Fort Sam teacher taps into TikTok, music to keep students engaged

Before new students step in the door of Fort Sam Houston Elementary School, they’re greeted with videos about the school, including facilities, clubs and safety.

Featuring students and faculty performing dance moves from TikTok over popular music, the videos are just some of music teacher Paul Perea’s many projects that tap into students’ personal interests to help them learn and get engaged with the campus. That last part is particularly important at Fort Sam Houston Elementary, a school on post with a student body that’s largely made up of service members’ families.

As the music teacher, Perea sees all of the about 870 students at Fort Sam Houston Elementary. He also sponsors extracurricular clubs and leads the campus recycling program and Five Star Productions, the name he’s given the group of faculty and students who make the videos about the school and post them on YouTube.

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Perea “brings a bunch of new ideas to the school,” said Joseph Cerna, who spent six years as the principal at Fort Sam Houston Elementary before leaving for Robert G. Cole Middle and High School earlier this year. “Everything is student centered. He kind of lives in the ‘have fun’ world. Students get to make videos, share the videos on social media. He tries to get the students involved on and off campus.”

Perea, 53, is originally from Corpus Christi and came to San Antonio in 1999 to take a teaching job at one of the local districts. Four years ago, he moved to Fort Sam Houston Elementary.

He co-sponsors and teaches the show choir, which includes choral and dance performances. Along with other faculty and staff, he also sponsors clubs for various instruments and the dance club.

Along with the videos from Five Star Productions, his students put on live performances, including caroling in a barge along the River Walk during the holidays last year. Also last year, his students recorded their holiday show and played it on the big screen at the historic Fort Sam Houston Theatre.

The videos also help students practice and improve, Perea said.

“They can see themselves when they go home … and say, ‘I need to work on this move,’” he said. “I tell the kids, ‘I’m a decent dancer, but if you’ll notice I missed a step here, I missed a step there. You don’t need to be perfect. I just want you to have a good time.’”

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Children “gravitate” toward music, Perea said. By incorporating songs his students like and dance trends that are popular on TikTok, he’s able to keep them engaged in his lessons. For example, he recently used a Bruno Mars song to teach his students about major keys.

Children might want to methodically beat on drums; but when he adds a marimba, he can teach them about melody. 

“They get to sing a poppy song to their family members, and of course the family members go crazy because they recognize the songs,” Perea said. “I guess what I’m trying to bring is the enjoyment of music.

Engaging with students early and quickly is particularly important at Fort Sam Houston, where children come and go as their parents are transferred to new posts or deployed, Cerna said. At least a third of the school’s students every year are new to Fort Sam Houston Elementary.

“The students in our school come from different parts of the nation and world,” Cerna said. “You’ll have some students that come from overseas … so they have to adapt quickly to their new learning environment.”

Perea “works with students (and) families, communicates, engages and includes them all, makes them feel welcome,” he added. “That’s a big deal for students to come to a new school, and they have something to join, an interest to help them feel welcome in a new school.”

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So while Five Star Productions’ videos promote initiatives at the school or even help the administration share morning announcements, they also serve as an introduction to Fort Sam Houston Elementary’s new students.

“We like to make home videos of what to expect at our school,” Perea said. “‘This is what we wear at our school’ — we don’t have uniforms, but of course things that are proper to wear at school. If we need to get a message across to parents, we show parents ‘these are the things we recycle,’” for example.

Recycling is one of Perea’s signature initiatives. 

For the last four years, Fort Sam Houston Elementary has won the PepsiCo Recycle Rally.

Winning schools are awarded money for beautification projects. Perea and his students have brought home more than $50,000 for beautification projects at Fort Sam Houston Elementary, including leveling and surfacing a track, improving playgrounds, and buying banners and posters to display at the school.

“He’ll have tons of students that just want to help,” Cerna said. “Then he’ll get parents and staff involved as well. Just because of the energy he brings to it, it draws students, staff and family in. They want to be part of it as well.”

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Not only does Perea get the elementary school community involved, his students have encouraged other parts of Fort Sam Houston to participate in the recycling program. The on-post housing complexes and Brooke Army Medical Center take part. Perea and his students raise awareness and encourage other organizations and institutions to get involved by making commercials about their recycling program.

“That’s the reason why we’ve done so well with recycling — we’ve done videos, commercials,” Perea said. “It all interacts. That’s what’s so cool about it. It just works together.”

All this amounts to a lot of work, Cerna noted.

“Demand is huge” for Perea’s clubs, Cerna said. “A typical choir, we’d like to have 25, 35 students in it. What will happen is you’ll get up to 100 students interested in that show choir. He’ll keep them all, too. That’s a challenge, but he’s always up to that challenge.

“He’s probably doing close to 60 hours a week, which is his work plus another 20,” Cerna added.

This school year, Perea is hoping to start a new initiative: aquaponic gardening.

“At school, so many people are into gardening,” he said. “We need to come together to combine our forces.”

“He really does help students come out of their shell, especially knowing they’re new,” Cerna said. “That’s his gift, helping students feel comfortable in their new environment.”

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