National Writing Project

Oregon Teacher’s Songwriting Program Stirs Student Interest in Words

By: Gavin Tachibana
Date: December 19, 2008

Summary: The Deep Roots program turns students into songwriters: professional musicians set the students’ lyrics to music and then record the songs—and in the process, students stay academically interested and engaged. The founder of the program is now taking it to other teachers.


For Chris Gragg, the solution jumped out like a syncopated beat.

How could the Oregon teacher excite his students about writing? What could he do for these teens, who always seemed bright enough, but lacked his enthusiasm for language?

After attending a summer institute with the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College in 1997, Gragg hit upon a winning idea. He turned to the universal language of music, instructing his students to compose song lyrics.

Since then, what started as a one-time lesson has grown into a program called Deep Roots, a full-fledged music project that has spawned over a dozen CDs, paired up hundreds of students with professional musicians, and boosted the writing skills of countless young scribes.

“When I first started the program, it really wasn’t a program at all,” says Gragg, who has conducted several workshops for teachers from other states, showing them how to start their own songwriting programs. “It was just something that I thought would help students discover their true writing voices and get them to understand that their voices are important and that they have important ideas to express.  I never envisioned getting to the point where we are now.”

The Summer Institute

The seed of Deep Roots was planted after Gragg had finished his second year of teaching high school language arts in 1997 in the Portland area. Back then, he was thankful just to keep up with day-to-day tasks. But soon he began thinking about how to make his teaching more meaningful. That’s when his mentor, a veteran teacher, told him about the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College.

At the summer institute Gragg was encouraged to try new and exciting practices in the classroom. Among the lessons he learned was the importance of relinquishing control and trusting students “to rise to the occasion.”

Six months after Gragg completed the summer institute, though, tragedy struck. Gragg’s mother, a first grade teacher, passed away unexpectedly.

Gragg was given the task of cleaning out his mother’s classroom. During that time, he learned from his mother’s colleagues that a favorite activity she conducted in class was to play the piano while her students sang along.

“I was inspired by the stories of the level of commitment that my mom had shown her students,” Gragg recalls. “Thinking about my mom and music and how that got her students excited—that’s what originally inspired me to bring lyrics and music into the classroom to analyze.”

Why are we writing lyrics if we don’t have any music?” the student asked.

Former students and friends sent letters in memory of Gragg’s mother. One of the pieces Gragg received was a drawing by three siblings of a tree. They had transcribed on it a poem by Brian Andreas, which included the line “Trees with deep roots know about the things children need.”

Gragg returned to the classroom, eager to use music to get his high-schoolers excited about writing. His second day back, he introduced a lesson plan to write song lyrics. But two minutes into the assignment, a student raised his hand. Instead of asking a question, he told his teacher, “This is stupid.”

Fortunately for Gregg, he bit his lip, and asked what the student meant. “Why are we writing lyrics if we don’t have any music?” the student asked.

“My first instinct was to get defensive—this was something I had hopes for, just the act of writing some lyrics,” Gragg remembers. “My first reaction was to be hurt, and it would have been easy to snap at him and stifle what it was he was really trying to say. I’m just thankful that I didn’t.”

Deep Roots Takes Off

Originally, Gragg thought he would expand the lesson by mixing some simple melodies with student-written lyrics, bringing the finished product into class, and playing it for the students.

“But the more that we got into it, the more things evolved, and pretty soon we decided to get a recording studio, and to make a CD, and to put on a concert.”

That first year, Gragg fronted all the costs and recouped his money through CD sales. As the program developed, students took on a greater role in CD production.

Chris Gragg, program director of Deep Roots Music Project

Ten years later, Deep Roots has matured into a comprehensive program that focuses on many aspects of learning. Every year, local musicians are enlisted as mentors to high school writers. The musicians visit classrooms and share their real-life experience with writing. The students then put their new learning to work by creating their own song lyrics. Once lyrics are composed, the musicians put them to music. The result is a collection of recorded songs, all featured on professional-quality CDs.

“Things just continued to snowball,” Gragg reports. “Students started writing the press releases, they started putting together the cover art, working on marketing, visiting the recording studio. Students started not only writing the lyrics, but sometimes playing or singing the music along with the professionals in the studio.”

So far, there are 17 CDs produced by Deep Roots, with about 300 songs. And nearly 500 musicians have volunteered over the years.

Becoming a Leader

As Deep Roots has become more established over a decade, Gragg has seen his profile rise as a teacher-leader. Other teachers have sought his guidance on how to set up a program at their schools.

In the summer of 2006, Gragg held a workshop at Lewis and Clark College, where teachers from five different states assembled for a week, went through all the steps of the project, and produced their own CD. Deep Roots is taking root in other schools and other organizations, including Girls Inc., a northwest Oregon nonprofit for at-risk girls, which produced the first all-female Deep Roots CD. 

“When I started this my first thought was ‘Well, this is really going to help the students,’ but I didn’t necessarily foresee the huge impact it would have on me as a teacher and even as a person,” Gragg reflects.

It has been extremely gratifying for Gregg to see the impact Deep Roots has had on young people.  Some of his most reluctant students have become more involved in classwork after they experience Deep Roots. His students have developed an ongoing appreciation for writing, music, and their own creative potential; the level of student engagement in their schoolwork has risen; and students have made connections between their schoolwork and its real-world applications.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of struggling writers, and students who come into my class believing they don’t have anything to say, who’ve never had much success in writing before,” Gragg says. “But after participating in the Deep Roots project they understand that there is a place for writing in their lives—that even if they’re not going to be the next great novelist, even if they’re not going to write for a newspaper, even if they’re not going to get an A+ on every paper or major in English in college, writing is something that has a place in their lives and has an impact on their lives. They realize there are all sorts of therapeutic reasons to write, that it’s important to express themselves and writing is a healthy way to do that in a lot of cases.”

Gragg is now looking forward to July 2009, when he runs another weeklong course for high school teachers to demonstrate an effective curriculum model based on the Deep Roots program. Participants will collaborate with professional musicians and recording engineers in order to design and implement effective songwriting lesson plans, write original song lyrics, and craft and record their new songs on a finished music CD. They will also receive two semester credits.

“It has felt good to pass this along to other people,” says Gragg of the flourishing program that sprang up from one basic lesson, “and I’ve learned a lot.”

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