Telling their Own Story: Detroit Youth find their Voice in the Verses Project

  • Juliet Hess
  • Assistant Professor
  • College of Music
  • Vaughn Watson
  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Teacher Education
  • College of Education
Verses program participant performs original music for a recording session.

Juliet HessProving that statistics don't always tell the whole story, researchers from MSU's Colleges of Music and Education, in collaboration with the Community Music School–Detroit and teacher-artists from the Detroit community, are showing that youth in Detroit have much to contribute to the area of literacy. They are seeking to nurture this capacity through an innovative program called Verses: Exploring Literacy Through Lyrics and Song. Funded by the Marshall Mathers Foundation and Carhartt, Verses is an out-of-school literacy curriculum that integrates literacy instruction with music composing, performance, and recording techniques, guided by local community artists and focused on skills youth have already gained in their own lived experiences.

Vaughn WatsonJuliet Hess, assistant professor in MSU's College of Music and former schoolteacher in Toronto, is principal investigator on the Verses Project. "We look at what youth are bringing to the table themselves, in terms of what they are already doing musically and what they are already doing in terms of literacy, and how to help them bring that out and develop it," she said.

Vaughn Watson, also a Verses principal investigator, is an assistant professor in MSU's College of Education and former high school English teacher in Brooklyn, New York. He worked closely with Hess to develop the initial Verses curriculum. "We're really interested in literacy as a social practice," said Watson, "extending youths' identities and ways in which youth are making meaning of notions of place, particularly Detroit, and how they're extending identities as participants and contributors in their communities."

The Verses Curriculum

Verses Project Partners

Michigan State University

College of Music
Juliet Hess
Mark Sullivan

Community Music School–Detroit
Jill Woodward
Elizabeth Lanni
Alex Way
Jessica Clements

College of Education
Vaughn Watson
Matthew Deroo

Marshall Mathers Foundation

Paul Rosenberg

Carhartt, Inc.


Jon Dixon
Jennie Knaggs
Will Langford
Conrad Reeves

Verses Project participants meet once a week for 15 weeks during the spring and fall semesters, as well as during two week-long summer camps. Some of the kids come to all 30 weeks during the year and to the camp. Next year the program will be adding a second night a week. In fall semester 2016, the program served 117 youth from 46 public schools in the Detroit area. The program is offered free of charge to youth, ages 12 to 15, through MSU's Community Music School–Detroit (CMS-D).

Paul Rosenberg, MSU alumnus and representative for the Marshall Mathers Foundation, along with Carhartt, worked with MSU to develop the program.

Jill Woodward is the director of CMS-D and facilitates the program. "The future of Detroit is very important to Marshall Mathers," said Woodward. "We felt that this program, which combines the language arts with music—which happens to be the intellectual currency of young people today—is absolutely a creative way to reach them and help them learn to express themselves both through the written word, as well as through the music that they're creating."

Each Verses class period is divided into three sessions. During Open Mic time, students perform their own creative expressions, such as a section of poetry, a few lines of a song, or an instrumental piece. During lesson time, a teaching artist works with the youth on such topics as poetry, language arts, lyrics, and beat making. Finally, during the group time, students meet in a band or other group and compose a song that will be studio recorded and become part of a CD.

Each session is led by a teacher-artist from Detroit. Will Langford is a Detroit native, an MSU alumnus, an educator, and a poet. He teaches literacy programs in Detroit schools and works with the Community Music School–Detroit as a teacher-artist in the Verses Program, conducting weekly creative writing workshops focused on poetry and song lyrics.

He also guides the Open Mic sessions, one of his favorite parts of the program. "Open Mic is something that has changed my perspective on the power of poetry," he said. "We spend a lot of time developing the students, both as performers and as an audience."

He and the other teacher-artists work with the kids on building a skill set geared toward developing an understanding, appreciation, and practice of using language to build their own literary presence: brainstorming, performing, composing, recording, wordsmithing, and, especially, how to work as a team.

"More than the performances, I think it's inspiring to see these kids supporting each other," said Langford. "They come from schools all over Detroit, all different backgrounds, and they're nurturing their own creative community."

Speaking Into the Narrative of Their Place

Juliet Hess, assistant professor in the College of Music, works with Verses students during lesson time.

Out of this literary training ground, Verses collaborators are seeing the emergence of confident, engaged young citizens, eager to promote and speak to a positive narrative of Detroit.

"This type of work, of enacting literary presence, helps us to think about and build on the most recent literature that talks about literacy practices as civic engagement," said Watson. "The youth see themselves as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners. They enact these practices in their communities and in their homes. And they draw attention, in this really interesting and nuanced way, to what it means to be a member of a community—in this case, what it means to be from Detroit—and to talk about that in an affirming way."

The desire to present a positive narrative of Detroit is shared by many of the youth in Verses. Matthew Deroo, one of Watson's graduate students in the College of Education, is witnessing how Verses is providing a way for youth to speak to the larger narrative that's happening historically, such as through the Black Lives Matter movement, and express what that means for youth in Detroit today.

"With so many negative framings of Detroit, the students are trying to recapture a positive image," Deroo said. "They express thoughts like: 'We know that Detroit has issues and problems, but we're not going to focus on that. We're going to highlight and speak to the really wonderful things that our community gives us and allows us to do.'"

Teaching the Next Generation of Teachers

Teacher-artist and poet-in-residence Will Langford engages with Verses students during a weekly creative writing workshop.

This past February, at the request of CMS-D program manager Elizabeth Lanni, the youth from Verses had the opportunity to visit the MSU campus in East Lansing. Watson chose three of them to take what they had learned in Verses and teach it to the students in his senior-level TE 408 class, Crafting Teaching Practices.

According to Watson, the youth did a phenomenal job, not only teaching and engaging the college students, but creating and performing—on the spot—an original poem, song, and rap. The youth were thrilled with the experience, and according to Deroo, one said, "This is my first time on a college campus, and today I'm the professor!"

Future semesters of Verses will incorporate curriculum that includes college-going preparedness. And Watson's now-graduated teacher education students will be heading into careers as teachers with some fresh ideas about how much kids are able to contribute to the learning process, and ultimately, to the narrative of their own lives.

Verses Project researchers Hess, Watson, and Deroo have published articles this year documenting the empowering outcomes of the Verses experience.

"By producing this music, youth are able to define themselves and their lives on their own terms," said Hess. "And I think that there's potential to shift some of the larger perceptions that really limit what these youth are capable of. There's really something special about what is going on at CMS-D right now."

Woodward, CMS-D director, agreed. "I truly believe that this is a life-changing experience for them," she said. "We have some kids here who are so passionate about telling their stories, about writing their songs, and making their beats. I cannot wait to see what they do when they grow up. To be given these kinds of tools in a program like this is a one-of-a-kind opportunity."

For more information about the Verses Project, or Listen to original recordings created by Verses participants.

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement

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