Pop Quiz: History Lessons Set to Hit Songs
Do you associate the French Revolution with Lady Gaga? What about Napoleon and the Violent Femmes? You might after hearing the work of two history teachers who took hit pop songs and rewrote the lyrics to convey history lessons. Learning history was never so catchy.
The History-Based Hit-Makers
Two teachers from Hawaii, Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona, decided a few years ago to make songs about history set to pop music. The goal was to make history interesting to their students. It all started with a song about civilization, set to Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls, and one about Henry VII, set to Abba's Money Money Money. Rather than just perform the songs live for their students, they opted to make music videos.
At the time, they were both working at St. Andrew's Priory in Honolulu. While Burvall taught world history and humanities, Mahelona taught Flash animation and art. Though Mahelon remains at St. Andrew's, Burvall currently teaches at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, Oaho. And even though their teaching careers have diverged, they continue to produce music videos together. They describe themselves as kooky and revel in their videos being labeled gloriously dorky.
The MTV of History
Over time, the production level of the videos increased, with elaborate costumes, choreography and editing giving them an increasingly polished look. To appeal to the intended high school audience, many of the videos use current stars, like Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse and Fergie. The songs manage to make topics that may seem arcane to high school students fresh and memorable. For example, the Black Plague may never sound as appealing as when it's set to Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl.
Nevertheless, the pair's musical talents span several generations of pop music and they have a special fondness for pop songs of the 80s. The Bangles, Blondie, Depeche Mode and the Knack are all represented. The teachers use those bands to cover topics as diverse as the Vikings and Charlemagne. Going back even further in musical time, the Beatles have the most songs represented of any artist, including a song about Anne Boleyn that's set to Girl and another about Leonardo da Vinci set to Dear Prudence.
From Hawaii to the World
While the lessons created by most teachers never go far beyond the classroom, Burvall and Mahelona took their work to the Internet. They created a YouTube channel called History for Music Lovers, which has a collection of over 51 videos. Nearly 8,000 people subscribe to the channel and the videos have been viewed over 1.5 million times. The Lady Gaga-inspired video on the French Revolution is the most popular, with approximately 300,000 views.
While these teachers are bringing YouTube to the classroom, others are turning to Twitter to connect with students.