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Not your average music class: Kids turn books into original songs



Nate Bogopolsky, STYLE’s education director, leads kids in song at Smilow Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

We are all connected; it makes life beautiful. Everyone is different. Life is so colorful.

First-grade students at Decatur Elementary School wrote those lyrics after reading Oliver Jeffers’ children’s book "Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth." In a 45-minute workshop presented by STYLE: Songwriting Through Youth Literature Education, these 6- and 7-year olds talked about the book’s message, described how it might sound (‘happy, dance-y, confident, a little like Taylor Swift’), and turned those ideas into an original song.

At the Columbia City Library, another group of children gathered around a Native American storyteller for a different STYLE workshop: the tale of Thunderbird/Seahawk. Kids learned how a Native symbol became the logo for their favorite football team. They talked about ways art can honor culture. Then they wrote and recorded a sports anthem inspired by the experience.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

Kids listen to Native American storyteller Roger Fernandes at a STYLE event.

STYLE is not your average music class. It’s an educational program of Bushwick Northwest, which runs the popular and unconventional book club that writes, then performs songs inspired by books.

“Through STYLE, we help students ignite a passion for literature,” said Bushwick Executive Director Geoff Larson. “We do that by bringing teaching artists — musicians, producers, sound engineers, sometimes storytellers and dancers — into classrooms to help students connect to what they are learning through something they already love: music!”

Students work with teaching artists to build a theme and style of song based on a book they are reading. Then they imagine themselves as musicians, writing and recording their original song.

“It’s important to note that these kids aren’t writing book theme songs,” said Nate Bogopolsky, STYLE’s education director. “That would be boring. Our programs encourage kids to write songs that connect what they read to their own lives and experiences. They’re not really writing about books at all; they’re writing about themselves.”

Kids in STYLE also learn important life skills. Bogopolsky explained that before kids begin songwriting, they first have to discuss the book and talk about their approach.  “They learn to voice their ideas and opinions.  They make decisions together. They practice teamwork and respect.”

“STYLE is as much about learning to communicate, collaborate and compromise as it is about music and literature,” said Larson.

And when the students slip on headphones, step up to the microphone, and start recording, it’s about building confidence.

“Also, kids come away from our programs with a really catchy song to annoy their teachers with for the rest of the year,” Larson joked.

Listening to a 6-year-old sing “We are all connected; it makes life beautiful” doesn’t sound too annoying. That’s a message we all need to hear more often.

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