Last fall, new teacher Dwayne Reed created a rap video to welcome his 4th graders to a new school year. The song went viral, pulling in more than 1.3 million plays, and drew praise from former Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. Little did Reed know it would also serve as the spark of inspiration for Old Navy’s ONWard project, a national youth-empowerment campaign with a goal to raise $1 million for the Boys & Girls Club of America.
The campaign invited eight teachers, including Reed, to write and arrange original songs in collaboration with recording artist Pharrell Williams’ creative collective i am OTHER. The result? Catchy music videos starring the teachers that aim to inspire students as they head back to school.
A kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles sings in Spanish and English, touching on the importance of creating a classroom family; one New York City art teacher walks the runway with 5th graders. Reed, now a 5th grade teacher at LEARN Campbell in Chicago, wrote a new “welcome back” song for the campaign and collaborated with several other teachers on their own tunes.
“You can’t disconnect music from true life, so if we want our students to live excellent lives, we gotta have music involved in that,” Reed told Chicago’s NBC 5.
Some of the teachers flew to Los Angeles for their video shoots, while others filmed in their cities or classrooms. Craig Duchemin, who teaches special education at Charles Hart Middle School in the District of Columbia, called the process of creating a spoken-word ballad about the differences that make children special “unreal.”
“I grew up in a town of 90 people in rural Indiana, so the thought of filming a music video in Los Angeles seemed to be unrealistic,” Duchemin wrote in an email to Education Week Teacher. “I never entered the field of teaching for any type of attention or recognition, but I was grateful for the opportunity to share my story and the message that every single person is valuable and has something unique to offer this world.”
In some cases, the teachers’ students also got in on the action. Cedric Gardner, a professional dancer and dance-choreography mentor at the Boys & Girls Club in Milwaukee, worked on the title track with music artist Darius Scott, the project’s producer. The song’s refrain—learners become leaders, and leaders will change the world—was inspired by Gardner’s work to teach social-emotional-learning strategies through all types of dance, including hip-hop, ballet, jazz, and salsa. Two students from the club’s competition team were back-up dancers in Gardner’s Los Angeles shoot.
“I believe music transcends barriers in life,” Gardner said in an interview with Education Week Teacher. “It’s another form of communication. Every day we’re teaching kids how to positive, how to take their circumstances and take control of them while becoming leaders.”
And Beth Fortune, the orchestra director at Washington Middle School in Seattle, picked three middle school students to co-produce and play fiddle, cello, and guitar in her folk song, “Be Myself.” She got a cold-call invitation from Scott, she said, who sent a video crew to film in her classroom. “We have a strong focus on open-mindedness and collaboration,” Fortune said. “It was originally supposed to be the teacher performing the song, not necessarily joined by their students, but I had kids in mind that I knew would add a lot to the project.”
In addition to some individual compensation, teachers received a grant to help fund future projects at their schools. Fortune said her school plans to use the grant money for music-related needs—field trips, scholarships, sheet music, and instruments—that the district can’t often support.
The videos also reflect each educator’s personal interests and platforms. Valerie Camille Jones, a middle school math teacher at Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta and “fashionista,” is passionate about ending math anxiety by building what she calls “math esteem.” Her song blends a love of fashion and numbers to teach real-world math problems using outfit combinations.
“You talk with someone on the street and mention math, you will get more people cringing,” Jones says. “I don’t think people realize that that sends a message to kids. It doesn’t encourage them to think of new ways to approach a problem—it encourages them to give up. I want students to know that everyone can be good at math if they work at it.”
To do this, Jones teaches mathematical concepts using video games and—big surprise—writes songs and dances for her class on a regular basis.
“The difference is, only my students have heard those songs,” she says. “Not America.”
Watch all the videos on Old Navy’s YouTube page.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.