“Baby, baby, baby ooh like baby baby baby nooo.”
Those are the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s 2010 hit song that Ben Shinaberry quotes when he first meets a class of middle schoolers. He follows with the question, “Do you think you could write that?” The answer is yes, and they can probably write something better.
Shinaberry, founder of the non-profit organization, The Dick and Jane Project, partners music producers with middle school students to produce radio-ready songs.
When Shinaberry graduated from Ohio State with a degree in Human Development and Family Sciences with a focus in Education in 2008, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to dive straight in to the traditional education system.
“When I finished undergrad I wasn’t really ready to go into teaching yet, and I really had a lot of frustrations with the education system,” he said. “The system was so rigid and there wasn’t much room for teachers to be creative and then there wasn’t much room for the students to be creative as a result of that.”
Shinaberry was inspired when he came across a couple of the classic Dick and Jane readers, the same books that taught him to read as a child. Just for fun, he played around with singing the books’ words emotionally while playing his guitar. He called up a couple of friends and put together the aptly named Dick and Jane Project, which toured local coffee shops singing the books. Eventually, they expanded into using poems written by elementary students that Shinaberry worked with in the past as lyrics.
That gave Shinaberry the idea to bring songwriting into schools. He quickly found out that middle school was the age he wanted to work with.
“I believe that middle school students are the best lyricists in the world, and the easy answer to that is because of puberty. They’re going through this really hard time, their whole perspective on the world is changing, they’ve got all these questions, and that’s really the essence of what songwriting is all about,” Shinaberry said.
The band is now defunct, but the name carried over to the non-profit organization.
Shinaberry has developed a curriculum that complies with common core writing standards that he takes into middle schools in the Columbus area.
Local producers will meet with a small group of middle school students over the span of a week to write the lyrics to a song. They take into account what kind of music the kids like and put together a demo, which they bring back to the kids to adjust. Producers will then commission local professional artists to perform the song.
While the organization is non-profit, they use donated money to pay producers and purchase studio time to complete the songs.
Glenn Davis — producer, lead singer of Way Yes and 2010 OSU graduate of the sculpture program — has been working with the organization for four years. He said that working with The Dick and Jane Project has become his favorite thing to do.
“For me it’s very rewarding to get a chance to pass along this thing that I love to these kids. I started playing guitar around the age these kids are and I can’t even imagine what would have happened had I had the opportunity to do something like Dick and Jane,” he said.
But the project goes beyond just writing songs.
“Sometimes it’s even just having an adult be interested in what you think and what you like. They’re not used to that. A lot of the kids are treated like kids, that their opinions are kind of secondary to the adults in their lives,” Davis said.
It is important to the Dick and Jane Project to have songs that are radio-ready, but also appropriate and true to the middle school experience. Shinaberry said that often times kids will try to write like the songs they hear on the radio, which they don’t necessarily relate to.
“I’ll sit down with them and say ‘why did you write this song? What does this mean to you?’ and they can never answer that,” he said.
Shinaberry is proud of the way the song “5 Steps” displays authentic middle school relationships.
“He told me he loved me, we see eye to eye, But I still don’t know true love, So I told him Goodbye!” the song says, in part.
“Now that’s real. That’s middle school love,” he said.
Tomorrow , previous Columbus’ Own feature Digisaurus, along with Dominique Larue and Label Me Lector will be playing a show at Skully’s Music Diner as a part of Dick and Jane Week. Tickets are $8 and $2 will go to the foundation. Show starts at 8 p.m.