Singer/songwriter uses music to teach CMS students about writing
January 21, 2012
With his black jeans, embroidered Western shirt and cowboy boots burnished to a sheen, Monte Selby looked like he just stepped from a Nashville recording studio.
That impression isn't far from truth.
Selby, a singer/songwriter from Boulder, was on an independent label in the Tennessee music hub. He's been stringing together lyrics since he was a child and has a few CDs under his name.
But, there's more to this musician than meets the eye.
He's also a former educator with a doctorate degree and these days he's on the road, but not for what you might expect.
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Selby spent Wednesday at Craig Middle School, using music to teach sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders the writer's craft.
"Music is a hook because most kids are interested in music," he said.
As it turns out, Selby said, compelling songwriting is built on the same ideas that frame good essay writing. It's only the terminology that's different.
Instead of a chorus, think "thesis statement."
Instead of verses, think "supporting paragraphs."
And, as in a well-written essay, any catchy song begins with a main idea.
When teaching in schools, "I almost always start with the question, 'What would make life better,' whether that's bubble gum or world peace," he said.
The first wave of CMS students who spent time with Selby used that question to craft a theme. More groups followed throughout the day, tossing out ideas that contributed to the main idea, until they all had a chance to help craft a song-in-progress.
Selby planned to integrate students' ideas into a finished piece, which he would perform at the end of the day.
"The angle is figuring out what hit songwriters do to make that song stick in your head," he said.
But bigger ideas underlie the lesson — that what students have to say is important, and "there are ways to use writing to make what they have to say more powerful," he said.
One concept remained a constant throughout his lesson.
Songwriters make their living, Selby told a group of students, by writing songs that stand out in people's minds.
To illustrate that, he picked up a guitar and began to croon.
"Great green globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts," he sang. "Mutilated monkey meat, little birdies' dirty feet."
His performance was greeted by a chorus of "ewws" from his audience, but that's the point, he said.
People remember songs that evoke strong emotions, and the same applies to writing.
Sharon Skwarek, CMS seventh- and eighth-grade literacy teacher, believes Selby's approach works.
"Oh, absolutely," she said. "He's showing them the … craft of writing."
The challenge of teaching writing to middle school students, she said, "is getting students to see the value of being a proficient writer."
Selby's work, she said, demonstrates that writing well applies in real life.
Once students realize that their words are helping to craft a piece of music, it's not long before they buy into the idea, he said.
"I'm not writing a song for them," Selby said. "I'm writing a song with them.
"It's a lot more engaging."