Last week a friend sent me the link to the YouTube channel of the History Teachers, two high school teachers in Hawaii who create music videos using well known pop songs, stripping out the vocal tracks, and adding their own lyrics. Those original lyrics are history lessons. So, for instance, one can watch/listen to “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell recast as a history of the Trojan Wars or a history of the French Revolution set to “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga.
As cheesy as they may seem on first glance, I really like the playfulness of these teachers. As I’ve written here and elsewhere, I think historians have gotten way to stodgy in our approach to teaching about the past and these teachers have found a way to engage students without taking themselves very seriously. And they are reaching a much wider audience than just their own students (412,000 views of the French Revolution video as of May 4, 2011). Sure, it’s a simplified version of the past. Sure, their versions reinforce a tendency to compress complicated historical issues into a few minutes of text/video/power point slides. But so what? The point, it seems to me, is not to present a complex and nuanced version of the past. Rather, it is to introduce a complicated subject in a fun and engaging way that will then make it possible for teachers and their students to interrogate the evidence in much more complex ways in class.
These videos were a lot of work and so are clearly a labor of love. I’m not suggesting that we all tap our inner Culture Club or Britney Spears. But I am suggesting that the more ways we can find to lighten up a little, to stop taking ourselves so seriously, the more ways we’ll find our students engaging with our serious work.