An Educator’s Guide To The Stories & Songs of a Nation
This behind the scenes look at the stories and songs of a nation is a culmination of the biggest project I’ve ever been part of. Over a two year period, I traveled thousands of miles across Canada, writing, recording and performing songs with thousands of First Nations, French and English students. This project is the result of hundreds of hours spent talking with students, writing, playing, rehearsing, performing, recording and editing the songs and videos from these experiences. This is a behind the scenes look at the process involved and I know will be a rich resource for educators across the country and around the world.
I’ve chosen to feature 20 songs that have transformed classrooms in schools across the country. They are listed in alphabetical order to make it as convenient as possible to scroll through. There are links to videos if you and your students would like to see live performances from the creative projects in each of the schools represented.
Awesome Song was written with a school in Winnipeg, MB. I asked the students to tell me about their class. As a joke, one student shouted, “we’re awesome!”
They all started laughing when I wrote it down on the whiteboard, thinking I was joking. But when I asked them to explain why they were so awesome…that’s when they really got into it and ideas for the verse came together very quickly.
My favourite lyric came as I was trying to think of a word that rhymed with cupcakes. This project was happening in the middle of winter, so ice skates jumped to my mind. As I jotted that down I called over my shoulder and asked them to think of a fast animal. Because it was winter I was thinking of winter animals like polar bears or snow foxes and laughed out loud when a student called out, “a peregrine falcon.”
He thought I was laughing at his suggestion and said really seriously, “Dude…a peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on the planet. It goes over 350 km an hour when it dives!”
“I’m not doubting you,” I laughed, “I just know that if you gave me a week to come up with something I’d never think of peregrine falcon.” It was obviously meant to be because when I grabbed my guitar and sang the line the syllables fit perfectly with the meter of the song.
The Actions have played a huge part in making The Awesome Song a national hit. We point to our chest with our thumbs in a really awesome way when we sing, “I’m awesome.” Then we point to others in our class in a super dramatic (awesome way) when we sing, “you’re awesome” and we throw our arms as high and wide as we can when we sing, “we’re awesome” when we’re together.
Best Day Ever came out of a session with a group of Kindergarten/Grade 1 students in the Northwest Territories. Which is definitely the youngest ages of students I’ve ever written a song with.
I made a list of their favourite activities as they called out things like playing games with their sisters and brothers, break dancing and hunting. I took their laundry list of activities and put it together into this song.
On a return visit to this school, a year later, we had the time to make THIS VIDEO to go with our song. One of my favourite memories of working on this song was the day I was really encouraging the students to shout out the line, ‘Best Day Ever!’ There was one little girl standing with her fingers in her ears, (because it was so loud) but still shouting the phrase at the top of her lungs because she was so into it.
Buddy Bench – Maybe you’ve heard of the buddy bench before, I’d hadn’t before I arrived at this school in northern B.C. The students explained that there was a special bench on the playground that you could go sit on if you didn’t have anyone to play with at recess or lunch. They told me it was everyone’s job to keep an eye on the buddy bench, and if they saw someone sitting on it, they needed to run over and invite them to come and play.
About a year after posting the video on youtube, I got a call from a school in Massachusetts. They were putting in their first buddy bench and were going to have a big ceremony. They’d been searching YouTube for a Buddy Bench song and loved this one I’d written with the students in Fort St John.
They asked me to send the lyrics and chords so they could learn how to play it. It was a fun story to be able to share with the school in northern B.C. when I went back the next year. It’s one of the things I love most about creativity and songwriting, you never know where it will go. We write a song in our little corner of the world and suddenly there are students singing it in other countries.
Captain Fluffy Beard (The Disrespectful Pirate) OK, this was a pretty funny session. I walked into a room with kindergarten and grade 1 students and asked them what they’d like to write a song about. They yelled, “PIRATES!”
As they squealed and shrieked with glee, their teachers managed to say, “well actually…we wanted to write a song about respect.”
I kept a smile on my face, but inside I was starting to freak out, cause I just couldn’t imagine how I could write a song about pirates and respect that would make the students and the teachers happy.
Well, not only did we manage to pull it off…but Captain Fluffy Beard has gone on to become a hit song in schools across Canada. And I’m sure will be with your little swarthy swashbucklers as well.
Change The World (Change le Monde) came together at the last minute. It was the third year in a row that I’d been booked for a one-week Artist in Residence at this French Immersion school. I called the principal on Thursday, just to confirm everything was good to go for the following Monday morning when I was scheduled to start.
The two previous years I had taught slam poetry. But when I asked if they were interested in doing the same thing the principal responded, “oh…I don’t know, what else do you do?”
When I told her about the songwriting project she got really excited and asked if I would be able to incorporate all 360 students in the school. Without thinking about what I was saying, I blurted, “sure, no problem!” Luckily it all turned out.
The school had a huge banner in the hallway that said, “if you change your mindset you can change your world.” That giant poster sparked our conversation about what each student could do to change their world.
I produce multimedia videos during these songwriting sessions, to document the creative process of working together creatively, and to provide as many different ways as possible for students to be involved. Some of us like acting, some are good at art and it’s important to create a win-win environment for everyone.
So we covered one wall in the hallway where students could write iMessages. Like…i feel safe here, i love my school and other positive messages. Some classes made big art projects and others acted out scenes on the playground.
We recorded the performance in the gym on Friday featuring all 360 students. It was deafeningly loud…I’m serious, like AC/DC kind of loud! This remains a really popular song to sing. The call and response lyrics make it easy for students to learn and sing-a-long. It’s also a great reminder for students what a difference their words and attitude can make each day.
Christmas Town is the best Christmas song I’ve ever written. (It’s also the only Christmas song I’ve ever written!)
This class of Grade 1& 2 students were so excited to write a Christmas song, it was absolutely amazing. They had so many great ideas I could hardly write fast enough to get them all down.
We wrote and recorded Christmas Town during the week in November that I was in their school. Their principal told me that they performed this song for the school Christmas program in December a few weeks later…and apparently, they also wrote a couple more verses after I left!
There is a moment captured in the video where a group of girls get up and start walking away from the group right as the song was starting to come together. Thinking I was losing their interest and focus I called out, “where are you guys going?”
“To make the actions!” they responded, already moving on to other important creative matters.
Écoutez Notre Histoire was the song I wrote with the French Immersion school in northern B.C. the year after we wrote Change the World. I don’t speak French, which gives me a great opportunity to learn from the students. I need them to help me write or translate lyrics into French.
Students in the Grade 6 class were fantastic. We were talking about finding our voice so we could share our story with the world…and they started muttering at the back of the room. When I asked what was going on, a few of them came running up and they wrote Écoutez Notre Histoire on the whiteboard…translating the line I’d written, ‘Listen to our Story.’
We ended up developing the bridge part where the Grade 6 students really took over the call and response part and lead the rest of the school, joining me at the front of the gym on Friday when we started recording.
There was a great moment right as we started to record our performance in the gym on Friday afternoon. I got the idea for all the students to punch the sky with their little fists as they yelled, “Hey!” It took our performance to a whole new level of elementary school rock and roll captured wonderfully in the video. 🙂
Fill My Bucket was inspired by a book about bucket filling. There are a few different books about bucket filling, but I think this class had read WILL YOU FILL MY BUCKET?: DAILY ACTS OF LOVE AROUND THE WORLD, By Carol Mccloud and Karen Wells.
I didn’t know anything about bucket filling, but after the students explained it to me, I told them that lots of great songs are actually great stories, and suggested we write our song that way.
“So what happens?” I asked them.
“Someone comes to school,” they said.
“OK…and then what happens?” I asked.
“Maybe someone gets hurt,” they responded.
“OK…and then what happens?” But they didn’t know what should happen.
“What would want to happen…what would you like?” I asked.
There was a little boy sitting on the floor by my feet who wasn’t paying any attention at all, but he heard me say, what would you like, and he looked up at me really excited and squealed, “ice cream!”
Which of course had nothing at all to do with the song we were writing, and it made everyone burst out laughing, so I decided to include it in the song.
I have taught this song to many schools since, and have had students come up to me to tell me that at recess they were out on the playground and someone got hurt, and they ran up to them and asked if they would like ice cream, and everyone laughed, and the person who was sad because they were hurt, felt good enough to get back up and start playing.
If you’ve read the bucket filling book with your students then I know that this song will be a great fit and they will love singing it.
I’ll Be There For You was a bit of a departure in many ways. I was working with a grade 6 class where some of the students were dealing with some pretty heavy life situations.
Many times songwriting happens very quickly, but not this time. We spent the most of our first three sessions talking…about all kinds of stuff. Like the real meaning of empathy and compassion, and what it really means to, ‘be there’ for a friend, and what makes words have meaning.
Melodically the song is more complicated than I usually use when I’m in schools. But this was a special song for a special class. As it finally started to come together on our fourth day, I saw a few teachers at the back of the room with tears in their eyes. Being there in that room and sharing that moment, we all knew we had shared a special moment.
The atmosphere on Friday afternoon as we sang it in the gym was very powerful. When all 350 students in the school started singing along to the chorus…it reminded me of hearing all the children’s voices in Pink Floyd’s song, Another Brick in the Wall.
In The Zone was the theme the class decided they wanted to write about before I even arrived. They explained the idea behind the social and emotional colours used to teach students how to identify what zone they are in if they’re feeling sad, mad or lonely and how to move into green or the positive zone.
This was a pretty energetic class and they always wanted to move and groove. At the time, dabbing was still a thing. And as they yelled the chorus, “I want to be GREEN!” they dabbed when they yelled, green. First to the left. Then to the right. I saw a funny comment on youtube where some student watching summed up his feeling succinctly, “Don’t Dab.”
Let’s Change The World was inspired by a book called, Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed, by Emily Pearson. The students were from Grade 2 & 3 and they wanted to write a positive song that would encourage everyone who heard it to ‘pay it forward.’
I hadn’t read Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed, so our session started with the student’s telling me about the story. Then we started brainstorming ideas that could change the world, and from this list, we wrote our lyrics.
Meilleure École du Monde started with the whistling part, at least it did for me. I was driving through the Rocky Mountains on my way to the town of Merritt where a French School was celebrating 35 years of French Immersion in the community. They were excited to write an anthem.
A celebration song needs to have a certain, je ne sais quoi, if you know what I mean. As I was driving along I heard this little melody in my head and started whistling it. It was so happy and playful I could picture everyone dancing a dos-à-dos or promenade like they do in square dancing.
I was excited about the song and the project and meeting everyone in this school I’d never been to before, but my first session with the Grade 6 class went over like a lead balloon.
I’m sure 99% of us watch videos on YouTube. So these students had seen some of my videos from other schools. (And I’ll be the first to admit, there are some awesome videos on my YouTube channel!) But instead of inspiring them, it had psyched them out…they thought the other schools I’d been at were much cooler than their school and they didn’t even want to try.
Our session ended and I moved onto the next class down the hall and sure enough, there were lots of students eager and willing to throw themselves into the creative process.
Over the next couple of days, the Grade 6 students were starting to hear rumors that the song was amazing, and that we were filming all kinds of exciting visual elements for the video. Suddenly they wanted to be involved! Strings were pulled, schedules were changed so that I could get an extra session with them, and they danced and performed and sang at the top of their lungs.
The Actions – when your class sings this song, you need to dos-à-dos during the whistling part. You can watch THIS VIDEO as well, but just link arms and dance once around and then let go and find another partner and do the same thing. It’s fun and exciting and a great way to celebrate being a great school.
Nous somme la meilleure – we are the best
Ecole du monde – school in the world
la vie est belle dans notre école – life is beautiful in our school
Nahedee Oki Natsédeh was an amazing project. I was working with the traditional language teacher from Kátł’odeeche First Nation to produce a multimedia project with students from Chief Sunrise School. The community is located in the Northwest Territories on the banks of the Hay River where it enters Great Slave Lake.
The story was how the students in the community were learning to walk in two worlds. One was the academic world represented at school, preparing them with the necessary education and skills to succeed in the world. The other world was learning their traditional ways and language. During my time in the community I filmed the students learning to speak South Slavey, as well as spending time each week out on the land ice fishing, building fires, cooking bannock, skinning rabbits, learning about trees, plants, waterways and animal tracks as we went for hikes and spent time in the bush.
I worked with the traditional language teacher to incorporate south slavey into the song, and we wrote and rehearsed and even recorded while we were out on the land. You can watch the video as she’s teaching me what the words mean and how to pronounce them.
Nahedeé – our land
Okı – two
Natsédeh – living
Ek’elų – road/path/trail
Dii ndee – earth
ONYAT’A:KA was written with Oneida students at Standing Stone School. Oneida are part of Six Nations, and known within the Iroquois Confederacy as Onyata’a:ka, “People of the Standing Stone.” Six Nations is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada and the only one where all six Iroquois nations, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora live together.
On my first visit to the school, I was asking students to tell me about themselves and their class. One little guy put his hand up and said, “we’re Turtle, Wolf and Bear,” referring to their clans. That became a foundation for our song and lots of great conversations about the value of diversity and coming together and honoring one another.
For THE VIDEO, I conspired with the ladies in the front office and started to sing the song through the school intercom so that students from all over the school could hear. The teachers had been prepped ahead of time and encouraged all their students to head out the door and down the hallway to the office, singing as they went. The voices grew and grew as more and more classes convened and by the time everyone got together, it was deafening. And awesome!
Onyata’a:ka – Oneida/Standing Stone
U:kwehuwe – people
I:neh ka’i:ka – this is me
Riding To The Rescue captures the spirit of a small rural school I was able to visit. I think every student arrives on a bus or gets dropped off by their parents each morning. It’s too far out in the country for anyone to live within walking distance. Most students come from families that are ranchers and farmers. The school sports teams are called, The Broncos and that was what initially inspired the idea of riding to the rescue.
The goal for any song to capture what is unique and special about the students in each school. That’s why I always start on day one by asking a bunch of questions. Students in every class told me that their school was really friendly and kind. I was told repeatedly that there were no bullies. It sounded pretty great!
One young boy told me about the day he came to school on picture day and promptly fallen into a mud puddle. His parents were working so no one could come and bring him a change of clothes. But then one of the kids in his class said they had a spare set of clothes, and lent them to him.
It was such a cute story, I had to include it in the song. By the end of the week, we had this fantastic song that celebrated the school spirit and students being good friends and creating a safe and supportive school for everyone.
The Actions – in the chorus you pretend your left hand is holding onto the pommel of a saddle while your other hand twirls an imaginary lasso above your head as you sing, ‘Riding to the Rescue.’ Your right hand comes down and you point to someone as you sing, “we’re coming to get you” and then with your other hand you do a backhand sweeping motion during the last line, “you’re never on your own.”
Sets’ani is the Slavey word for ‘Be a Friend.’ This is the name of the song I wrote with primary students in a small indigenous community in northern Canada for an anti-bullying project.
On the first day, I set up my video camera and interviewed these little JK-Grade 1 students like we were making a documentary film. I asked them all sorts of questions about their experience with bullying and how it made them feel etc.
One little girl told me a story about another student giving her a snakebite on her arm and how she cried cause it hurt. When I asked her what had happened since she told me they’d become friends. “BFF’s!” she clarified dramatically.
It was a really cute moment that I shared with her teacher at lunch, which is when the teacher told me that they used the acronym BFF to teach problem-solving in the class.
Be there for a friend
use a Friendly voice
Find a solution
It was the perfect lyric idea for the chorus. We were also producing a video to go with the song. Because the students were so young, I didn’t want them to remember lines, so we came up with a game.
We talked about the kind of words that hurt our feelings like, stupid, ugly, etc. and we also made a list of words that encourage us, like beautiful, smart, etc. We used 8 ½ x 11 pieces of paper and wrote these different words on them, along with one card that said Sets’ani. The cards were all spread out on the floor face down with the students in a circle around them. One by one they would pick up a card without looking at it, and then on the count of 3, they would all turn them over a reveal their words.
We set it up so that there would be all kind words and one mean word. The students had coloured all the kind words and the mean word was written in black and Sets’ani was printed in green.
Everyone would have a kind word except for one student. It showed how unfair and unpredictable bullying can be. It was the job of the person with the Sets’ani card to take the mean card away, crumple it, stomp it or tear it up and then give their classmate a new card with a kind word.
An element that made this project extra meaningful was working with the traditional language teacher, to translate all the kind words into South Slavey. So in addition to learning about bullying and friendship, it also incorporated traditional language in a really fun way.
Shekoli is the Oneida word for ‘welcome.’ If you were to go to Oneida Nation of the Thames, and especially if you visited Standing Stone School, you would hear ‘shekoli’ all day long. Instead of hello, hey, hi, yo, wassup or anything else like that.
When I asked this class what they wanted to write about they were interested in writing about friendship. I asked for an example and they said, ‘there is a new girl in our classroom’ which I thought was just an imaginary scenario, but then they all pointed to this little girl and said, “and she’s sitting right there!”
So they weren’t talking hypothetically, they were actually telling me how they’d been good friends. When they told me that she didn’t know anyone on the playground, I asked what they did. “We ran up and said, shekoli…want to play?”
The structure of the song is call and response, which is one of my favourite structures when writing with students because it makes it easy to learn and sing really quickly.
I’m sure your students will enjoy learning this very important Oneida word and singing about holding onto friendship, respect and honesty because it’s the best policy.
Stand Together was written with students from an inner-city school. I know that every school has its challenges, but from the moment I walked through the door, I felt a spirit of resilience. Like everyone realized there were people in their school who needed some extra encouragement and support and they were all committed to playing their part and making each day the best it could be.
As far as songs written in schools go…this one is almost punk rock. From the moment we started writing the word that kept coming up was, try. We need to try and make the world a better place. We need to try and be a good friend. When we try and don’t succeed, we can’t give up…we need to try again.
The video we produced captured some of this. The older classes lined the hallways going into the gym so they could give high fives and knuckle bumps to the younger students as they filed in. When we started singing our song the whole school started punching the air with their little fists, punctuating each, TRY.
I think we all need a song like this sometimes. Maybe it’s when your students are going through a tough time, or when they’re discouraged or feeling down. Sometimes we need to a song that gives us the courage not to give up or give in…where we can sing at the top of our lungs, ‘we can be anything we want to be.’
The Actions – We punch straight up to the ceiling every time we sing try. And in the chorus, we sway one arm back and forth over our head in time with the music.
Tu n’es Pas Seul (You’re Not Alone) is definitely an anthem. In fact, that’s what exactly what the teachers, principal, and PAC of this French Immersion school asked for. A school anthem that they could use for assemblies and other functions to celebrate who they are. (FYI…this is no small order! haha…)
The ARTS is an important acronym for this French Immersion school.
So that’s where we started.
I’ve written songs in this school before, and I wanted to make sure I understood exactly what they were looking for. So I sent some questions to the teachers about what they’d like the song to say or be about. There was one definite expectation, MORE FRENCH! Haha…
Now here’s the thing. I don’t speak French (in spite of my best efforts) but that is no reason that this request couldn’t be met. It just requires me to be humble enough to ask for help, and students LOVE the opportunity. (Honestly, who doesn’t)
So as we wrote our song, I was constantly asking students and staff how we could say this line or that phrase, ’au français.’ I love the finished product, but will always remember the process of working together. It was so fun and inspiring.
The Actions – when we performed and recorded this song on Friday afternoon in the gym, the students instinctively started throwing their arms around each other and swayed back and forth as they sang the verse. It was a very touching moment.
During the breakdown part, where we chant the ARTS part, we started doing a dance that was almost reminiscent of the Macarena. It will definitely be easiest to explain if you watch THE VIDEO. But start with your left hand, then right, then left then right. Every Time you get to the word, ACCEPT, you jump up and turn to your right 45 degrees so that after we’ve repeated it 4x you’re back to facing the front.
And then when we sing, ‘tu n’es pas, tu n’es pas seul, you’re not alone’ we point to other students, reminding them that they’re not alone when they’re in our school. If you watch the video with your students, you will notice that I changed the words from, ‘Central School’ to ‘Our School’ so any school can sing it.
Unbelievable was inspired by the largest pile of outside winter boots and inside shoes, I’ve ever seen.
I’m sure you know the phrase, ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’ that we use to teach empathy and compassion. Well, I was in a big elementary school in northern Canada. And it was the middle of winter. The entry to the school did have boot racks, but they were woefully inadequate for the number of students. So the place looked like a shoe store in a hurricane and the chaos made me think of that phrase.
Instead of talking about walking a mile in someone’s shoes, we really personalized it to the school environment and talked about walking the halls in someone’s shoes.
As a songwriter, this almost felt like an old gospel song when it came together. It has the quiet meditative verse built around a call and response structure, building to this anthemic chorus that would be right at home in an arena or stadium show.
This song has become a favourite in every school I visit. Not too long ago, it produced a magical moment I have to tell you about. A class of Grade 3 & 4 students asked if they could sing it before they had to go back to their room. As they sang, they started holding hands and dancing in circles. There were two little boys that didn’t have a circle to dance in, but as the circles drew close to them, they would break apart at some point and hands would reach out and gather up these students and then come back together. Eventually, everyone was part of a circle and they were all singing, “we’re unbelievable!” together. It was pretty spectacular. WATCH HERE.
Best Day Ever
Captain Fluffy Beard
Change the World
Écoutez Notre Histoire
Fill My Bucket
I’ll Be There For You
In The Zone
Let’s Change The World
Meilleure École du Monde
Nahedeé Oki Natsédeh
Riding To The Rescue
Tu n’es Pas Seul
Hi, my name is Rik Leaf. I enjoy everything I get to do as a Recording Artist, Producer, Slam Poet, and Writer. But I love Producing Creative Projects that help students discover the unique opportunities their talents, interests, and abilities can provide.