SQ Magazine

The UK's Leading Independent Youth Culture Publication

FEATURE: Learning to Rewrite History

Posted on Friday, 9 September by

What do Justin Timberlake and William the Conqueror have in common?

Not much, of course, until two American teachers started using Timberlake’s songs, and those of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and more, to help their pupils understand world history.

Whether re-writing “SexyBack” to describe the Battle of Hastings, or condensing the French Revolution into “Bad Romance”, the History Teachers’ combination of familiar tunes, key facts and tongue-in-cheek videos has become an unexpected international success, with their “History for Music Lovers” YouTube channel notching up over 3 million hits since 2010.

We spoke to the pair – Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona – at home in Hawaii, to find out how they manage to fit complex tales from history into three minute pop songs.

“I’ve always enjoyed singing and do it informally every chance I get – especially while driving my car!” Amy says. “I really like writing lyrics, so have often penned parody-type songs to match the courses I teach.

Their first attempt used ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” to chart the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII…

“When we started making these, I was teaching a World History course, which focussed on Ancient Civilizations through the Renaissance period. Now I teach a Modern World History course, but do it thematically so we can still address eras prior to the Renaissance.”

Amy’s partner Herb has taught art, music and film-making, so together they were able to start turning her musical parodies into videos to use in the classroom. Their first attempt used ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” to chart the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII.

“I had so much fun animating that,” Herb remembers. “It was catchy and silly, and no-one at our school had done anything like it. Flash animation – well, any kind of animation – is time consuming, but so rewarding when you see students enjoy it.”

Amy continues, “The first live action one we filmed was “Prehistoric” (to Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) – and you can tell! We were really silly and didn’t have use of a green screen or Adobe After FX software, but people still really dig it (no anthropology pun intended).”

We didn’t upload the first videos to YouTube until January 2010, and it took around eight months before people started sending interview requests

Originally created for their own classes, Amy and Herb’s decision to share their creations on YouTube soon sent their videos global.

Amy explains, “We didn’t upload the first videos to YouTube until January 2010, and it took around eight months before people started sending interview requests or posting to blogs.

“Our most popular video to date has been “French Revolution”, and that really got us noticed – I think because it was a Lady Gaga song, and perhaps also because it’s such a prevalent topic, studied around the world.

“We posted that in September, and soon after were featured on sites such as Technorati and Jezebel. Then journalists from the Washington Post and the New Yorker wrote about us. We were on French TV as well – we were really surprised they liked our French Revolution video!”

Herb adds, “The French Revolution was the toughest for me to create. It’s such a complex series of events that involve so many people. Always our challenge is to decide what NOT to include in the song. Christian Sylvester, one of Amy’s students, had done a version of it, and I took it and expanded it, trying to fit in as much information as I could.”

Despite re-writing tunes by artists as big as Madonna and The Beatles, the History Teachers’ videos have received little attention from copyright lawyers so far. To date, only one song – which used Prince’s “Cream” to describe the short life and nine day reign of England’s forgotten queen Lady Jane Grey – has been taken down from YouTube.

I have been in talks with a representative from Sony to acquire licensing to sell the songs.

“Our work could be considered parody and quite transformative,” Amy reasons, “as well as being for the purposes of education, so we fall under the category of Fair Use. We have not, as yet, accepted offers to make money on our work, and I have been in talks with a representative from Sony to acquire licensing to sell the songs.”

Have any of the artists they’ve re-interpreted been in touch to offer their views?

“No,” admits Amy, “but I would be ecstatic if any of them would send one! Especially (Blondie’s) Deborah Harry – then I could die happy.

“We did hear from Alan Stenson, the actor who plays Telemachus in (NBC’s award-winning production of) “The Odyssey”. We used clips from the film in our video and he sent us a shout-out. That was fun, since I recall showing it to students and all the girls would swoon over him.”

While Amy continues to teach, Herb is taking time out of the classroom to pursue freelance work, performing in two symphony orchestras and writing music for the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus. However, their ongoing History Teachers project (including forthcoming attempts to fuse more Lady Gaga songs with lessons on Catherine the Great and Louis XIV) enables them to interact with thousands of people worldwide.

“I think it’s absolutely fascinating tracking our global following,” Amy says, “even if it’s mostly educators, students and history aficionados. YouTube provides insights as to our demographics and it really makes us feel connected – I mean, we live in the most isolated island chain in the world.”

“I am still wrapping my head around the idea that people all over the world are watching the videos we created for our classes,” Herb adds. “We are here on these little islands in the middle of the Pacific, and I think it’s a testament to the value and educational validity of technology when something we create here can be instantly accessible and effective in another classroom in another part of the world.

“Anyway, it still boggles my mind, so I let Amy handle all of the fans.”

Visit the History Teachers channel here.

The following two tabs change content below.

Stuart Huggett

Latest posts by Stuart Huggett (see all)



Trending Articles