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Students at Coleman A. Young Elementary School pose in a screenshot from "Pushing to Success."

Students at Coleman A. Young Elementary School pose in a screenshot from “Pushing to Success.”

Watch these Detroit elementary students star in music videos about reading

Students at Coleman A. Young Elementary didn’t have art or music class last year, but their dance moves made it all the way to India.

They starred in “Pushing to Success,” the fourth installment in a series of annual videos orchestrated (and rapped) by Janice Goldman, a former physician who volunteers as a tutor at Coleman Young.

In the video, students and teachers dance and sing along to the uplifting lyrics Goldman types out on her iPhone. This year, the words parodied the hit song Finesse (Remix) by singer Bruno Mars:

With me working with you

We’ll make the whole world change

Because that’s what we do

And they’ll all be amazed

This is a typical verse for Goldman, who focuses her lyrics on educational opportunities — and reading in particular. “Booktown Funk,” her first video, encourages students to read to their cat and to show off their new pajamas while reading.

Despite the silliness of the videos, they take on serious issues. Reading test scores in Detroit are among the worst in the country. A state law going into effect in 2020 will hold back third-graders — 70 percent of them, according to some estimates — who are not reading on grade level.

The videos helped fill another gap at Coleman Young by offering up a chance for self-expression to students who lacked art class.

“Janice brought back the arts without it officially being on our schedule,”  said Principal Melissa Scott. She says her school will likely have an art teacher next year, pointing to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s promise to fill vacancies in music, art, and gym.

Goldman’s method is simple: She picks a pop song in January, taps out a first draft of the lyrics on her phone. For the rest of the school year, she visits every classroom in the building, recording children on her phone as they sing along.  Each class visit covers another piece of the song, leaving Goldman with minimal editing at the end of the process. The entire video is captured on her phone.

Her goal is simple, too: Make sure every student at the school appears in the video.

That makes a big difference for students at Coleman Young, 90 percent of whom are poor and black. Scott says her students can be made to feel like “invisibles” in American culture because of their race and socioeconomic status.

But she said the music videos help, at least for a little.

“You see yourself on the screen, you’re an instant movie star!” Scott said. “My kids absolutely adore seeing themselves in lights.”

Scott isn’t the only administrator to join the fun. Vitti happened to be meeting with teachers on one of the days Goldman was filming, and she made sure he got a cameo.

Creating the videos came naturally to Goldman. Silly parodies of pop songs were already a standard at family birthdays, a zany extension of her time as a high school theater student and her participation in a synagogue choir. When she and other members of the National Council of Jewish Women signed up six years ago to tutor students  at Coleman Young, she found herself drawn into the school community. When the principal agreed to let her create an education-themed parody music video, she knew she’d found her niche.

“I’m just your basic, beyond middle-aged white Jewish rapper,” she said.

The performances by students at Coleman Young helped spread the videos to a much larger audience, and not just within the district. Booktown Funk, Goldman’s first video since working as a tutor, has drawn more than 11,000 views in 50 states and 106 countries, including Papua New Guinea and Kyrgyzstan, since it was published in 2015.

While “Pushing to Success” has only amassed 210 views so far, Goldman says it has already been viewed in India and South Africa. A map on the wall at the school tracks the countries where people have watched students in Coleman Young music videos.

The students’ antics are what make the videos stand out, Goldman said.

“They’d just add their own personality and their own spirit into it, and it just becomes so much more,” she said, adding, “Just having this opportunity to express themselves, it made them feel special.”

Click below to see previous Coleman Young music videos.

2015 – “Booktown Funk”

2016 –  “Happy to READ!”    

2017 – “Can’t Stop the 3 B’s”