Washington (CNN) - First lady Michelle Obama hung out with a "big time star" and jammed to the Godfather of Soul, but brought a serious message to students at a once-troubled Washington elementary school Friday.
Obama joined actress Kerry Washington, from the ABC television show "Scandal," in the visit to Savoy Elementary School which was once one of the district's lowest performing schools and is located in the city's Anacostia neighborhood.
Savoy has seen a jump in its test scores and enrollment becoming one of eight schools nationwide in the Turnaround Arts Initiative. The program from the President's Committee on Arts and the Humanities brings cultural and arts program into the school's program as part of a reform effort.
"You all are seeing the connection that the arts and the academics have with one another," Obama told students during a visit showing off the school's programs, "I want to urge you to keep working hard every single day."
Washington has become a mentor to Savoy, as a member of the President's committee. Obama bragged to students the actress from the hit show is "a big time star right now. Big time. I mean, there is no bigger star right now than Kerry."
"I know that on television I have the privilege of playing a character who is out there fixing it in different situations," Washington told reporters, "but in my real life I really feel blessed that I can be a part of a program that's using the arts to fix or to help schools fix themselves; to really help schools turn themselves around using the arts, as a key to unlocking a lot of the problems that the school is facing."
The first lady toured a pre-K classroom and a fifth grade arts class during her visit. In the pre-K class, she joined the four and five-year-olds in a game where they dance, and freeze in positions shown on flash cards when the music stops. She spent about 15 minutes in the class, dancing to James Brown's "Gonna Have Funky Good Time".
When teacher Jacqueline Lyons asked the students who James Brown was, they yelled "The Godfather of Soul."
Obama then went to a 5th grade arts classroom, where she watched students painting and making sculptures of a West African bird. She also viewed class video diaries on computer where a student handed her a headset to listen.
In her speech to the school following the tour, Obama told the students "No one is born smart. No one is born knowing how to read, right? No one is born knowing how to do math, or no one is born knowing how to play the flute. All of that comes with a lot of hard work…it's not about what you know, it's about the effort that you put in, the amount of work that you're willing to do to get where you're going. And everyone has to work hard - everyone does. I have to work hard, the President has to work hard, your teachers have to work hard. No one expects you to know how to read already. The only way you know how to read is that you keep trying."
Obama urged the students to be "fearless learners", telling them "sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes you'll fail at something. But the important thing is, do you get back up when you fail? ...I want you guys to be free to try new things and not be afraid to fail - because we have all failed."
Citing herself and Washington as examples, she said the actress struggled in her career before becoming a star. "Kerry got a lot of rejections. She spent a lot of time developing her craft. She spent a lot of time practicing and working and trying out for things and having people tell her 'no,' 'no thank you,' 'you're not good enough,' 'you're not pretty enough.'" Could you imagine somebody telling Kerry that she wasn't pretty enough, she wasn't tall enough, she was too short? That's all performing is, is rejection."
Before about 390 students in the auditorium, Obama said, "I want you to ask questions, take some risks. Don't be embarrassed when you don't know something. Don't be afraid to ask questions, okay? Do you understand that?"
Obama and Washington then watched performances by the school's Savoy Players, including a musical number where students were transported back several decades and sang "Who Put the Bomp," complete with poodle skirts, black jackets and white t-shirts. The first lady clapped along and swayed to the music.
Washington joined students on stage on the final musical act, dancing and doing the "Lindy Hop."
She joked maybe she was connected with the school because her "Scandal" character Olivia shares a last name with the school's principal Patrick Pope.