COLUMBIA — The assembly hall at Paxton Keeley Elementary School was dead quiet on Thursday. About 120 third-graders sat on the floor, heads bent over clipboards and Eagle pencils working intently. They were not taking a test, doing homework or being punished; they were brainstorming ideas for a song about French toast.
The exercise was part of a songwriting workshop led by Monte Selby, a Kansas-based educator and musician who collaborates with schoolchildren over the course of one day to write one song. This group of third-graders had the task of putting the finishing touches on a song begun by fourth- and fifth-graders. The completed song was performed by Selby for all participating students at the end of the day.
"It's hard to explain what I do because I never do the same thing twice," Selby said before the workshop. The former middle school principal has led workshops in schools in several states, including Oklahoma and Kansas.
For him, the workshops are about promoting respect for one another's ideas as well as fostering children's creativity. Selby regularly works with hit songwriters to determine how to make songs and the messages they carry stick in listeners' heads.
"I think that with some performers who go to schools, the children may remember you because you're funny, but they won't remember the message. But here, the kids wrote the message," he said.
"We've had authors come to the school before, but we've never had anything like this," Principal Elaine Hassemer said. "The level of engagement he had with the kids was phenomenal."
Third-grader Katie Comer, 8, said that the workshop changed her ideas about songwriting.
"It's a lot more work than I thought," she said.
After several minutes of remarkable silence, Selby, clad in rocker-casual — a brown paisley shirt, dark-wash jeans and cowboy boots — asked the students for their reasons for eating French toast.
"It turns your tongue green!" one said.
"It's sweet!" another said.
"It's made of grain!"
Selby drew a food pyramid on his giant stand-up legal pad to the laughter of the crowd. When Selby asked them to put their hands down, there was a noticeable collective groan.
Selby picked up his Larrivée guitar and pounded out a blues progression but encountered another block. He read off a list of rhymes in the song: "House. Mouth. Crunchy. Munchies. Awful. Waffle." Then, he asked the students to think of a word to rhyme with fruit. ("Toot" was automatically disqualified, but one student suggested it anyway.)
He strummed his guitar thoughtfully, exclaimed "Oh! Oh!" when he came up with an idea and wrote excitedly on the giant legal pad. Selby stepped up to the microphone and launched into the final product, a fast-paced rockabilly number that acted as a vessel to carry the children's creativity. He sang to the off-tempo claps of the young audience, his co-writers.
Later, when Selby presented the song to the combined group of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, he encouraged them to keep writing.
"Words give you power," he said. "Whether it's songs or poetry ... or writing something to a friend."