience because we’re all created differently, and for some students being able to move and dance is key to their engagement. Watch the video and you can pick them out.
How Do You Produce a Project Like This?
Success is tied to creating a safe place. And a safe place comes when you know you are being heard. From knowing that people want to hear your ideas, that your story is important. And the stories of the other people around you in your class are not in competition with yours.
So I take the first risks. I try to sing melodies. I try to fit lyrics into my melodies. I purposefully make a point of taking as many risks as possible. In a sense, I want to make mistakes. I want to get it wrong. I don’t care if I sing off tune, or out of key, or whatever…I want to show the students that it’s OK. We can try, we can get it wrong, and if we make a mistake we can laugh and have fun because none of us are perfect. When we take a creative risk, whether we mean to or not, we encourage those around us to do the same. It just works that way.
A Safe Place For Risk Taking is Key
Teachers want their classrooms to be a safe place for their students to try something new. Staff and parents want the school to be a safe place for everyone. That’s another reason a project like this is so amazing. It sets the tone for the school, for the year. It creates a common ground for every student in every grade. They all wrote the song together. They all sang it together and they’re all featured in the school video we produce together. It belongs to them because they created it together.
The staff said this sets the tone for the year. They are able to show students the video throughout the year and remind them of the values and themes that they developed together. I recorded a podcast for, The Teacher’s Toolbox, before I left Central, interviewing the principal, Broyden Bennett, and Marjo Rivard-Lorincz, a teacher I’ve worked with each year for the last four years. I wanted to get their feedback on the value of investing in a creative project like this. They had some really interesting perspectives and insights. You can listen to the podcast HERE.
Would you like to do a project like this in your school? Let me know if you have any questions. I offer virtual classroom and one-on-one creative capacity building sessions for educators, so please don’t hesitate to contact me at any time.
I hope you and your students have a great year!
Hi, I’m Rik Leaf
As a performer/producer, published author and slam poet, discovering the value of my own creative talents and abilities has allowed me to tour the world, and participate in some life-changing projects with the United Nations and the Foreign Affairs Department of Canada.
I’m the author of, Four Homeless Millionaires – How One Family Found Riches By Leaving Everything Behind, and the Creative Director for Tribe of One, an international collective of indigenous artists, musicians, dancers and slam poets.