Songwriting Workshops in Ottawa Schools Inspire Student Activism

Songwriting workshops led by singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff present authentic, relevant learning experiences for thousands of students across the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board in the province of Ontario, Canada. 

“Everyone has a song inside,” says acclaimed singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff, and through a collaboration with the school system in his home province of Ontario, Canada, he has shown students just how true that sentiment is―and helped kids to share their songs with the world. Throughout the pandemic, Cardiff has worked closely with Cam Jones, Experiential Learning Facilitator of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), to provide songwriting workshops for grades 7-12 students across dozens of schools, helping students with various levels of music experience find their voice and discover the songs they have inside. 

Jones focuses on creating authentic learning experiences for his students, so he found a natural partner in Cardiff, who knows what it means to bring real work to a real audience―his music has earned 100+ million streams and fans across the country and the world. Giving students the opportunity to learn music alongside a professional―and then producing their songs and putting it out via streaming services―truly fits the definition of authentic experience.

As Jones says, this program “is the learning.” It’s not a temporary fix meant only to facilitate virtual learning during the pandemic, but rather is here to stay, grow and support integrated, enhanced learning. Students are incorporating themes of loneliness, eviction, housing insecurity, and creative expression into their projects, expanding their connection to the education process and the world at large.

Cardiff and team used Soundtrap to support online, anywhere music production and foster collaboration. His dedication to empowering students has driven much of the program’s success, with thousands of students getting involved in songwriting workshops and producing their own original songs. Through Soundtrap, students record themselves on instruments, choose samples, layer vocals, and sing harmonies. 

The Early Project

As with many big successes, the beginnings were relatively small. The program began as a project to engage English Language Learners (ELLs) in creative storytelling through songwriting, informally recording on whatever devices were available. It was the first time many of the participating students had connected with the concept of doing a special creative project and, importantly, Jones and Cardiff ensured it was a pressure-free zone away from the everyday demands of the classroom. 

“The objective was for kids to examine and feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that they discovered how a song was made,” says Cardiff. “We purposely made sure the students understood there was no wrong way to approach songwriting, which we felt was an important way to eliminate the common excuses kids may have about why they couldn’t or wouldn’t write a song.”

Things escalated quickly when the pandemic hit. Students were now completely virtual and teachers all across the school board required new ways to effectively engage their students. Administrators and teachers in all subject areas understood that engagement in virtual learning required some creativity, and the opportunity presented itself for Cardiff to expand the program. 

Workshops and Concerts

When the program expanded, all students were invited to participate. And, while the transition from in-person to virtual workshops wasn’t easy, students were up to the challenge. The goal at the beginning of the workshops was for each student (or pair of students) to compose their own song. While many of the workshops were focused on older students, the live recorded concerts added enhanced value by engaging teachers and a full spectrum of learners.

Cardiff invited teachers to virtual chat sessions to begin the process, in which they’d discuss ideas for student engagement, including brainstorming ways to get the kids to turn their cameras on for learning. Cardiff proposed the following: “You come in for an hour, kids have prepped, they are up and dancing, their cameras are on, and I can share with you what they are doing today.” Next, Jones helped other members of the administration learn about Soundtrap’s power to support this creative collaboration, the school board implemented the online studio, and Cardiff had the required tool to succeed with the virtual program. 

Younger students, beginning with fourth graders, participated in the concerts. Non-music teachers had the opportunity to get involved, too. “We would perform and record songs on the spot, getting the kids to pick drum loops, tempo. We talked about making mistakes. How do you sing when you’re shy? We put the teachers on the spot to sing, write or record. But most of all, the idea was to give students an outlet to express themselves, through writing/performing a song,” shares Cardiff.

Evolving, Expanding and Making a Difference

As the year progressed, the project took on a life of its own, incorporating the whole community and making a significant impact. More and more teachers sent their high school students into the mix, and Cardiff kept saying “yes.” Soon his days and nights were filled with workshops and concerts, and a countless number of amazing stories were generated through the program. In fact, the demand was so high that he began delegating the production and finalization of projects to students.

Further, the workshops aren’t only for students interested in creating music. Students who want to learn about business, graphic design, creative writing and technology all gain from the program.  

Each step of the process remained consistent with Jones’s push for Authentic Student Learning Experience (ASLE), in which students start with their own purpose and make unique contributions. The topics for the recording projects were increasing in importance and the program took on a greater level of impact. There were topics important to the community, such as intergenerational contact and connection aligned with efforts influencing municipalities to adopt Intergenerational Day on June 1. Cardiff and his team started working on an album for release on the newly founded Intergenerational Day. “The songs are collaborations between Craig’s team, students of various ages in the board, and seniors around the city all contributing to these pieces,” explains Jones.  

Listen to the IGen piece recorded by a kindergarten class – Rockcliffe Park


Creative Activism

Active citizenship is part of the goal―meaning going beyond discussion to actual involvement. As opposed to the traditional approaches of gathering and protest that were restricted by the pandemic, members chose more creative means. Housing insecurity, affordable housing, and Covid-related eviction issues were all challenges faced by participating students, and therefore authentic experience dictated that these would be focal areas of the songwriting efforts. Many of the participants were new to Canada, with some living in shelters. They used Soundtrap to record a song on the subject of affordable housing and evictions, which was submitted to a national public radio station. As Jones points out, “There is a recognition of voices that rarely get heard, and all of a sudden they’re making music and have space where their voice makes sense.”

Listen to Eviction Mix

There is even an alternate program that supports students who the system has underserved. In some cases, there are students of graduate age or beyond who are still earning credits from junior grades, and the alternate program is built to serve those students specifically. Many alternate program students are attacking their learning in multiple subjects using hands-on approaches and working with Cardiff and younger students to help write the music, lyrics, and production. This creates a bridge between upper grades and lower grades, establishes them as one community, and brings a collective spirit to the process.

Listen to Unicorn Cats (improv song)


Standing Out From the Ordinary

The efforts in OCDSB are ever-evolving and extraordinary. There are students from all different points of the system connecting in ways they’d never previously connected and producing songs for the public to contemplate and enjoy. Cardiff allows those in his vicinity to see a clear progression of his own professional songwriting, sharing his process with a wide variety of learners. “Craig shows up with a blank canvas. He leaves, we have [hundreds] of songs that people will be able to stream,” says Jones. In addition to teaching the business side of music, Cardiff is interested in increasing the self-esteem and ownership of students. He stresses that the work is all about them, their creative talents on display, and he only acts as a facilitator of the process.

By the end of the program, students―regardless of their area of interest―learn about all aspects of the song creation and distribution process. They see what the process looks like from the genesis all the way through a song being available on streaming services. “They can’t say they don’t know how the process works,” says Cardiff. “The students own it from beginning to end.  It’s their song and album art up on Spotify.”

Here are the results to date:

  • 438 songs that students have created through Soundtrap, with production support from Craig and his team
  • 70 songs have been written on the spot for schools with classes
  • 200 songs have been mixed and mastered and put into a queue with album art design by students using Canva 

Authentic learning is here to stay in OCDSB and, from the looks of it, will only become more integrated with cross-curricular learning and we move forward. “It’s not a one-off, not an extracurricular,” states Jones. “The work of Craig, the project process, and results are so profound that it is the learning. When you start to tie it into the learning experience for the year, throughout the system, it is powerful.”

Listen here to ASLE student Elliot Gibson’s 5 song EP on Spotify.