By Joel Oliphint
One of Ben Shinabery’s first jobs after graduating from Ohio State in 2008 was working with toddlers at a daycare facility. On one occasion, a toddler’s parent donated a bunch of books, including one of those “Dick and Jane” books – you know, the children’s stories filled with short words and choppy sentences such as “See Dick. See Dick run.”
Shinabery found it funny that someone thought a toddler would be interested in such a boring book. But one day Shinabery was strumming his guitar, and he noticed the “Dick and Jane” book splayed in front of him. He began singing the words and pairing them with chords. Surprisingly, it didn’t sound too bad.
“So I thought, if music can make ‘Dick and Jane’ books sound interesting, I wonder what they can do to simple writings kids are doing?” Shinabery said.
To answer his question, he collected writings from a group of elementary school kids and brought a stack of them to Andy Gallagher’s band, Trains Across the Sea, in 2010. Within three hours, the band had demos of three or four songs.
The Dick & Jane Project was born.
Last year, the project conducted seven workshops, each a few weeks long, at local schools. The workshops vary depending on the context (most are part of after-school programs) and the age of the kids (most are in middle school). But the main goal is the same: giving kids the confidence to become the legitimate songwriters they have the potential of being, and then pairing them with bands to prove their ability with a finished product.
Shinabery said he starts the workshops with about a week’s worth of pre-writing activities: playing songs for the kids, analyzing lyrics and talking about why people write songs. By the end of the first week, most of the students believe in their legitimacy as songwriters and are ready to write.
From there, the kids pick a local band or musician to work with, such as Trains Across the Sea, Way Yes, the Town Monster, the DewDroppers, This Is My Suitcase, Speak Williams or Andrew Graham. The musicians spend a couple of weeks giving constructive assistance with lyrics, putting them to music and taking the songs from rough draft to a studio-quality product performed by the respective band.
Shinabery and the bands also tell the kids their songs will be on the radio – because they will be. Every Friday at 11:55 a.m., WCBE 90.5 plays a “Song of the Week” from the Dick & Jane Project.
You may be tempted to tell Shinabery what he’s doing is cute. Don’t.
“I hate the word ‘cute,'” he said. “Every time someone says, ‘Aw that’s cute,’ it’s usually a big developmental milestone in that kid’s life. It’s more than cute.”
Shinabery takes the time and effort to interact with kids as equals. “When I work with kids, whether it’s a middle school kid or a 2-year-old, people will say, ‘It’s really crazy how you treat them like adults, like real people.’ Well, that’s what they are.”
“Yeah, these writings might be cute, but take the extra minute to think about what they’re actually saying.”
While this nonprofit project (Dick & Jane attained tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status in August) gives kids the confidence and tools to express themselves, Shinabery has noticed quite a few other tangential benefits, particularly for teachers at struggling schools.
“Unfortunately, I think most teachers in failing schools don’t see any hope for the kids, because the system is set up for them to constantly see them fail,” he said. “But I’ll never forget one teacher, when I played her one of the songs that her student did. She said, ‘Wow. I guess these kids have hope after all.'”
The project also exposes kids to styles of music they might not otherwise be exposed to. Shinabery tells a story about students from the Weinland Park area who clamored to work with local folk singer Johnny Newman.
Another benefit: The students’ newfound confidence in writing has the potential of spilling over into other areas – one Dick & Jane participant is 34 pages into her new novel.
Though helping the kids is the main thing, Gallagher of Trains Across the Sea said there are several benefits for the bands involved. For one, the musicians get paid for their work, which is likely more rewarding than bartending or filling latte orders at a coffee shop. Gallagher is using the money he’s made from Dick & Jane to press the next Trains Across the Sea record.
Plus, Gallagher said, the project has expanded his fan base in a literal way. Middle school kids know his band now, and so do their parents.
“A parent of a kid at Grizzell Middle School in Dublin probably isn’t going to be at Kobo Live at midnight on a weeknight,” he said. “But now they know my band.”
The first four-song EP of Dick & Jane material, Orientation, will see its release next Thursday at the Gateway Film Center, which is hosting a fundraiser and video presentation of each song featured on the disc.
The release marks a turning point for Dick & Jane. Usually it takes Shinabery 10 minutes to even explain what the project is and what it does. Now, all he has to do is hand someone the EP and say, “Listen to this. These songs were written by middle school kids.”