This program helps Indiana students learn from a Grammy-nominated songwriter, cost-free to schools

As a nationally acclaimed songwriter, Steve Seskin’s biography and professional career is full of awards. He’s written chart-topping hits and even earned a Grammy nomination for songs he’s written for country artists, including Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. 

But you might not realize that Seskin spends much of his time traveling to schools across the U.S., including a few in Northeast Indiana, helping students to write and live their own messages of respect, kindness, and being a good friend.

Seskin’s program, “Kids Write Songs,” is associated with Operation Respect and comes to the region as part of Honeywell Arts & Entertainment’s Arts in Education program based in Wabash. Kristi Unger, Honeywell Director of Education, says Seskin’s program exemplifies the program’s goals for uplifting area schools, as they provide high-quality, barrier-free arts education to students, free of charge for schools, enriching the curricula schools already offer, like anti-bullying.

Songwriter Steve Seskin works with students at Salamonie Elementary School in Warren, IN as part of the program, "Kids Write Songs."“This program specifically is one we find valuable because the schools have bullying prevention requirements,” Unger says. “Bringing Steve in gets the message across through a creative process that fosters imagination, communication, and soft skills.” 

As part of the program, which is offered at 12 Northeast Indiana schools, students in third through twelfth grade take turns participating in interactive songwriting workshops that deal with themes of friendship, bullying, kindness, respect, and helping others. By the end of the morning, Seskin leads the students as they write an original song at each school.

He brings two titles as backup ideas but always lets the students drive the ideas and the focus of the song, which ties into themes each particular school has chosen to focus on. 

“They become the spokespeople for the rest of the school,” Seskin says. “There is ownership of ideas with the kids coming up with the words. That’s why it’s important to do ideas with good messages.”

One such workshop took place at Salamonie Elementary School in Warren, IN. The school has a theme of being “Future World Changers.” In each session, Seskin brainstorms ideas with students and helps them navigate the songwriting process. He also focuses on writing, helping them think through word choices, avoid repeating ideas, and advance their poetry skills with the flow of words, syllables, and emphasis. The importance of ordering content within the song to tell the story also plays a role. This means that in addition to anti-bullying messages students are learning language arts in a creative way. 

Teachers also have the opportunity to take what Seskin began and use it in lessons throughout the year. At Salamonie, for example, art teacher Cindy Callison uses the song students wrote together as an eLearning lesson where students either take a line to illustrate from the song or add on to the song in their own way. Music teacher Doug Hofherr says he plans to have the school choir learn the song to perform. School counselor Melinda Huber says she loves how the song fits initiatives she has started around the school, including a challenge each week to help them understand what being a “world changer” means. 

For the past 14 years, Seskin has been visiting schools across the U.S. to share anti-bullying messages through more than 1,000 songs written with students. It all began with his song “Don’t Laugh at Me,” which he co-wrote with Allen Shamblin. He connected Seskin with Operation Respect, which led to Seskin sharing his bullying prevention messages at school assemblies.

Songwriter Steve Seskin works with students at Salamonie Elementary School in Warren, IN as part of the program, "Kids Write Songs."“It was writing the song "Don’t Laugh at Me" and doing assembly programs and seeing kids reacting to my songs emotionally and having people come up to me,” recalls Seskin. “It was like a firsthand exposure to how this song affected kids. I was hooked. I started writing other songs that would go with that message.” 

A request from a principal to come back and do another assembly gave Seskin the idea to do songwriting with the students. One of his most memorable moments was inspired by “Don’t Laugh at Me.” A student shared after a performance that hearing the song helped him to realize that he needed to stop bullying other kids. 

“That’s why I wrote that song!” Seskin says. “That one kid. That one moment. And it actually changed his mind.” 

Another important moment for Seskin came while the country was still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seskin was still providing workshops via Zoom, and Unger connected him with Lincoln Elementary in Huntington, IN. Students and staff were reeling from the unexpected death of beloved teacher Lynda Laatsch in September 2020. Principal Jeni Yarger, who was Assistant Principal at the time, remembers how Seskin was part of the healing process for the students.

“Kids—especially fifth graders—have a hard time expressing their emotions,” Yarger says. “This gave them an avenue. Steve did a really amazing job getting their thoughts and feelings on paper.”

Songwriter Steve Seskin performs at the Honeywell Center.
The Honeywell Arts in Education program is able to bring Seskin’s program to Northeast Indiana thanks to sponsors and donors who underwrite programs or give grants. Seskin says he wants people to know this is very unique and does not happen in most of the places he visits, where schools have to foot the bill. Thanks to Honeywell, Northeast Indiana schools can access his program without having to fund it themselves. 

As a thank you to Honeywell’s donors, corporate sponsors, and cooperating superintendents, Seskin performed some of his songs at a celebration dinner at the Honeywell Center on October 6. There, those who help make this program a reality for area schools were able to see Seskin’s program in action. 

Songwriter Steve Seskin performs at the Honeywell Center.
“The world is a mess,” says Seskin. “It’s daunting. Schools are more important than ever to teach kids not just academics, but how to go forth in life and make their way in the world with honesty and pride. I hope, with the songs we write, they have a little more pride in their school, a little more belief in each other, and that they are spreading a message through their school.”

Wabash is the focus of a Partner City series in Input Fort Wayne underwritten by Visit Wabash County and Honeywell Arts & Entertainment. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.