Who couldn’t use a little song and dance before the big test?

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Be honest. You’d have given your left pinky toe to see your no-nonsense elementary school principal do the running man. Or to see your teachers dance on library furniture or cruise down the hallway piled up like rodeo clowns on a utility cart.

Especially if you knew they were acting a fool just for you.

That’s what the educators at Oralia R. Rodriguez Elementary in my hometown of Seguin did in a video parody to motivate students taking the STAAR test this week. Riffing off a catchy Justin Timberlake song, the teachers perform fresh lyrics.

The refrain, belted out with goofy pizzazz by music teacher Joseph Cantu, whose wife, a nurse, helped edit: “Can’t stop the testing! So just pass, pass, pass.

It was a hit, not only online where it approached viral status, but with the kids, who sang along at breakfast Tuesday morning, just before testing commenced.

“Every student was energized, and they were encouraged and they were relaxed,” said Cantu, 29, in his third year at the school. “That’s the frame of mind we want them going into the test with.”

It was so well done that I couldn’t stop watching. Of course, that wasn’t the universal reaction, as I found out when I posted on Twitter and Facebook.

Given time and bandwidth, I suppose anything can become controversial. Even an adorable video that teachers wrote, recorded and produced on their own time, after school and during spring break.

A local professor seemed to feel that by sharing the video, I was supporting high-stakes testing. Not at all. As I’ve explained in numerous columns, I abhor the importance we give to standardized testing in this state.

To me, these teachers were creatively, joyfully making the best of a stressful situation foisted upon Texas schoolchildren. But as we debated the issue online Monday night, the critics made me think.

“UGH!” wrote Anna Eastman, a Houston ISD school board member. “I am a supporter of accountability, which includes the test, but stuff like this is what makes people hate it so much! Looks like they’ve spent all their time teaching strategies, etc. instead of the rich, deep stuff that if mastered will result in just fine test results. That said, they are brave to sing like that in a video!”

‘Sends a message’

Yes, the “strategies” and testing jargon in some lyrics are unsettling. But I told Eastman that I simply couldn’t imagine teachers this dedicated and imaginative being drones in the classroom.

Some maintained that almost any attention to testing – from videos to pep rallies – does more harm than good.

“I still think it sends a message to our kids that this is academically the most important thing,” said Sarah Becker, a Houston stay-at-home mother of three, licensed specialist in school psychology and public education advocate who runs HISDparents.org with her husband, Ben. “And it makes these few testing days outweigh what the kids are doing all year long.”

She doesn’t blame teachers for trying to make the best of a broken system, but she believes their good intentions still add to the pressure.

Then a recently retired Houston high school teacher weighed in, saying the strategies were good ones applicable beyond test-taking and that most teachers use acronyms or songs to teach deeper concepts.

“These poor teachers have been condemned in the last few days by many, but I applaud them,” wrote Diane Morrow, who told me she taught language and literature at several inner-city schools and now, in retirement, scores tests, including STAAR. “Give the teachers a break and look deeper into what they were doing.”

So I did.

Music and creativity, it seems, are common tools at Rodriguez Elementary, according to teachers and a parent I talked to. One teacher devised a morning dance routine to get sluggish bodies and brains going. Each morning, assemblies recognize academic competitions and other events. Each week, teachers perform skits to help students build vocabulary. Music is used to teach everything from multiplication to appreciation for military veterans.

“It feels good for our students to see us as people and not just teachers,” said Kimberly Erlanson, a first-grade teacher who assisted with the video. “It’s really helping their anxiety level. They know the stuff. It’s just that they’re too nervous to perform.”

She was surprised at both the popularity of the video and the criticism. She said it’s a double-standard for parents to say they don’t care about testing, and that teachers shouldn’t teach strategies or encourage high passing rates.

“Say you moved into a new neighborhood. The first thing you’d probably do is look at the schools, look at the scores,” Erlanson said. “Unfortunately, that’s how we get rated. Do we like it? No. But that’s how it is.”

Lisa Hollub agrees. The 43-year-old mom of two is a volunteer at Rodriguez who like Becker has worked assessing emotionally and intellectually disabled children. Her fourth-grade son is taking the test this week. In her house, she said, testing is not emphasized.

Siding with teachers

Yet, she applauds the video.

She said she teared up the first time she watched the kids view it. Some, with mouths gaping, couldn’t believe their normally serious teachers would act silly, even sing off-key, just for them.

“My son wanted to watch it before he went to bed,” she said. “He just laughed the whole time.”

This is a tough one. No doubt, the Rodriguez teachers showed their students how much they care – about the kids and about the test. We should be careful not to shower too much attention and energy on testing day – there are more deserving events.

I side with the teachers, though.

Some day, we’ll come to our senses and realize schools shouldn’t be prisons on test day. For the time being, we can’t stop the testing. So why not break down the stress with a little jailhouse rock?

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