watch me watch me

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.

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.