Fridays are most students' favorite day of the week at Beacon Academy, a K-8 charter school in Crystal.
But the reasons go beyond the day being the end of a long school week or the anticipation of a break from wearing school uniforms.
Fridays mean it's time for the latest episode of "Mr. Lee's Brain Break."
"Mr. Lee's Brain Break" is an educational YouTube series created specifically for Beacon Academy students by student-teacher Dan Lee, and it has quickly become a school phenomenon. "This has just made Friday mornings really special again," said second-grade teacher Lorie Schultz. "Everybody is watching it."
Each episode runs about 10 to 15 minutes and features a variety of fun segments, from workouts to story time to Lee skateboarding through the halls of the building.
Faculty members and students frequently appear along with Lee and his sidekicks.
Lee said he has tried to make the show a mix of Mr. Rogers and Johnny Karate, the alter-ego of Andy Dwyer on the sitcom "Parks and Recreation."
"I don't want it to be school," said Lee, who is now a student-teacher for a third-grade class. "I wanted just to be goofy and something fun for them to look forward to."
Lee has worked as a paraprofessional at the school for a few years while pursuing his teaching degree. He switched to the education field after working in journalism as a videographer for about 20 years.
That background in editing and shooting film put him in the position to host the show in the first place. When the pandemic started, Lee spearheaded school videos that provided students with updates and information. After a few cut-and-dried videos, he started getting more creative. Observing the enjoyment of students and adults gave Lee the confidence to pitch his dream idea.
Before the start of the school year in September, Lee talked with Beacon Academy Executive Director Sean Koster about creating an educational YouTube series. Koster was fully onboard.
"I've even showed my kids who are in high school some of the segments," Koster said. "There's something catchy about what he does."
"Brain Break" has become so popular that Lee has created an online store featuring T-shirts, socks, fanny packs, tote bags and more. All the money raised goes back to Beacon.
When Schultz asked her class why they liked "Brain Break," students told her the show brightens their day, they learn new things, they meet new kids in school, and they have a chance to be in the show themselves.
"For them, this is kind of like celebrity status," Schultz said. "It's a big deal for them and I think it just makes them feel like what they're doing at school is really important."
The show not only makes the students feel special, but it also has allowed them to remain connected during the pandemic.
It has been a difficult year for students across the country. Online learning has been tough and isolating for many, but at least instruction can be done virtually. The small things that build a shared sense of community — waving at friends in the hallways, playing games during gym class, making new friends on the playground — has been almost impossible to recreate.
"Brain Break" has helped fill that gap by providing a fun shared experience for all students to enjoy, whether they are in person or not.
Sarah Allen is the mother of two students who have not returned to in-person learning. She said the show has been a crucial way for her children to remain connected to the school and see faculty, students and even parts of the building they would not be able to see otherwise.
"That personal connection to school just keeps that sense of community alive," Allen said. "To be able to just hang on to that feel of, this is my school, this is my community, it helps maintain that connection even though we have a distance."
"Brain Break" features three recurring characters: Greg, a pile of hair from Lee's first haircut after the pandemic began; Tami, a piece of wood designed by a Beacon Academy student; and Brian, a brain who gives a fun fact every week. The characters, who can speak through the power of editing software, have become an integral part of the show, hosting different segments and interacting with Lee.
Greg in particular has become a fan favorite. Koster even has a Greg T-shirt.
"Greg has emotions [about] feeling left out or he's feeling like he's gonna miss Mr. Lee or he's feeling jealous about something, and he's able to connect that with the students," Koster said.
"The ability for Mr. Lee to teach Greg along the way has also transpired and transcended that [so] the kids are learning right along with Greg."
While the series succeeds in providing a funny and goofy distraction for students, it also dives into deeper conversations.
Lee said one episode that has stuck with him happened after his mother was hospitalized and he talked about it on the show. Students messaged him and stopped him in the hallways to ask how his mom — who is now on an upswing — is doing.
Allen said she really appreciated the episode about loneliness and how it is OK to feel sad.
These discussions help teachers spark those conversations in the classroom, said Beacon teacher Patty Blake.
"It's a lot easier for me as a teacher to talk to a group of students who've already heard it from something kind of funny or animated," Blake said. "It allows for a really great segue to be able to have those serious conversations, and they're important to have right now."
Lee does not know what the future holds for Greg and the gang. He finishes his degree at the end of the year, and then will be on the hunt for teaching jobs. He said he would do "Brain Break" for the rest of his life if he could, but he doesn't know if he would be able to teach full time and do the show on the side.
He appreciates that he has been able to do the show in the first place, and that it has accomplished what he set out to do.
"I've got this really perfect setup of, I get to create something and start my new career," Lee said. "The pandemic has been awful. But … I've been able to flourish somewhat because of it."
Peter Warren • 612-673-1713