Tips and suggestions inspired by the Parkdale150 Song Project     
*version française arrivera en 2019 *

  1. THEME
  5. SCOPE
  6. STEPS
  8. FAIRS


Projects like THE PARKDALE 150 SONG PROJECT / CHANSONS D’ICI allow for a great confluence of experience streams.  Explorations of local history, environment, neighbourhood, heritage, lyrical expression, musical creation, performance, language and group dynamics can intertwine to create relevant, enriching arts experience for participants, and meaningful celebratory events for communities.

Student song-writing projects of any kind can facilitate wonderful artistic discovery and self expression.  When that is combined with exploration of local geography, culture and expression lived experience, the rewards can be exponential.  Here are some brief suggestions of thematic directions that invite inspired exploration for Junior and Intermediate groups:

  • the streets around your school
  • the nearest trees
  • how many squirrels’ nests can you count?
  • sounds of the neighbourhood
  • what was here before?
  • local shops, restaurants, services
  • languages of the neighbourhood
  • streams, ravines, rivers and creeks
  • named for who? (streets, towns, parks, schools, arenas)
  • it happened right here
  • this spot in 50 years



Song-writing projects are an ideal and surprisingly democratic mode for curriculum-based inquiry, sharing and culminating tasks, by groups or individual learners.  Such activities can facilitate exploration and efficacy in a great range of skills. Song projects can help curricular themes leap off the page. One of the reasons for the inspiring successes inherent in class song-writing activities is their built-in paradox:  On one hand, the assembling of structures involving sections of Introduction, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Tag, (not to mention the communication tools within those sections: Metre, Rhyme, Rhythm, Repetition, Point of View, Voice, Figurative Language, etc.) can make for very exacting work and layers of meaning and nuance;  On the other hand, THERE ARE NO RULES IN SONGWRITING – not even grammatical ones. The best word to some up the entire medium is CHOICE.  A composed song is the result of a long string of artistic choices – including the dynamics just mentioned as well as unlimited aspects in every direction.  The interplay of these Yin and Yang of song writing is where the action is!

From other ventures similar to The Parkdale150 Song Project, here are some examples of songs created by learners as responses to specific Social Science curricula:

THE BEAUTIFUL HILLS                         CREATURES OF THE MILLS                     THE PAST OF TODMORDEN

In my workshops and educator presentations, I am forever pushing students and teachers to aim for those points, as in some cases above, where units of study intertwine with community exploration.  It is often at these points where learners can take the most ownership of their learning, feel the most expertise, and express with the most relevance.  This dynamic also creates a chain reaction, leading to more alert inquiry into themes studied, as well as greater VICINITY LITERACY (a knowledge field facing great challenges in this era of GPS, decreased outdoor leisure and the steady stream of distant and impersonal game-creation and other entertainment.


TEACHERS! If you are considering a song-writing unit of any kind, TELL YOUR COLLEAGUES!  A Social-Science song unit will by nature overlap with study expectations in Music and Languages units, and can be easily expanded to include Visual Art, Drama, Character Education, Phys Ed/Health and more.

As an example: Grade 10 Canadian History classes study the Battle of Vimy Ridge as part of their WW1 unit.  At the same time, Grade 10 English could be studying Joseph Boyden’s novel Three Day Road(which includes vivid portrayal of First Nations soldiers fighting at battles of Vimy and Passchendaele. Intermediate Art classes could at the same time be looking at Sculptures and Statue like those created for the Vimy Ridge memorial, while the Character education trate of Empathy is explored school-wide, while Health & Phys Ed look at causes and treatments of infection (one of the major killers in WW1).  Imagine a Song Writing project linking all these themes, and a culminating event, concert or blog tieing them all together with student-created songs. It would not be forgotten.

So, synchronizing with teachers in other disciplines, or (or, if you are indeed teaching all the above subjects, coordinating activities and assessment across disciplines) can make for enriched and enriching experiences – make sure to plan for these cross-curricular opportunities.  This overlapping also allows for more time to be devoted to such an initiative, and helps raise its profile schoolwide.


Introductory song-creation activities can be enjoyable without any scribing, structuring, recording or assessing.  Trying such an activity ‘Up on its feet’, can even, ideally, feel more like gym class – and can go a long way towards demystifying the art of musical/lyrical composition. However, to take the concept into more enriched territory, a variety of resources will be needed:

Space: Group workshops do well with a large amount of Chalk Board / White Board space available.  Having smaller breakout spaces is crucial for splitting up into groups that need their own zones for trying things out and rehearsing.  If recordings are also desired, a designated ‘studio’ is a necessity, whether it be The Staff Room, a borrowed office space, or on the school stage, behind curtains.

Materials: Ample black board or whiteboard space; chalk or dry erase markers, individual workshop sheets (*see blackline masters); access to Orff, guitars, pianos, ukuleles, other instruments; access to youtube or ‘beat’ websites; personal phones, school chromebooks/laptops or ministudios.


Having an experienced song-workshop facilitator / artist come to the school for one or more sessions/days is an effective way to make song projects happen. Mike Ford concerts and Workshops are booked through Prologue to the Performing Arts, and booking/cost info can be found at  Workshops can be conducted by other artists as well, through Prologue, mariposa in the Schools, The Toronto School of Song writing, etc.  An important key, if using this route, is to make contact with the Workshop Artist well ahead of time, so that the visit day(s) can be tailored to best suit your school and students.  Think about the numbers, scope and thematic direction involved in your project, and discuss options with the visiting artist, in order to be well prepared, logistically and educationally.

While some schools are able to pay the costs of visiting concert/workshops through school field trip funds, guest artist funds, principal’s discretionary funds, or school fund-raising reserves, some lucky school communities are able to request student buy-in (say, $3-$5 dollars per).   If none of the above are viable options at your school, there are a number of subsidized methods that may provide partial or full support.  Among these are:

Ontario Arts Council – Artists in Education   Pathways to Education     Canadian Parents for French


The most common approach I’ve used, and seen others follow, involves 1-4 classes participate in a full community-song project, connected to specific Social Science and other curricular units, often as a unit evaluation or final evaluation task. Initial steps ideally involve community explorations of some kind, to inform the creative inquiry.  After large-group introductory sessions, usually involving interactive concerts that model a spectrum of creative approaches, styles, voices and textures, class groups divide into song-writing groups of 3-5 students.  Their work is mentored along for several sessions, with or without visiting artist(s), leading to a recording and/or performance sharing component, which can be augmented with visual art, drama, community concert or other complimentary stages.

Song project options to consider:

  • How many classes / grade levels are to be included?
  • How many learners in total will be involved?
  • Which school staff members will be involved? Any non-staff volunteers?
  • How much in-class time will be devoted to the project?
  • Will song creation activities be the only option, or will they be one of several?
  • How much project time will be with an Artist visitor, and how much with host school teachers?
  • Will learners be creating individually, or in groups? What size of groups?
  • Will the project lead to recording and/or performance stages?Would these be optional, or mandatory?
  • What kind of community interface/outreach could the project have? -consider this in exploratory, creative and sharing components.
  • What local, or broader media and social media could be included?
  • How focused, or open, would project theme parameters be?
  • Will the learner creations be archived in any way?

Even a brief look at these above questions can help to plan out the experience, and inform pre-project communications with project partners, guest artists, etc.



  • Identify which aspects/units of Social Science, History, Geography and other curricula interface with your Community Song Project. Prepare learning units, lesson plans and activities with the goal of introducing and exploring concepts of local community that will lead to tasks responsive to these curricular units.  Examples may include:
  • Brainstorm with students ways that the local community can be viewed.What does it mean to them, to families, to businesses, to wildlife, to those not from the community.  To get ideas flowing consider full-class activities such as related Vocabulary Games (Multi-Lingual), Role Playing Improv, Community Map Anchor Board, Community Math Walk, etc.
  • Liaison with project partners among school Staff, Administration, Volunteers, Guest Artist and Community Partners.
  • Form Student Project Groups (perhaps 3-5 learners each) and have them decide upon a topic from a set of parameters or list of choices. Once groups are made and theme choices approved, give time for Brainstorming, having each group/individual use formatted Workshop Page (or similar).


  • With either a Guest Artist Performance or Audio Sample Session, learners are exposed to a variety of examples of song styles, approaches, points of view and genres – helping to inform their own choices in each step of song creation. An Intro Concert, such as those presented in Mike Ford Prologue Performances, is best situated in a school library or classroom, to allow for the most possible interaction, student participation, and stop-and-start annotation of the world of song writing.  An Audio Sample Session could utilize a collection of song recordings (and lyric sheets, youtube videos, etc.) and could be done in class time (perhaps just one or two songs each day) or be assigned as web-based homework, leading to in-class discussions of the examples presented, and student presentations of thematically-related recordings that they bring to the project, by artists they know or follow.



  • In groups, students consolidate their BRAINSTORMING– they can be encouraged to expand their range of word discovery by thinking of their song’s theme through the five senses, imaging a voyage through the community, or, if possible, on an actual class walking tour through the neighbourhood, or by looking at a community publication, using google maps, etc.
  • REMIND THEM THAT BRAINSTORMING DOES NOT REQUIRE ANY CONCERN FOR SONG STRUCTURE RHYME, METRE, CHORUS OR VERSE….it is the gathering of words, like flowers, herbs, nuts and berries for an as yet specified recipe.
  • Groups then effect an organization of their creation by looking at the brainstorming and deciding upon 3 or 4 CATEGORIESthat the words might be broken up into (e.g. – brainstorming about ‘Lake Ontario’ might yield categories such as Fish, Cities, Boats, Pollution, etc. REMIND THEM THAT CATEGORIES ARE NOT DETAILS IN AN OF THEMSELVES, BUT HEADINGS, OR CONTAINERS, FOR SPECIFIC NOUNS, VERBS, ADJECTIVES, ADVERBS, ETC that are connected to the chosen theme.
  • From here, each of the categories will become one of the verses of the song. Groups may also choose verse categories that match a theme time-line (e.g. – this ‘hood 100 years ago / this ‘hood today / this ‘hood in 100 years)
  • VERSE writing may or may not use rhymes, it may mirror the verse of a song already known, it may be anywhere from 2 to 10 lines or phrases. THE KEY IS THAT IT HAS A SHAPE, A LENGTH, A SOUND THAT IS REPEATED, WITH DIFFERENT WORDS, FOR THE OTHER VERSES.
  • CHORUS is where the song’s main IDEA, main QUESTION, main EMOTIONS can be expressed.Not with details, like verses, but in broader terms.  Chorus is usually repeated more or less identically through a song, with minor variations or changes in intensity.
  • Groups may wish to add extra sections to their song: INTRO, BRIDGE, BREAKDOWN, SPOKEN WORD, etc.
  • REMIND GROUPS THAT THEY ARE NOT CARVING A SCULPTURE INTO EXPENSIVE MARBLE.Many will resist the suggestion to go back over what they have and continually rearrange, improve lyrics…one of the greatest aspects of Song writing is how receptive work can be to EDITING– erasers can be as fun to use as pencils!
  • By now, Groups can try splitting up the song (seeing who would like to sing each verse, who does the ‘spoken word’ part, how the voices get louder for chorus, etc.). Trying the song out, using different styles, can be accomplished with the visiting guest artist, by making their own accompaniment (acoustically, electronically), by imitating songs already known, or by using web-based ‘BEATS’ selections or YouTube ‘Instrumental Versions’ of known songs.
  • RECORDING can begin quite early in the process – using their own, or school phones/chromebooks to capture initial ideas, and then can grow along with the project. Simple recordings can be the most exciting and effective, as they require the whole group to understand song structure, rehearse parts and dynamics, and then record a performance live.  If time and materials permit, groups can stop and start live performance recording, layer voices (double or triple tracking choruses can give sonic strength were needed) and add beats, instrumental tracks, found sounds, etc.


Although potential culminating activities can be envisioned at the outset, it is best, as the project progresses, to gage participants appetite and readiness for different song-sharing options.  These culminations could include one, many or all of the following:

As Live Performance

  • In-class presenting to peers
  • Performing songs, one each day, on morning announcements
  • Included in drama presentation
  • Presenting at school assembly
  • Presenting at evening school concert
  • As part of neighbourhood celebration
  • Performed flash-mob style at neighbourhood event
  • Performed at field trip to historic site or museum

As Recording

  • Included in class presentation with visuals or tableau
  • Used as soundtrack to animation project
  • Shared via class blog, twitter or facebook page
  • Presented and Archived via Class Web Site
  • Sent to local radio or media
  • Saved for later inclusion in Class Arts Project 


As noted, the workshop stage can be professionally aided by guest artists, whether through programs like the Ontario Arts Council’s Artists in Education(and through similar municipal and federal arts councils) as well as with artists from The Toronto Song writing School, Mariposa in the Schoolsor Prologue to the Performing Arts(including my own Mike Ford concerts and workshops).

For a 14-minute primer on what a Mike Ford workshop contains, check out this animated whiteboard song workshop– or show it to class groups as an intro to help hit the ground running for any similar initiative.


It is likely your school board or region has a version of Heritage, History or Historica Fair, wherein (usually) Intermediate student Canadian History projects are presented and adjudicated.  These Fairs, usually held in the spring, can be an excellent sharing place where individuals and groups of learners can present results of their historical and often locally-relevant inquiry.   Usually utilizing Bristol-board backing and, often, dioramas or mockettes, there is no reason these projects cannot contain audio components, such as student recordings of original community songs (along with related visual annotation, lyrics, maps and more.

For information about History Fairs in your area, consult these links:



Along with the school and school-board based chances for song performance sharing, neighbourhoods offer a number of instances through the year where, with successful partnering, students can present their creations and celebrate community with community!  Beyond Fall Fairs and other seasonal festivals, one of the best opportunities to explore are Local BIAorganisations.  In most cases, these Main Street based groups hold one or more street festival days.  Contact the one near your school and propose student performances of songs that explore and celebrate the very neighbourhood itself – odds are they will be very interested in hosting such performances.

Also, neighbourhoods are not static, issueless environments.  It is quite possible that your school’s neighbourhood is dealing with challenging issues requiring discussion, debate and visioning. I have seen student-created community songs performed on Environment Days, at Park and Arena Inaugurations, at peaceful Rallies for Local Environmental Preservation, for strike workers on picket lines, at religious institutions offering refugee shelter, and more.  I have even been present at a City Hall deposition where students presented an original community-issue based song as their citizen input.


Enjoy trying out some of these ideas and practices generated in the Department of Canadian Heritage funded Parkdale 150 Project.  Don’t hesitate to send Mike Ford a note if you have any questions about school song writing projects, workshops, or Canadian History concerts.