Nurturing Deep Roots

Long before the movie “School of Rock” hit the big screen, Chris Gragg MAT ’04 hit upon the power of music to motivate students.

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 in using 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 multischool 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 to 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 opened my eyes to the unlimited 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 by storyteller 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. When I was 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.

Deep Impact

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. Kim Stafford, founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute and the William Stafford Center, has gotten in on the act too, performing spoken vocals on Deep Roots 2.

No longer part of an English class, the Deep Roots Music Project is now 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.

Branching Out

Gragg’s first child, Lucy, was born two days after the school year ended in 2005, just after the completion of Deep Roots 8. After 12 intense years of teaching, 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 this academic 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 the Official Website.

Freelance writer Ellisa Valo has written one song, “Hey Dude,” which she performed for her father on his 70th birthday. It was a big hit.