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How a Denver elementary school is using pop music and viral videos to teach social skills

Two grown-ups hoisted four kindergarteners onto tabletops Tuesday morning in the sunny library at Green Valley Elementary School in far northeast Denver.

They were about to Hit the Quan.

“You kinda walk like a penguin and move your hands like you’re swimming,” school psychologist Adam Parker said, unselfconsciously demonstrating the moves from the viral dance video.

Hit the Quan was so popular this year that most kids already knew the song and accompanying dance, having watched it over and over again on YouTube. That’s why Parker and Green Valley Elementary behavior interventionist Sarah Davis chose to imitate it for their latest music video.

Once a month, the pair rewrite the lyrics to a hit song to focus on a character trait — self-control, cooperation, gratitude — that students are learning about as part of a curriculum meant to teach social and emotional skills. Schools in Colorado and across the country are increasingly focusing on such skills in recognition that student success is about more than just academics.

The kids who won awards for demonstrating the previous month’s trait get to dance in the video, which is played at a schoolwide assembly. The character trait for April was perseverance, and first up Tuesday were the kindergarteners.

Three little boys and one little girl, dressed nearly identically in black pants, polo shirts and neon sneakers, watched Parker’s moves from their vantage point a few feet off the floor. They tried to suppress smiles, while Parker and Davis tried to hype them up.

“What else do you do?” Davis asked.

“Stomp!” kindergartener Andru Aguilara shouted. “Like an elephant!”

Parker and Davis laughed. The kids were getting into it. A few takes later, they had their shot.

As Denver gentrifies, the far northeast is one of the last pockets of the city where developers are building affordable single-family houses. As a result, the neighborhood is booming, and Green Valley Elementary is bursting at the seams with four classes per grade.

Ninety percent of the school’s more than 750 students are kids of color. Two-thirds of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

And many are dealing with serious issues: street violence, parents in prison, upheaval at home. When kids inevitably bring that trauma to school, Parker and Davis step in to help.

Teaching students about perseverance, self-control and bravery is just as important as teaching reading and math, they said. In fact, they see one as a kind of precursor to the other.

“We’re both big believers in, if you don’t have a good social-emotional base — if you don’t know how to have respect and have patience — you’re not going to do well in class,” Davis said.

Every month, each teacher at Green Valley, from kindergarten through fifth grade, chooses one student from their class who excelled at showing gratitude or tried harder to cooperate.

The winners are not necessarily the top grade-getters, Parker and Davis said. Nor do they tend to be the kids who frequently get referred to their offices for disrupting class. Making the videos has instead allowed Parker and Davis to spend time with students they don’t see every day — and sometimes, to shine a different light on the ones they do.

Sarah Davis shows the kindergarteners how to flex their muscles.

Sarah Davis shows the kindergarteners how to flex their muscles.

It’s an amazing feeling to have fun with a kid who’s usually in his office for fighting, Parker said. And to him and Davis, that’s a big part of what the videos are all about.

“A lot of times, teachers and kids forget that school is a place to have fun,” he said.

Ellen Kelty, the manager of the district’s Department of Social Work and Psychological Services (and Parker’s boss), likes the videos so much she’s shown them at training meetings.

“We believe in preventative work,” she said, “and that’s what he’s doing.”.

Parker and Davis made their first video in September, back when every kid in school was obsessed with another viral dance video: “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”

Instead of “Now watch me whip/Now watch me nae nae,” they changed the lyrics to, “I show respect/And I show patience.” They called it the Green Valley Remix and recorded students singing it and dancing on the playground and in class.

It was an instant classic. So Parker and Davis decided to do it again in October. They chose another song the kids knew — the reggae-pop hit “Cheerleader” — and rewrote the lyrics to focus on self-control and responsibility. To save time, Parker sang the song himself, even imitating the singer’s Jamaican accent. Both he and Davis have musical talent, and it shows.

The kids ate it up.

“Everybody thinks it’s funny,” said Eva Le, a third-grader who’s been in two videos.

“People look forward to them,” added fifth-grader Jazzmon Mitchell, one of this month’s winners.

Eight months into the school year, the videos have taken on a life of their own, Davis said: “The kids will be like, ‘Can I be in the next video?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, if you persevere next month!’

“It’s going to take more than dorky videos for kids to change their behavior,” she added. “But we have seen some shifts. The past few months, we’ll get the list (of winners) from teachers and there have been a couple of kids where I’m like, ‘Really?’ They’re not spending the entire day being model students, but they’re giving a little extra effort and trying harder to be recognized.”

On Tuesday morning, the fifth-graders were the last to film their part of the video, which will debut at a school assembly next week. The three girls and one boy were the most self-conscious students of the day, but they were also the most giggly.

“I can’t do that!” fifth-grader Linda Torres shrieked when Davis demonstrated the choreography she and Parker had dreamt up on the spot. It included a move called the Bernie, where the students were supposed to arch their backs, look up at the sky and flail their arms.

“I’m going to be laughing!” said Mitchell.

But once the camera started rolling, the kids nailed it. The group then moved to the school’s front parking lot, where Parker and Davis had decided to film what would be the video’s closing scene. The idea was for the kids to be dancing in front of a car.

“What’s the nicest car in the lot?” Parker asked. “Maybe we can get that one.”

They settled on the school secretary’s pristine gray Range Rover. She agreed to let them use it, and the kids piled inside: two in the front, one in the back and one crouched in the trunk.

“What’s the plan here?” Davis joked. “We have four kids in a Range Rover and no plan.”

They quickly came up with one and cued up the song’s final chorus on Parker’s phone. With Davis filming, the kids swaggered out of the Range Rover and lined up in front of it, four tweens in school uniforms squinting in the sun and beaming from ear to ear, despite themselves.

The chorus rang out: “Let me show you how to persevere, persevere, persevere, persevere/Work hard and get the job done!/Work hard and get the job done!” And the kids Hit the Quan.