MSUToday
Published: March 30, 2016

Song writing project promotes literacy

Contact(s): Michael Sundermann College of Music office: (517) 353-2043 sunderm1@msu.edu, Kristen Parker University Communications office: (517) 353-8942 cell: (517) 980-0709 klparker@msu.edu

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

Last fall, Michigan State University’s Community Music School-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 CMS Detroit.

“This program presents an enormous opportunity for Detroit youth who want to learn to write songs and make their own beats,” said Jill Woodward, director of CMS Detroit. “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 started in February and runs through May, fostering 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, which 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.

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

Faculty working with students at CMS-D includes 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 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.

College of Music Dean James Forger said the literacy through songwriting project has the ability to become a scalable project with increasing educational promise for underserved youth for years to come.

“The Marshall Mathers Foundation and Carhartt have stepped forward to challenge us to look at new ways to use music as a tool to support literacy development,” he said. “This new and innovative curriculum will serve hundreds of young people. 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 its rebirth.”

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.