PDXposed Video Segment: "The Deep Roots Music Project" February 2009
National Writing Project - Oregon Teacher's Songwriting Program Stirs Interest In Words December 2008
The Oregonian - Students have spirit, but will it be enough? November 20, 2008
Gresham Outlook - Student Penned Songs Spring to Life on CD May 2007
The Oregonian - Music Sways Student Writers May 2007
Lewis and Clark Chronicle - Portland's School of Rock January 2007
The Oregonian - Our Own Tune July 27, 2006
The Observer - Speakers Share Passion for Writing (Eastern Oregon Writers Project) March 3, 2006
Gresham Outlook - A Gallery on the Go (Deep Roots 8) May 7, 2005
The Oregon Music Guide - Liner Note Lives: The Deep Roots Project (Deep Roots 7)
The Oregonian - Learning strikes a chord (Deep Roots 7) May 5, 2004
The Portland Tribune - Schoolhouse rocks again (Deep Roots V) May 10, 2002
The Rocket - Rock 'n' Roll High School (Deep Roots 3) July 5, 2000
Willamette Week - Music Review (Deep Roots 3) July 4, 2000
The Oregonian - Plagiarism Teaches Lessons About Life (Deep Roots 3) June 2000
The Oregonian - Pick Hits (Deep Roots 3) May 21, 2000
Gresham Outlook - Troutdale students see poetry turned into compact disc (Deep Roots 3) May 17, 2000
The Oregonian - Teen-age experience from angst to joy on CD (Deep Roots 3) May 2000
Our Town Magazine - Local Noise (Deep Roots II) May 24, 1999
Gresham Outlook - Reynolds Students See Their Poetry Turned Into Songs, CDs (Deep Roots II) May 15, 1999
The Oregonian A&E - Music To Their Years (Deep Roots II) May 14, 1999
Gresham Outlook - English class captures poems with CD quality (Deep Roots vol. 1) May 1998
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 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
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.”
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.
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.
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 feels 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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TROUTDALE — Usually, they'd be working the lyrics by now.
The group of teenagers in Reynolds High School's advanced writing
class signed up thinking they would write and produce a CD of songs. Instead,
they spend classes sitting in a circle, worrying about money.
That's the norm at Reynolds these days, students say, as the school district looks for ways to make up for a $3.6 million budget shortfall caused by years of spending too much and not keeping track of the money. Schools are looking to pitch in by cutting programs, pruning others and generally keeping tighter reins on spending.
The Deep Roots CD project — kids write the words and volunteer musicians set them to music — is on the chopping block. The high school's newspaper, traditionally published 12 times a year, is scheduled to come out just once. Field trips are gone.
Students are responding by going grass-roots, hoping to preserve threatened programs by raising money themselves.
In the past, fundraising hasn't been easy. The district sprawls across five cities from Portland to Troutdale and isn't the center of any community. Theater productions have failed to bring in big crowds. The student-produced CD hasn't sold well.
But now, school board meetings pack in close to 300 people. Parents and small-business owners say they want to help.
"More people attended this meeting than attended in my first eight years on the board combined," chairman John Nelsen said last week. "I know this is hard, but this community is waking up. We're taking back our system. We're showing pride and getting involved."
Before the district's financial problems became news, students say, their relationship with the community was tense. Last year, an Associated Press-commissioned study labeled the high school a dropout factory. The Reynolds graduation rate is less than 70 percent. Students from other schools chided Reynolds kids for going to a "bad school."
Students expected their reputation to sink even lower when news surfaced that the district's finances were in disarray, the superintendent was ousted and teachers worried about losing their jobs. Proposals to cut some extracurricular activities and nine days of school left them feeling that they'd never compete for college scholarships.
In the lyrics-writing class, the teenagers were ready to give up. Some say they even started skipping classes.
In the newspaper class, where increased production costs also contributed to trims, students also felt the squeeze. "This was going to be the year that we proved ourselves," senior Ellexsa May says. "We have a really great staff. We put so much work in. Now, people don't even know we have a newspaper."
But, May says, the attention on Reynolds is a unique opportunity to prove detractors wrong. And already, the community is stepping up.
Last week, when teachers called for a reversal of the district's buckling down on field trips, the crowded board meeting erupted in cheers. Parents clapped and whistled. Teachers cried.
A small-business owner offered to fund a choir field trip. A bus driver volunteered to drive the kids for free.
Two weeks ago, students from the Deep Roots CD class started going door to door.
"In these times especially, when everyone else is thinking about money, we need less apathy," says senior Sarah Drapeau. "We need this project. The community isn't going to get great students back unless they contribute to making things better for us."
It's still a long shot, but they hope the new attention and excitement mean one thing: People will buy the CDs. If that happens, one less Reynolds extracurricular activity will fade away.
TROUTDALE – If you want to hear one of the better compact discs of the year, you need go no further than Reynolds High School.
There you’ll find a group of budding student lyricists who collaborated with Portland-area musicians to create “Deep Roots 10,” a locally produced CD that features 15 songs ranging from silky smooth ballads to riot grrrl rockers. “Deep Roots 10” serves up soul music side by side with folk- and flamenco-flavored pieces in a tuneful buffet with something for every listener’s taste.
The students’ lyrics tackle such topics as teenage heartache and adolescent resistance, and meditate on such figures as Jesus and Batman. The young writers’ words are thoughtfully arranged into songs performed by such musicians and groups as Scotland Barr and the Slow Drags, Big Dumb Animals, Chris Mayther, Steven and Cassy Adams and The Jaws Office.
The groups and singers debuted the music from “Deep Roots” Wednesday, May 16, at Reynolds at an evening event that also featured the unveiling of a mural depicting the confluence of the Sandy and Columbia rivers, created by the school’s art students.
The lyricists say it was an ear-opening experience to hear their words turned into songs. For example, Jessica Sarich, a sophomore, penned the words for “The Lonely Nights,” performed by Jenn Dashney. Jessica says she hadn’t pictured her words in a song until she heard Dashney’s take on them. “I felt good about it after (they) were turned into a song,” she says.
“Deep Roots 10” marks the 10th anniversary of the Deep Roots Music Project, which began in Chris Gragg’s English class in response to a perceived lack of interest in poetry and writing among students.
“I remembered myself as a teen,” Gragg recalls on the project’s Web site at www.deeproots.com. “I had been rebellious, moody, and like my students I was often disengaged in the classroom.”
Yet Gragg, who now works for Lewis & Clark College but still directs the Deep Roots project, remembered that the music of The Who, the Clash and other groups, as well as such singers as Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, had helped him get through adolescence. “Maybe, I wondered, I could find a way to use music to inspire my students as well,” he says.
Ten years later, teacher Shannon McCarl notes that Gragg’s plan worked, a point seconded by Carol Mancia, a senior in McCarl’s writing class. Carol plans to major in music in college and enjoyed working on “Deep Roots,” she says.
“It makes you look at school in general differently,” she says.
Whitney Mankey, a junior, echoes that notion. “Everybody wants to listen to music when they don’t want to listen to anything else,” she says.
Megan Burlando, a senior, says “Deep Roots” was why she took McCarl’s class. “Getting my lyrics actually on a CD is awesome,” she says.
Sophomore Patience Murphy did even more than that, writing both the words and music for her song “Where Are You?” and singing and playing guitar on the record as well. Performing at the CD release was “frightening” she says, although she calmed down in the end. “Once I was up there, I just kind of went into another place,” she says.
The students note that the project allows them to share their deepest thoughts and feeling with others. For example, Nicole Nill, a senior, wrote the lyrics for “Forgiven Sins,” a Christian ballad recorded by Kris Kirkman and Zach Hingelman. In it, the singer ponders what it was like for Jesus to be crucified. “I’m a Christian, and this the most important thing to me,” Nicole says.
Morgan Wiles, a junior, wrote the lyrics for “Waiting on Love,” performed by Duffy Bishop. “I wrote about how hard it is to find that one person you’re going to be with forever,” she says. “It takes a lot of work.”
Keith Gaxiola, a man of few words, says he saw “musical fairies” when he heard Big Dumb Animals sing his words in the take-no-prisoners punk anthem “Carry On.” “It was magical,” the junior says with the slightest hint of sarcasm as the class giggles.
There was no joking, though, for aspiring graphic novelist Nick Arnold, a senior who wrote the lyrics for “Dark Knight,” the CD’s rousing closer. “Deep in the shadows lives the knight,” yells the mysteriously named STS of The Jaws Office. “A stalker of the corrupt/A watcher of the night … Staring down the evil with the darkness he holds/Driven by anger and using the fear as a weapon.” At the end of the tune, we learn the knight is Batman.
Noe Ventura, a junior, says writing lyrics for “Crystallized,” a harmonically oriented folk rock tune, was a challenge. “It was difficult because there was a lot of pressure, but once I finished it, it was a great accomplishment,” he says.
Terrell Dixon had never written a song. But he had dreamed about it.
As the first few beats of the song "Cosmic Bowling," which Dixon wrote, boomed through the speakers, the 16-year-old's dreams took shape. Dixon shed his jacket and classmates cheered him as he started bobbing his head and promptly pulled out every dance move in his repertoire. "It's like I'm ascending," said Dixon, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School. "There are no barriers to my writing."
Dixon is one of about 30 students at Roosevelt and Reynolds high schools who took part this year in the Deep Roots Music Project. Students say it transformed a rote writing class into a personal journey that inspired hope, healing and pride.
On Monday night, Roosevelt students celebrated the release of their CD, "The St. Johns Poetry Sessions Vol. 1," with a party and concert. Instead of formulaic essays and forgettable reports, students created poems and lyrics that told the stories of their lives. Portland-area artists took those words and, well, made music.
For the past 10 years, Reynolds High School in Troutdale has been home to the program. This fall, Chris Gragg, a teacher and the project's founder, secured a grant to expand the idea to Roosevelt. For students, the class is an opportunity to send a message.
"Cosmic Bowling," Dixon said, is about taking listeners back to the 1970s when young people looking for a good time went to the bowling lanes in their wide-legged pants and meticulously coifed hair.
Egbevado Ananouko, 17 based his song "Blacks Have Free Dreams Too" on a poem he wrote not long after moving to Portland seven years ago. "I see the struggles that black people are going through and the way we get treated," said Ananouko, originally from Togo. "I want us to be free of looking at people differently because of color."
Madgestiq, a local artist who spent time in St. Johns growing up, put music to Dixon's words. "I know the stigma of this area," said Madgestiq, who performed the song Monday night. "It's very special to be here with the youth. We all need that creativity in our lives."
Gragg stepped into the classroom at Reynolds High School in 1998 as a new teacher and quickly discovered that getting kids excited about writing was a bigger challenge than he anticipated. He thought back to what moved him as a teen and how he developed his passion for language: Bob Dylan. Bob Marley. The Clash. Public Enemy. Music and lyrics had opened Gragg's eyes to written expression. So he brought that language to his students. They picked apart metaphors, rhyme schemes and voice and brought their favorite tunes to class for closer inspection.
"I changed as a teacher because I started realizing that my students had more to say and were already better writers than I had given them credit for," Gragg said. "They were raising questions in a classroom and taking them into their lives, into the hallways and making discoveries."
Soon, students were writing their own lyrics as part of a class assignment. But many wondered at the assignment's impact without music to accompany the words. That's where Gragg pushed past his comfort zone. He visited local clubs, waited for breaks in the music and approached artists about their willingness to support a student album.
About three months later, the class and musicians had finished a CD, "Deep Roots 1." He used his credit card to pay for the project.
This week, Reynolds unveiled "Deep Roots 10" and Roosevelt High School unveiled its first Deep Roots CD. Though artists still volunteer their time, grants and CD sales largely cover costs.
This summer, Gragg is leading a workshop for teachers from across the nation about the Deep Roots Music Project. He says each school's program must reflect its students and community.
For some, the songs are a reflection of what they enjoy about life: music, relationships, cars, friends. For others, the music reflects what they've been through: loss, pain and joy.
Joe Spencer, 18, a student at Reynolds, wrote his song about a year ago, after a student at the school committed suicide. Konnie McConnell, 16, of Roosevelt talked of the drugs that ultimately lured her parents away.
"They are giving us a voice," said Crystal Munson, 17, who wrote her song, "My Only One," on a napkin outside a grocery store. "We all have different points of view, different perspectives, and you see it all in the music."
Long before the movie “School of Rock” hit the big screen, Chris Gragg MAT ’04 hit upon the power of music to motivate students.
How do you teach poetry and writing to a bunch of adolescents who would rather be hanging out listening to music with their friends? In 1998, Chris Gragg MAT ’04 hit upon a powerful solution: Let them hang out and listen to music with their friends.
What started as a classroom experiment to use music to melt the ice of students’ apathy turned into the Deep Roots Music Project – a program that engages high school students in listening to songs, talking about lyrics and making some music of their own.
To say that the experiment has been a success would be a serious understatement. Now in its 10th year, Deep Roots has produced nine CDs, spawned a literary magazine, launched multi-school poetry slams, propelled several students into music careers, and engaged hundreds of kids in reading and writing in a way that no other program could.
As the proud father of the project, Gragg takes great joy in talking about its roots.
Seeds of inspiration
Gragg started teaching English at Reynolds High School in Troutdale in 1995, thrilled to have the opportunity share his love of poetry, literature and written expression with eager young minds. Like many teachers just starting their careers, however, he was disappointed to discover that his students didn’t exactly share his passion. “We would read what I thought was a really great poem,” recalls Gragg, “and there would be dead silence in the room.” No matter how much he loved to write, he recalls, “I wasn’t sure how to inspire students to write.”
Two years into his career, Gragg found his inspiration at the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling. In the summer before the 1997-’98 school year, he kicked off his master’s degree studies by participating in the Oregon Writing Project through the Northwest Writing Institute. “It really opened my eyes to the unlimited number of possibilities for what teaching and learning can look like,” he says. “I came away from there determined to do something big with my teaching.”
A few months into the next school year, Gragg’s mother, the teacher who had inspired him to go into teaching, passed away. Among her belongings, Gragg found a drawing from her first-grade students, inscribed with a few lines from a story by Brian Andreas:
“When I die, she said, I’m coming back as a tree with deep roots & I’ll wave my leaves at the children every morning on their way to school & whisper tree songs at night in their dreams. Trees with deep roots know the things that children need.”
That winter, Gragg thought a lot about his own students, and about the things that they needed. “I tried to remember what had inspired me, moved me, comforted me, thrilled me, at their age,” he says. “It was definitely music. As an adolescent, music was my therapy. Whether I was sad, or excited, or heartbroken, or angry, or lonely, I could play my music, and it would help me through it.”
Returning to school after the winter break, Gragg walked into the classroom carrying not books, but CDs. As he began playing the songs of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, he asked his students to listen to the words and think about what they meant. Suddenly, the ice broke, and the classroom came to life.
“Participation in the discussions just exploded,” says Gragg. “Over the next several days, students started bringing in lyrics, talking about imagery, metaphor, cliché, even organization and structure – things I could never engage them in before.”
Examining popular songs with newly critical eyes and ears, many students were surprised to discover a disappointing lack of depth and meaning in the lyrics. Gragg casually suggested that they could probably write better lyrics than many of the songs they heard on the radio—and the challenge was on.
Gragg’s class was transformed into an impromptu songwriting workshop. As the students explored themes and messages for their own lyrics, Gragg encouraged them to dig deep into their experiences, thoughts and emotions. In addition to the artistic merits of the creative process, he says, “I wanted them to understand the therapeutic value of writing.”
To keep the momentum going, Gragg went out to hear some live music. When the bands took their breaks, he mustered up the courage to approach the musicians. Gragg told them about his class, showed them his students’ song lyrics, and ask if they would consider composing music for any of them. “They were not only receptive,” he says, “they were really excited about it.”
One by one, musicians signed on until Gragg had a dozen bands and even a recording engineer on board. What he didn’t have was a budget—but by now, he was fully committed. In a recording session financed on Gragg’s credit card, the class culminated its project – and its senior year – with an original CD: “Deep Roots – the Troutdale poetry experiment.”
Following the success of its first year, Deep Roots has continued to grow, evolve and send out new shoots. More than 100 musicians and bands have participated, including such big names as Tom Grant, McKinley, Dirty Martini, multiple Grammy Award winner Rob Hotchkiss of Train, and our own Dan Balmer ’80. Even Kim Stafford, founding director of The Northwest Writing Institute and The William Stafford Center, has gotten in on the act, performing spoken vocals on Deep Roots 2.
No longer part of an English class, the Deep Roots Music Project now is offered as part of an elective writing workshop. Participating musicians come into the classroom and work directly with students on lyric development, taking them through exercises in journaling, brainstorming, rhyming, metaphor, imagery, self-expression and other creative writing skills. The musicians review students’ finished lyrics and make the final song selections for the CD. The students then participate in every step of the CD’s production, from playing instruments and singing backup vocals to designing the CD cover and planning the CD release concert.
And the return on all that invested time and energy?
CD sales were so brisk the first year that Gragg recouped his full $3,200 investment; the program even pulled in a $100 profit. Each year’s profits have been reinvested in the program, which continues to pay for itself. Gragg, however, would be the first to tell you that the greatest returns have not been monetary. “I can tell you a hundred stories about kids who have been transformed by this experience,” says Gragg.
Dozens of students tell these stories themselves on Gragg’s Web site, www.deeproots.com. A few excerpts:
“…one of the most defining experiences of my high school career.” – Bethe Smith (Deep Roots 6)
“…the coolest thing I have ever done.” – Nicholle Plummer (Deep Roots 7)
“…my fondest and most valuable memory of high school.” – Kailina Lauretta (Deep Roots 5)
“…woke me up to what my life could be.” – Ken Howard (Deep Roots 2)
“…helped me develop a sense of accomplishment and self importance.” – D’Arcy Ruiz (Deep Roots 2)
“…taught me the importance of self expression.” – Rochelle (Mayo) Nguyen (Deep Roots 3)
“…a life-altering experience.” – Christina Parrish (Deep Roots 8)
Gragg’s first child, Lucy, was born two days after the school year ended in 2005, just after the completion of Deep Roots 8. With 12 intense years of teaching behind him, Gragg and his wife decided it was time for him to take a break and stay at home with their new daughter. But the song is far from over…
Gragg trained another teacher to take over the Deep Roots Music Project at Reynolds High School. The program continues there uninterrupted, and a sister program is set to launch at Portland’s Roosevelt High School later this year.
In the fall of 2005, Gragg was invited to speak at The Alternative Publishing Showcase, a workshop presented by the Northwest Writing Institute. After Gragg spoke, Kim Stafford approached him with the idea of developing a workshop at Lewis & Clark to train teachers to offer Deep Roots in their own schools. Since then, Gragg has developed a course and curriculum and has started raising funds—this past August, he ran 24 miles across Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to raise the first $3,000 for the program.
The first Deep Roots Workshop will be hosted by The William Stafford Center in 2007. Teachers from Ashland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Louisiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina have already signed up so that they can implement Deep Roots in their schools next year.
“My dream is to find committed teachers in other cities who will give the program the kind of deep roots it needs to thrive and expand on its own,” says Gragg. “Some day I’ll get back to the classroom. But for now I feel a sense of duty to share this program that has had such a deep impact on me and my students.”
For information on the Deep Roots Workshop, to view Deep Roots lyrics, to purchase CDs or to learn more about how you can get involved, please visit www.deeproots.com.
Lose my mind to the heartless freeway
And I slam my head against the wall
Can’t believe what’s happening
Losing sure is easy
And I’m not gonna anymore
(From “Heartless Freeway,” by David Gray, Deep Roots 4)
On the first day of class in 2000, David Gray told Chris Gragg that he hated writing. He thought he was terrible at it and he begged his teacher not to make him write. But when Deep Roots started, he got inspired. The band a.c. cotton chose his song, “Heartless Freeway,” for Deep Roots 4. “David was incredibly proud of that,” says Gragg. “He started bringing in extra writing and poetry, and he became one of the more prolific, enthusiastic writers in the class.”
After graduation in 2001, David enlisted in the military. A few months after 9/11, Gragg found a travel-worn envelope, postmarked Afghanistan, in his school mailbox. Inside were a letter and a poem from David. “I may forget most of my life in the military,” David wrote, “but I still remember Deep Roots. Thank you for inspiring me to write, even though I never thought I was any good.”
I want some sound
I want it to complete me
Let it confuse me
I want some sound
(From “I Want Sound,” by Breanna Paletta, Deep Roots 4)
Breanna Paletta not only had her song chosen for Deep Roots 4, but also got to sing backup vocals on several songs on the CD. The experience convinced her to pursue a career in music after she graduated. Since then, Breanna has volunteered her time and talent every year to work with students in the songwriters workshops and to record songs for the CDs.
Three years ago, when one of Deep Roots’ volunteer bands lost its lead singer, Gragg introduced them to Breanna. Today, she is the lead singer for the Portland band Rye Hollow.
Momma, it’s kind of hard with you not around
I wish you knew the way that I feel
When I hear the sound of your voice
If it was my choice we’d be together
But our relationship changes like the weather
(From “Momma,” by Jeff Schnick, Deep Roots 4)
Jeff Schnick had been going through a turbulent time with his mother. Their relationship was so stormy that he had moved out of the house and hadn’t spoken to her in a year. “When we started working on lyrics,” says Gragg, “I encouraged students to express something they had always wanted to tell someone, but didn’t know how.” Jeff wrote a song to his mother. “Momma” was chosen and recorded by musician Nicole Sangsuree Barrett on Deep Roots 4.
On the night of the CD release party, Jeff’s sister brought their mother to the concert, where Jeff presented her with a framed copy of his song lyrics. Inside the frame, next to the lyrics, was the CD cover and an old photograph of him with his mother. That night, the mother and son reconciled, and a week later Jeff moved back home. He and his mother maintain a close relationship to this day.
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Nearby neighborhoods benefit, too. At Reynolds High School in 1998, English teacher Chris Gragg wanted to inspire students with a songwriting lesson. He turned to Portland's indie musicians to teach students how to write lyrics and record them, then release a CD. "As an educator in a place where there are limited resources," Gragg says. "I looked around and saw this community that's really untapped."
Now, more than 200 songs and nine CDs later, Deep Roots is going national next year. Teachers from across the country will attend Lewis and Clark College to take the program to their communities.
Twenty-three-year-old Breanna Paletta entered her senior year at Reynolds uncertain of her post-high school plans. Paletta chose the path of the local indie musician after her experience with Deep Roots, where she met her fellow mates in the band Rye Hollow.
"It was really getting to work with the musicians in the studio that changed everything for me," Paletta says. "There's just so much support here for independent artists."
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Nine years ago Chris Gragg, a Portland high school teacher, could not contain his enthusiasm.
Unfortunately his students could contain theirs.
Gragg was starting his career as a teacher of English and writing at Reynolds High School. He was doing what he loved.
"Everything was almost perfect. I was being paid to write and teach writing, something I would be doing anyway,'' said Gragg, who spoke at EOU Saturday at a student writing workshop. "Every once in a while, though, I thought I was just a bit more excited than my students were. I was getting the feeling that my students were just a little bit bored by it all.''
Gragg wanted the writing bug to hit his students but it seemed like most were vaccinated against it
Then he introduced something that removed all immunity — music.
More specifically the study of the poetry of song lyrics.
"I urged them to pay closer attention to words when they were listening to music outside of class. What they began to notice was that many of the popular songs they were hearing through the mainstream media lacked the level of depth and meaning the students craved,'' Gragg said.
He suggested that his students might be able to write better lyrics than some of the songs they heard on the radio.
Some wondered what sense there would be in writing lyrics if there is no music for them, so Gragg's students answered their own question by making a CD. The students become producers, recruiting musicians and an engineer to help them make a recording.
An annual CD production, part of the Reynolds High School Deep Roots Project, has become a chart-topping hit at the high school. It has also infected students with the writing bug — for life.
For openers there is David, who was a Reynolds student in the late 1990s and once greeted Gragg with an unflinching demand. "He said, ‘I like to read but don't ever ask me to write anything.' ''
Gragg did not comply with his request. "I made him write.'' And in the process changed the student's life.
The corner was turned the day Gragg told David that a set of lyrics he had written had been chosen for the Deep Roots Project CD. The message was received with more than a smile.
"He was walking on air,'' Gragg said.
Today David continues to write skillfully and passionately. Gragg read a letter he received from David who was in Afghanistan as a member of the Marine Corps. He talked of his ship journey to Afghanistan, writing of "black velvet waves'' and "Poseidon's breath.''
Gragg teamed with professional Portland writer John Henry Bourke to give the keynote address for Saturday's Oregon Writing Project at the Eastern Student Writer's Workshop. More than 150 young people in grades 3 to 12 from throughout Northeast Oregon attended the workshop.
Bourke urged students to do what he has and follow their passion. Bourke said he grew up in a family in which his father and all three of his brothers became accountants or entered finance. Writing for a living was frowned upon so Bourke did not pursue this career path initially. Instead he began working in sales.
"It was a good job but I was miserable. I didn't like selling something I didn't care about to someone who didn't want it,'' Bourke said.
He listened to his heart and became a professional writer and musician, and today has 10 CDs to his credit and a movie screenplay.
Bourke encouraged those in his audience to write about those things they feel passionate about. Doing so reveals the common threads people share.
"If you speak from the heart maybe we can see not only differences, but what keeps us together,'' Bourke said.
Do not let yourself get discouraged if you don't meet your expectations initially, Bourke said. Writers are crafted, not born.
"There was a time when Beethoven couldn't play the piano, when Kobe Bryant could not make a lay up and Einstein couldn't add 2 plus 2,'' Bourke said.
He also encouraged the young writers to refrain from being discouraged even if people are not receptive to their message at first.
"Keep writing and you will find an audience,'' Bourke said. "People will not always agree with you but they will respect you for saying what you have to say.''
He added that everyone has a message worth sharing.
"Most everyone has something important to say. Don't let anyone tell you that you don't. The world would be different without your voices. It wouldn't be as interesting.'' Bourke said. "You all have something to say. The world is waiting for you.''
The Oregon Writing Project workshop received support from EOU, the Wildhorse Foundation and from Pendleton Grain Growers.
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Talk about a sweet venue.
People at downtown Portland's First Thursday art event couldn't stop talking about Reynolds High School students' "Get on the Bus" mobile art gallery.
"Oh, I love this idea. I haven't been on school bus in like 20 years! It's just like I remembered," said one visitor. "This is so sweet! Keep on keepin' on kids," said another.
The project was the brainchild of art teacher Katie Sullivan. Her studio painting students created the art, and she convinced the district to spring for the bus. Reynolds High counselor and artist Rafael Katz had an "in" at the Blackfish Gallery on Ninth and Glisan - he exhibited his watercolors there last month and asked the owner to let RHS park the bus in front of the gallery for the evening.
So on Thursday, May 5, about 15 budding student artists shepherded group after group of curious onlookers down the bus aisle.
The makeshift gallery was lit by clip-on lamps. A compact disc called "Deep Roots 8," filled the bus with lyrics written by advanced writing students and recorded by local bands. Visitors were treated to a platter of Ruffles potato chips, pretzels, and sugar cookies.
On every window were paintings inspired by the "Deep Roots" lyrics. The themes were dark and full of teen age angst - fear, overcoming obstacles, wrestling with emotions, relationships and mortality.
One showed a floating robotic head painted in stark blacks, whites and grays, another depicted a seemingly happy couple holding hands while their shadows fell writhing to the ground in agony.
Only two of the students had heard of First Thursday before. Sullivan said the project lit a fire of creativity and dedication in her class.
"Half my class has been staying after school and coming in on their lunch hour to work on their paintings," Sullivan said. "They were really nervous. They know what a big deal it is to have their artwork on display in the Pearl District, because I've told them how competitive it is."
Junior Marlena Hatchel had two paintings in the show and was terrified about how people would react to them.
"This is the first time I've ever done this before," she said, "And I feel like people are going to look at them and say, 'Oh, this is trash,' and they'll probably just throw it into the street and run it over with a car."
But she needn't have worried. The public was quite taken with the students' work. They engaged them in discussions about symbolism and technique. Some offered interpretations.
"This is school students' art in a school bus," said Bryan Deaner of Portland. "It just sells itself."
But the artwork wasn't for sale.
"I don't think any of students want to part with this artwork," Sullivan said. "It's really personal."
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(Read it online at OregonMusicGuide.com)
Around the classroom, students work to construct posters out of colored construction paper and glue. The distinguishing factor is that these students aren’t a bunch of grade school kids making another project to adorn Mom’s refrigerator but, rather, high school seniors working on promotional materials for the CD the class has produced.
For the seventh year in a row, students at Reynold’s High School in Troutdale have written songs and turned them over to local musicians to record. The result of the collaborative efforts is the just released Deep Roots 7: The Troutdale Poetry Experiment.
Bart Ferguson performs at the Deep Roots 7 release party.
The genesis of the project came about in 1998 when Chris Gragg tried to get his senior English class excited about poetry. Realizing that the students weren’t connecting to the works, he decided to come at it from a different angle.
Bringing in music from artists like Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Public Enemy, Gragg attempted to show the students the correlation between poetry and song lyrics. Not only did the exercise draw the students in but it got them to start looking more closely at the lyrics of some of their favorite songs.
With new eyes and ears, the students realized that many artists on popular radio had absolutely nothing of value to say. Gragg saw a window and challenged the students to write their own songs.
Chris Gragg works with his students to prepare promotional posters.
”Once they mentioned that they were a little disillusioned with some of the things, I tried to convince them that they could write stuff to top some of the popular music they were hearing,” says Gragg. “They were really doubtful, which I would expect, because they’ve never really been given very many opportunities to put their writings out there–with a purpose–and have it mean something. So, they were doubtful they could pull it off.”
Moving forward with the lyric writing, the students began to realize that their efforts seemed a little “hollow” without musical accompaniment. To resolve the issue, Gragg enlisted a few musician friends to help fully realize the compositions.
Initially, there were hopes of producing the songs and recording them on cassettes for the students but the project evolved to the point that the students had CDs to sell to the general public. From the point that the students started writing lyrics to the CD release party, the entire process lasted only 13 weeks.
Naming the album came down to Gragg and he knew exactly what he wanted.
Gragg’s mother, a first grade teacher, passed away suddenly a month prior to the launch of the songwriting assignment. Tasked to go clean out her classroom, Gragg met a number of her fellow teachers and they told him stories about how his mother would play piano and sing for her pupils. It was a surprising revelation because he and the rest of his family had never heard anything about it.
Then, he was shown a picture that a group of former students had presented to his mother. On the picture was transcribed a passage from a story by Brian Andreas that read, ”Trees with deep roots know about the things that children need.” The words stuck with him and seemed to be perfect for the album.
In the years since, the project has grown and now has been moved into a creative writing class that students sign up for as an elective. Also, the earlier releases were financed out of Gragg’s pocket but, these days, the sales each year generate enough money to fund the following year’s release.
Support from local musicians has also grown and each album has featured some acts new to the project alongside its veterans. Next year’s album already has a list of artists that have expressed an interest in participating, even though this edition was just recently completed.
Gragg says that the local music community has been generous with its time and talent, which has been one of the reasons the project has been able to succeed.
”It doesn’t have any of the politics of the music business and I think they like that,” says Gragg. “It’s music and art in a collaborative effort for the sake of music and art.”
Funk Shui performs at the Deep Roots 7 release party.
Portland pop-rockers Jonah were one of the acts to sign on for Deep Roots 7 and unanimously decided upon “Step On Me,” a composition by Anna Fenton. Lead singer Henry Cull says he was impressed by the lyrics written by the students and thinks projects like this are important for students.
”There’s so much to be learned from this kind of hands on learning,” says Cull.
His thoughts are echoed by UHF’s vocalist Jeremy Leff, who recorded Tessa Nielsen’s “Your Twisted Mind” with his group.
”It’s great to have kids connect to actual musicians and kind of get a little bit of insight into the process and see that something they write is good enough,” says Leff.
Students' lyrics and poems were added to posters that decorated the room during the CD release show.
Surprisingly, many of the students that sign up for the class aren’t necessarily dreaming of careers in the music business. Many of them simply express an interest in writing and see lyrics as just another format in which to convey their thoughts.
Still, there have been some musicians come out of the class and this year’s album features The Wimsy Stevens, a band made up of former Reynold’s students, and My Regrets, which features Deep Roots 2 contributing lyricists Conor Gilles. Also appearing on the new release is Breanna Paletta, who wrote a song for Deep Roots 4 and has come back to record a student’s track every year since.
Paletta says that not only did the class provide her with contacts in the music industry but it also helped her in the early stages of her lyric writing.
”I didn’t even start writing songs until my senior year,” says Breanna Paletta. “So, [the class] certainly helped with that process.”
These days, the class spends the first half of the year working on other writing projects and dives into the songwriting portion in January, when the class brainstorms for topics about which to write.
To help the students write their lyrics, musicians are invited into the class to conduct workshops on various elements of songwriting. Afterwards, each student writes three to four songs and submits them to Gragg, who compiles them in a notebook from which each of the volunteering acts chooses a selection.
With lyrics in hand, the bands set about composing music to accompany the words and take the completed product into the studio.
Students mention various lessons that they’ve taken away from the process but the one that comes up the most frequently is that none of them realized how much time and effort goes into recording just one song.
”I never realized how much time it takes to make one song,” says “Step On Me” author Anna Fenton. “It’s almost ridiculous. I don’t know if I could ever do that. It takes so long to see the results of what you’re doing.”
Classmate Rachel Ames, who penned “Moving On” and harbors some musical aspirations, expounds on the subject by adding, ”There’s so many different things to make something like this come together and it really takes a lot of patience, time and hard work.”
Of course, the original lesson hasn’t been lost and, as Gragg intended from the beginning, students say that they are now more aware of the meaning behind a writer’s words.
”Before, I just listened to the tune and stuff,” says Jerid Wallace, who contributed “Sunset” to this year’s album. “Now, I listen to the lyrics and really try to get something out of it, and really try to see what the writer’s trying to say.”
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Take your typical teenage angst, elevate it into song lyrics, then hand it to musicians for a creative bounce.
The result is "Deep Roots 7," a compilation CD representing one of the more novel twists on teaching high school English -- or at least that's how it began.
What it has become is an annual blossom at Reynolds High School. Under the leadership of teacher Chris Gragg, students write lyrics that are put to music and recorded by local artists. The students also market, promote and sell the CDs, doing everything from hanging posters at school to preparing press kits for reporters.
This year's 21-song CD -- the seventh annual, as the name implies -- will be celebrated with a concert Monday night involving many of the musicians who play on the CD. The concert is from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the high school, 1698 S.W. Cherry Park Road in Troutdale.
Gragg said he was trying to find a way to reach and energize his English students when he hit upon the idea of using contemporary song lyrics to demonstrate the power of the written word.
The lessons evolved into Gragg's "Writers' Workshop II" students writing their own lyrics. From there, the students asked what good it was to write songs without music.
Enter the musicians, who volunteer to meet with students, talk about songwriting, show them around recording studios and play alongside the students who also happen to be musicians.
Some musicians who once wrote lyrics in Gragg's class have returned over the years to help students. Breanna Paletta, a 2001 Reynolds graduate, has sung students' work on the last three "Deep Roots" CDs.
Gragg said the project gives students a sense of accomplishment.
"Because a lot of students -- a lot of people -- haven't participated in many things that are big or lasting," he said. "One of the things it does for people is instill a sense that they can do anything if they set their minds to it."
The songs have a "distinct teenage flavor," Gragg said, with recurrent themes of love lost and won, family, and the process of finding oneself.
Or in the case of sophomore Juan Delacruz, 16, the process of finding both sides of himself. He wrote "Espanol and English," about living in the Latino and white cultures. It's half in English, half in Spanish.
Junior Mai Lor, 16, said she wrote "My Sanity" after two weeks of writer's block. The lyrics poured out, she said, if not the meaning. "I seriously don't know," she said.
The adult musicians review lyrics submitted by the students and pick songs they want to sing. Students said there's something powerful about having their work understood by the artists and given an additional creative spin when set to music.
"No one else does this anywhere," said junior Jesse Walvoord, 16. "To have your creativity expressed professionally -- how often do people our age get that chance?"
Jessica Smith, 17, a junior, wrote "Smiles," about being comfortable with a close friend. A band called Dave Coey and Tremor Guild made it into a "folky rock, very danceable" song.
"It totally translates what I was trying to say," she said.
Then there's junior Cassandra Stemler, whose lyrics for "Paralyzed" include the lines: "Love is a nosebleed, a hummingbird sting, third-degree burn under a promise ring."
"I guess the theme could be uncertainty, but I'm not really sure," Stemler said, smiling as she recognized the irony.
For more information, visit the project's Web site at www.deeproots.com.
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It’s probably a very small percentage of us who have any cherished memories of high school English class. Face it, listening to some ancient specimen drone on about dangling participles or moldy poets is no one’s idea of big laughs.
Five years ago, Reynolds High School teacher Chris Gragg hit a wall with his senior English class. Trying to inspire his students to appreciate the power of words and language was getting nowhere.
The solution to his problem came after a short walk over to his record collection.
“It was music and music lyrics that had been my therapy and, at times, kept me from feeling completely alone,” Gragg recalls. “I began to bring music and lyrics into the classroom, and my students discussed and examined them as we had previously analyzed more traditional poetry.”
What began as tentative common ground for the discussion of words and imagery soon bloomed into something much larger: a full-scale musical project called Deep Roots.
Gragg encouraged his students to write their own song lyrics. And what good are lyrics without music?
“Why not find musicians to bring these kids’ voices to life?” Gragg wondered. “Ten weeks and $3,000 on my personal credit card later, we celebrated, at a small CD release party, the release of ‘Deep Roots,’ an eclectic 12-song CD.”
Gragg notes with pride that the first CD broke even financially and that Deep Roots has turned an increased profit each following year, resulting in a self-sustaining program.
The Deep Roots project, now in its fifth year, has attracted about 250 local musicians who have stepped in to compose tunes for the fledgling wordsmiths. The latest edition, “Deep Roots V,” holds true to Gragg’s eclectic vision, with music reaching from folk to funk to some fairly raging rock.
Among the highlights is the sentimental country crackle of “Helen,” performed and composed by the Countrypolitans with lyrics by student Hayley Eiden; the defiant tango “Jefecito” from Spigot and Oliver Perez; and the twitchy techno-pop of “Thought You Should Know” by Sugarbang and Joe Quijada.
The overall quality of both the music and the lyrics is excellent, with the student lyricists often finding the words to express heartache, frustration and triumph in dramatic fashion.
“Many students who have graduated come back the next year to hear the new CD,” Gragg says. “Lots of them stay in contact, and at least a dozen have told me that they write all the time now. One former student sent me poems he wrote between military maneuvers in Afghanistan!”
Local musicians have been enthusiastic in their support of Deep Roots, as has recording engineer Dave Fleschner, who has recorded the majority of the tracks since the project’s inception. Singer-songwriter Jane Wright has been a part of four Deep Roots albums and welcomes the chance to interact with high school writers.
“I’m from Alabama,” Wright says. “We never had anything like Deep Roots. I’m happy to do something for high school students that was never done for me.”
Yet there’s more to this endeavor than scribbling a few catchy phrases. The students help out from the beginning to the end of this process, making the whole enterprise like an internship in the music business.
“Kids help design the covers, make posters and fliers, organize the concert, create banners, write press releases, sing backup, help maintain the Web site, handle sales and display their art, photography and poetry at the release,” Gragg says. “It’s really about proving that they can do something — follow through on a project from inspiration to completion. They don’t have to limit themselves to little assignments and accomplishments.”
Says Wright: “I think for most of the kids, it’s a chance to be a part of something with meaning — something with more value than just a grade on a paper.”
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Ok, class! Pencils down and amps turned off!
What does Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon have in common with such a diverse crowd of Portland rock notables as Warren Pash. Nicole Campbell, Way Milky Quartet, Fernando, Groove Revelation and Pete Krebs? They are all part of a compilation album of local artists called Deep Roots 3, a compilation whose songs were written by Reynolds High School students and scored and performed by the likes of the above.
As the name implies, Deep Roots 3 isn’t the first installment of this project. It all began in 1998 when Reynolds English teacher Chris Gragg noticed his students weren’t exactly enthusiastic over the literary output of the great poets. In an effort to jazz up his dated curriculum, he had them bring in lyrics from their favorite songs. “I started thinking about what got me into language and words,” Gragg explains. “And it was holing up in my room, listening to music. The music was great therapy. So we started studying contemporary music lyrics.”
However, the kids quickly discovered that the words to many of their favorite tunes weren’t particularly compelling or insightful, and Gragg recalls their reaction as being close to “disillusionment.” It quickly became apparent to Gragg and his kids that they might be able to do better. It was then the seeds for Deep Roots were sown. “It was just a short time before we started thinking about (recording) a tape, and then a CD, which came out in about eight weeks.”
And do better than their heroes they have.
Past musicians involved in the Deep Roots project have included Portland jazz vets Dan Balmer, Mary Kadderly, Tom Grant and Nancy King, roots rockers Akerosene Dream and pop chanteuse McKinley. This time around, the CD features contributions from Luther Russell, Pete Krevs and many others operating on familiar musical ground. But it contains interesting ground. But it contains interesting surprises as well. Salem bluesman Gary Burford turns a dark shade of gray on the tune “It’s Your Fault,” sounding more like Lou Reed than his usual bluesman modus operandi. Former Signified Monkey drummer Mark Heringer turns away from the hip-hop stylings of his old outfit in favor of the sleek, esoteric pop on “World Pequeno.” And the mostly freaky jazz of Groove Revelation sounds a bit more like Pink Martini on “Regret,” with vocalist Jane Wright at the fore.
Gragg acknowledges the bands liked to have fun with this novel situation. “They got a chance to loosen up,” he says. “They made an effort to make a CD the students would listen to, and I think it worked.” Deep Roots 3 was recorded at Portland’s Dead Aunt Thelma’s Recording Studio with Groove Revelation’s Dave Fleschner handling production duties.
The exercise for the kids didn’t end with writing lyrics. After engaging local talent to write and record the material, the kids then had to help out with writing press releases and various other public relations tasks as well as booking shows, thus getting a crash course in the workings of the local music biz. “It’s certainly grown,” Gragg marvels. “You’re not always aware of the learning opportunities until confronted with them. It’s amazing on how many levels this is a learning tool. And as I get more experience in this I’m able to delegate more.”
Gragg says the whole experience now includes creating a Wed site for the Deep Roots projects, as well as offshoot enterprises like a literary magazine. Sales from the CD will help pay for these, the production of further albums, and will go to a fund assisting students who can’t afford field trip fees.
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As a recovered teenage poetess, I hope that if God ever punishes me by sending me back to the Darwinian realm of secondary education, I end up in Chris Gragg’s senior English class at Reynolds High School. For the third year running, Gragg’s students have written lyrics, than handed them over to a fine and generally well-known legion of local musicians from a wide spectrum of genres. Sixteen songs make up Deep Roots 3, and like most projects involving a multitude of musicians, some are quite good. And others? Well- nice try, but no glory. The best of the bunch happens to be the first song on the album, the upbeat and Teenage Fanclubesque “Shaggyman,” performed by Luther Russell. Other highlights include Pete Krebs’ intimate delivery of “Every Smile,” Fernando’s spooky, waltzlike “Always Reminded” and the Redeemers’ soulful “Taken for Granted.” The majority of the songs sound very natural, as though the poet and the musician collaborated throughout the entire process. The wet-behind-the-ears poets should be pleased. As for the musicians, hell, they found a crop of folks to write the kind of questioning and affirming lyrics only young adults are truly capable of. Alyssa Isenstein
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TROUTDALE – For three years, students at Reynolds High School have learned the joy of writing by mixing their poetry with the music of local professionals.
But this year, they learned another lesson: How to keep a positive outlook about their project after it was marred by plagiarism.
The students in Christopher Gragg’s senior English class found out last week that one of the one of the poems chosen to be made into a song for their annual CD was actually a well-known poem often used in memorial services. The class writes poetry, and then a handful of Portland-area artists choose about a dozen of them to record on the “Deep Roots” CD.
The student was caught when another student told Gragg that she thought the poem sounded familiar.
Principal Steve Olczak said the school then used a plagiarism Web site to see whether the song had been written by somebody else. Although the author is unknown, they did find several places where it had been previously published.
“She’s basically a good kid,” Olczak said. “She took a shortcut and got caught. She was very embarrassed and very hurt, and she hurt other people. The real punishment was for her to face her peers.”
Rather than tacking the offending student, then trying to hide the mistake, Gragg decided to have his class use it as a learning experience. He had a meeting for all of the students whose songs were on the CD, and the plagiarist shared the news.
Josh Durham, 17, who wrote the poem “Diseased,” said none of the students knew what was coming.
“(The student) had prepared a little statement, and she said she just didn’t think any of her songs were any good,” Durham said. “She turned in something just to get the grade but didn’t think it would get chosen. You could tell she felt pretty bad about it.”
In the meeting, the students chose to put a sticker on the CD saying that the song is by an unknown author rather than their classmate, and the girl will pay the $50 it costs to rewrap the CDs. Anyone with an original copy of the CD may exchange it. The girl also will not receive credit for the project, though she still will pass the class.
“I’m proud of the experience and the way the students handled it,” Gragg said. “We weren’t deceptive, and the CD is still a source of pride. The girl learned a lesson, but she also wasn’t crushed by it.
“It became a lesson about plagiarism, making mistakes, having compassion and moving on. As unfortunate as it is, it actually expanded the scope of the project.”
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“Deep Roots 3 – The Troutdale Poetry Experiment” by various artists. For the third year in a row, students from Chris Gragg’s senior English class at Reynolds High School have given over their poetry/lyrics to the capable hands of Portland musicians, who turn them around into full-fledged songs. This year features such artists as Fernando, Stephanie Schneiderman, Pete Krebs. Warren Pash and Groove Revelation turning their words into music. From the sound of it, some of these students may be well on their way to jobs as lyric writers. Profits from the CD’s sale go to pay for production and help print a student literary magazine.
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Three years after English teacher Chris Gragg established the annual Deep Roots project at Reynolds High School, it seems to be taking on a life of its own.
When Gragg used $3,000 of his money in 1998 to finance a compact disc featuring songs with lyrics by his students and music by a who’s who of Portland-area musicians, he wasn’t sure it was going to get off the ground.
Gragg recouped all but $200 that first year and last year’s disc turned a $1,000 profit. Pre-orders for this year’s compact disc, “Deep Roots 3: The Troutdale Poetry Experiment,” have already nearly covered production costs.
His ability to recruit musicians to volunteer their time and talent to the project has also increased as talk about the project spread.
“The word on the streets, as far as musicians go, is pretty good,” said Nicole Campbell, a Portland-based singer/songwriter who recorded one of the songs on the latest disc. “It’s a community effort for us.”
Gragg, who happened to know a few musicians, said that first year was tough, mainly because of a 10-week deadline to complete the project.
Also new this year is a Web site where visitors can order the disc, listen to songs and view lyrics. Created by Gragg’s students, it can be reached at www.deeproots.com.
Discs are also available at several local stores, including Coffee’s On in Troutdale and Border’s Books and Music Millennium in Portland.
Profits from the compact disc go back into the
project and fund the production of a student literary magazine.
Gragg, who felt the traditional approach to teaching English wasn’t reaching all students, came up with the project while looking for ways to help students take language more seriously.
After thinking about what was important to him as a teen-ager, Gragg decided to have his students write poems that has the potential to be set to music by professional musicians.
“I just think music is a powerful and important medium,” Gragg said. “It helps a lot of kids through some difficult years. One of the things I like about the project is that it’s helped a lot of my students learn that they have an important voice.”
the poems are completed, Gragg shows them to the musicians, who choose one to
set to music and record.
Josh Durham, 17, whose poem “Diseased” was recorded by Campbell, said he didn’t know about the project when he landed in Gragg’s class.
“I got into the class by a fluke,” Durham said. “But I’m glad I did. I think it’s one of the better projects, English-wise, I’ve ever done.”
Although not all of Gragg’s 80 seniors earn a spot on the 16-song compilation, they all have a role in the project.
Students help with promoting the disc, organizing a release concert featuring some of the musicians and even singing or playing on some of the songs.
The release concert was held earlier this week and Gragg plans to schedule a second concert for next month.
Erika Matthews, 18, was one of three students who read her poem over instrumental music on this year’s disc.
When I heard about it, I was excited,” Matthews said. “I immediately wanted to write something to see if it would make the CD. Being able to get our views out there, not too many young people get to do that.”
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TROUTDALE- The Reynolds High School seniors and local musicians participating in Deep Roots: The Troutdale Poetry Experiment have discovered something in common: teen-age angst.
“We chide ourselves for writing about tormented subjects,” said folk-rocker Nicole Campbell. “Then we go through these 200 poems and find really intense subjects, even at that age, the poetry is just a good way to get it out. This is such a great way to teach students about writing.”
Campbell recorded a poem by Josh Durham called “Diseased” about a person dealing with an addiction. “I’m searching my soul every day,” she croons on the newest Deep Roots CD, which will be released Monday. “Searching my soul to find my way.”
For the third year, students penned almost 300 poems for local artists to choose from as part of teacher Christopher Gragg’s senior English class. They discussed the messages artists such as Pink Floyd and Bob Marley as well as newer artists put out in their songs.
“Britney Spears isn’t saying anything,” griped Rochelle Mayo, 18. “What does, ‘Hit me baby, one more time,’ mean anyway?”
So they wrote their own lyrics.
Sixteen songs made the cut. This year, 10 of the artists also came to the class for presentations about songwriting.
Monday, the group will celebrate with a free concert and CD release party at Reynolds High School. Profits will be used to pay for the school’s literary magazine.
Teacher looks back at youth
Gragg was trying to get his students to understand and appreciate poetry when he started wondering what got him interested in words.
“I remember holing myself up in my room when I didn’t want to deal with my parents or anything else,” he said. “Music was therapy for me. Maybe this is just the way people hear poetry these days.”
Gragg hopes the experiment will lead to a love of writing throughout the students’ lives. The songwriting stints have led to more than an understanding of music and writing they’ve led to an understanding of each other.
Since the project began, Gragg no loner has to pay for the CDs out of his own pocket-advance orders have paid for this year’s CD. And artists cal him to see whether they can volunteer their music and time rather than Gragg having to track them down.
“I always liked English and lit, but it was a stale environment,” said performer Fernando Viciconte. “To mix that with rock ‘n’ roll is pretty exciting. It’s not so crabby.”
Mayo had reason for angst but chose to write an uplifting song about getting past bad experiences. As she wrote her poem, “Always Reminded,” her grandmother was dying, her father was dealing with diabetes, and her mother was waiting for a kidney transplant - she’ll receive it in July.
“The song was great,” said Viciconte, who recorded the poem. “I picked what I could relate to. I thought for a kid who’s probably 17, that’s pretty wise.”
“Receive what you give will always remind the trust you instill is that which you find,” he sings softly, saying the upbeat words pull up the downbeat music. “The joy true, a lamp must be filled before it can burn.”
Other poems include Marci Garnes’ “Best Friend,” Jami Collipe’s “World Pequeno,” Tasha Darling’s Regret,” Beau Braman’s “Taken for Granted,” Kelli McIntosh’s “Grow up to Go Down,” Ryan Monroe’s “Pitiful She,” Ericka Dan Lloyd’s “Give me Wings,” Cliff Strickland’s “The System,” and Nikki Keller’s “It’s Your Fault.”
Alana Moore wrote her poem, “Opened Eyes,” without entirely understanding it herself.
“I didn’t think the words meant to much, but the musician read a lot more into it than I did,” she said. “I began looking at my poems more deeply. It’s a poem about me screwing up in a relationship, begging for forgiveness and admitting that I was wrong. I totally put myself out there.”
Artist Geoff Byrd turned the poem into a soulful love song: “Move along, all’s said and done, and I know I deserve to be alone,” he sings with a guitar accompanying him. “A new life’s begun - all I can do is try.”
Not all the mixes were that heavy. Luther Russell picked Jeff Felkins’ “Shaggyman” because the lyrics fit a song he was already writing.
The song came out sounding like something that might be played on an alternative radio station with its funky beat and lyrics: “Shaggyman smiles in almost all his days, too lost and numb to notice that he’s walking in a haze, a Shaggyman is mad at the world.”
“I thought it was an easy song to work with, and I quite liked the lyrics,” Russell said.
DEEP ROOTS CD
When: 7 pm, Monday
Where: Reynolds High School multipurpose room, 1698 S.W. Cherry Park Road
Performers: Pete Krebs, Fernando, Luther Russell, Groove Revelation, Nicole Campbell, Warren Pash, Geoff Byrd, The Redeemers, Gary Buford Band, Sub Atomic Calling, Stephanie Scheiderman, Earl And The Reggae All-Stars, Way Milky Quintet and Steve Yang
Also: CDs available through Music Millennium, Tower Records, Locals Only, Borders Books downtown and Coffee's [OnJo?] Troutdale
For Information or to hear samples: www.deeproots.com
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Chris Gragg’s English class at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, while studying poetry one term, discovered rock and roll lyrics. They began to analyze the lyrics, compare them to classic poetry, and look deeply at meaning and context. It was a rude awakening. Shallow, clichéd phrases rhymed haphazardly and exploded into monumental proportions via rock instrumentation and loud production values. The students decided this stuff lacked inspiration, let alone potential to be the insightful source to the mysteries of life poetry should be. Gragg was impressed and challenged his students to write their own superior lyrics, and promised that if they did, he would make sure some of them would be put to music. True to his word, Gragg approached local pro musicians and recording studio, financing the project out of his own pocket to the tune of $3,000. The result was Deep Roots, The Troutdale Poetry Experiment. After successfully recouping Gragg’s investment and then some, the students produced Deep Roots II, released last week at Borders Books and Music as well as Music Millennium. Portland songwriters and performers put music to the lyrics and the result is a touching, meaningful insight to the soul of these youngsters. The CD includes 19 tracks performed by Portland luminaries such as Tom Grant, Kimberli Ransom, Nancy King, Mary Kadderly, McKinely and Sattie Clark, who volunteered their time and talents. Proceeds from the sale of the CDs are hoped to eventually create a student literary magazine and to cover the cost of field trips for fellow Reynolds students in need.
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Singer/songwriters have become prominent poetic voices in the latter part of the 20th century.
Ask most teen-agers who Emily Dickinson or T.S. Eliot were and your inquiry is likely to be met with blank stares and shrugging shoulders.
But ask them about Beck, anidifranco or Public Enemy and within seconds you’ll probably learn the titles of and current hits from each artist’s newest album.
In response, Reynolds High School English teacher Chris Gragg has devoted a portion of his poetry instruction to song lyrics. Throughout the year, students have read and analyzed song lyrics as they would a poem by Robert Frost or Sylvia Plath.
“We do a lot of poetry writing and analyzing of poetry and lyrics and I realized that some of our greatest poetic voices, these days, come from singer/songwriter,” Gragg said.
Through these exercises, students have not only learned of such songwriting legends as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bob Marley, but also have been made painfully aware of how vacuous some of the lyrics are by artists they’re listening to.
Gragg said that some of his students have left class with the feeling that they’ve been betrayed by their favorite musical performers.
“When the students brought in their lyrics, some of them were disappointed with the lyrics they were listening to,” he said. “It wasn’t the typical, ‘Oh, we didn’t realize the lyrics were so violent or so sexist,’ young people are aware of those kinds of messages in music. It was more that a lot of songs they were listening to has such an emptiness.”
Gragg told his students last year that a lot of the poetry they’d written throughout the year was better than the majority of songs lyrics accompanying the music they were hearing Met with skepticism by his students, Gragg promised that if they continued to write as they had been, he’d find musicians to turn their poems into songs.
“I was kind of envisioning myself and some friends of mine, who are musicians, sitting around a four-track recorder in the basement hammering out simple melodies,” Gragg said. “Then, as I got to thinking more, I thought that we could duplicate it to a CD.”
As Gragg’s involvement with the project grew, so did the scope of the project. Being an amateur musician with connections to the Portland music community, Gragg was able to bring together a handful of professional musicians to contribute to the project.
Before long, Gragg and his entourage were committed to a 12-song compact disc, fully funded by Gragg.
The project took eight weeks and $3,600 to complete, resulting in “Deep Roots: The Troutdale Poetry Experience.”
Due to the success of that project, Gragg and his students have been working with a group of noted Portland musicians on a follow-up compact disc.
For the second release, Gragg and his students were given a $1,500 grant from the Reynolds Student Senate to help offset costs of the $4,000 project.
Gragg said he’s confident that the new release will be a money maker. All profits from the CD, he said, will go into a fund to be used for future CD projects, a student literary magazine and student field trips.
“Deep Roots II” will officially be released Monday, May 17, with a 7 p.m. free concert at Reynolds High School. Music on the new 19-track CD ranges from bluesy pop to folk music, with a Cajun number thrown in for some added spice.
Folk music was the farthest thing from senior Conor Gilles’ mind when he wrote “The New Savior,” but that’s what it turned into, he said.
Gilles is a guitarist in the band Hate Crime and he had hardcore music swirling through his cranium when he wrote the lyrics.
“It was sort of weird hearing it because when I wrote my lyrics, hardcore was totally the kind of music I was into. Then I heard this song and it wasn’t at all what I was thinking. It was pretty neat, though, having someone get something completely different out of your writing,” Gilles said.
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“Trees with deep roots know about the things children need.”
Chris Gragg recalls that line lovingly. It was written about his mother, a first-grade teacher who died last year, by some of her former students.
Gragg, a 30-year-old Portland native, is a teacher himself these days. And it seems he also knows some of the things that young people need. Such as a chance to prove what they can do.
Late last winter, Gragg had his senior English students at Reynolds High School analyze popular song lyrics. When the students expressed surprise at the superficiality of some current songs, Gragg bet them they could write better lyrics themselves, and he have them a challenge: Write more poems like you’ve been writing, and I’ll find musicians to turn them into songs.
Eight weeks and $3,600 of Gragg’s own money later, the class celebrated the release of a compact disc titled “Deep Roots: The Troutdale Poetry Experiment.”
The project was such a success that Gragg, his Reynolds students and a cast of noted Portland songwriters have done it again. The release of “Deep Roots II” will be marked with a free Monday night concert at the school, featuring such performers as Nancy King, Mary Kadderly, Nancy Hess, Kimberli Ransom, Sattie Clark of 17 Reasons Why, Lara Michelle of Carmina Piranha and former Tree Frogs frontman John Henry Bourke.
In addition to Monday’s concert, a handful of musicians will promote the album through other appearances. Kerosene Dream, Andy Tabb and Jane Wright will perform at 5 p.m. May 22 in Music Millennium Northwest. Clark, Kadderly, King, Michelle, Hess, Bourke and Jen Bernard pick up the nabber at 2 p.m. May 23 in the downtown Borders Books and Music.
Other participants on this year’s record include Tom Giant, Kerosene Dream and McKinely. As Gragg recalls, when recruiting musicians for the project, “nobody was turning me down, so I began to figure I could aim pretty high.”
The musicians have set the students’ works to pop, folk and even Cajun arrangements, creating a 19-song disc that’s surprisingly rewarding and consistent. The power of a striking image, a poignant emotion comes through often, as in the album’s opening lines by student D’arcy Ruiz:
the stars leave the moon?”
Can love fade away?
Why couldn’t you just say?
Why couldn’t you just say?
A hole dug too deep
Can’t be covered.”
“It’s amazing how 15 people could skip past a poem and not be able to see where there was a song in it,” Gragg says. “Then somebody else comes along and says, ‘Wow. I really get what this kid’s saying. This is really musical.’ The kids are pretty honored that someone likes their writing and is willing to put so much time into it.”
The students’ lesson here-aside from the practical aspects of ushering a compact disc to market-is learning to value their voices and to honor their dreams. And that’s something some of the musicians involved wish they, too, could have learned early.
As McKinley recalls: “When I was that age, I felt like for me to be a musician or a writer or anything that was fun was completely out of reach-like you had to grow up to be a secretary or a car mechanic. I got this girl’s poem (for the project) that was really sad, about being picked on in middle school. So I just wanted to give her the realization that her options are limitless, that what she wrote was just as much a song as anything else. That if she heard her words in an actual song on a record, she’d think, ‘I could do that.’
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Using poetry as her vehicle, Shannon Lemly explores her emotions, ideas and situations.
“It helps me to calm down when I put my thoughts on paper and analyze them,” said Lemly, 16. “It helps me to figure out what’s wrong with the situation.”
A Reynolds High School senior, Lemly usually doesn’t let people read her work.
Thanks to the encouragement from English teacher Chirs Gragg, people will have the opportunity to read Lemly’s poetry and hear it put to music.
Lemly is one of 12 Reynolds High School students whose poetry has been put to music on the compact disc “Deep Roots: The Troutdale Poetry Experiment.” The students are hosting a release party at 7 p.m. today in the high school’s multipurpose room.
The celebration will feature live musical performances, displays of the students’ poems and stories, a student art and photography exhibit and poetry readings.
“I think the CD shows people that we have something interesting to say and we are willing to work hard to let people know what’s on our minds,” Lemly said.
“The Troutdale Poetry Experiment” began a few months ago when Gragg asked his students to listen to, read and analyze popular song lyrics.
“The students,” Gragg said, “were somewhat surprised to discover an absence of meaningful poetry in their favorite musicians’ lyrics.
“I tried to convince them that they are capable of writing lyrics as good or better than most of the songs they had heard on the radio,” Gragg said.
The students were skeptical. Gragg insisted their work had meaning and was worth sharing.
“Before we left the classroom, I found myself promising them that not only were they capable of writing great lyrics, but if they wrote for me, I would find musicians to turn some of their poems into songs,” Gragg said.
Figuring he could convince some of his musically inclined friends to hammer out some simple melodies, Gragg envisioned making a makeshift cassette tape.
Carrying a blue, plastic box under his arm, Gragg visited the gathering spots of renowned Portland musicians, including Dan Balmer, Seth Samuels, Kimberli Ransom, Mary Kadderly, Nancy King and Newel Briggs.
During the break in their performance, the musicians sifted through the poetry until they found one they could use for music. Eager to help, the musicians worked for free.
Gragg said, “numerous people helped create the high quality CD.”
“We have a fine example set by people in the Portland are community who believe in kids and are willing to part with something more valuable than money – their time – in order to teach kids a very important lesson,” Gragg said. “The lesson: You and your voice are incredibly important. Simply because you are young doesn’t mean you can’t learn to do anything you want if you are willing to put out an effort.”
Gragg spent more than $3,000 of his money to produce the CD. The sale will pay for students to see a Shakespeare play, create a student poetry magazine, hire guest speakers for his English class and provide assistance to students who are unable to pay for field trips.
The students’ poetry deals with everything from an abusive relationship to fading dreams to dealing with pressure.
“The students really share their personal struggles and emotions,” Gragg said. “These are tough topics, but I have taught them writing is a beautiful and healthy way to express themselves.”
Senior Nate Strande had never written poetry before he took Gragg’s class. He now finds writing poetry a good way to deal with stress.
“The kids think it’s really cool that all these musicians and Mr. Gragg took time out of their busy schedules to do something for us,” Strande said.
It’s the students who rose to the challenge, Gragg said. “I think they learned they can throw their voice out there and people will listen to them and respond positively,” Gragg said. “The know they have something worth saying.”
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