Learning the French Revolution with Lady Gaga: Teachers sing history lessons
Imagine learning about the French Revolution through a videotaped musical parody of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
Teachers in Hawaii have found a way to get around the common student complaint that history is dry and boring.
Amy Burvall, who works at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, Oahu, and her creative partner, Herb Mahelona, who used to work with her at St. Andrew’s Priory in Honolulu, decided to put history to music -- and then make a video about it -- to lure kids into the subject.
And they say it works.
Here’s Burvall’s account of how her song- and video-writing enterprise began:
“It all started about 4-5 years ago when we were both working at the same school (me teaching World History and Humanities and Herb teaching Flash animation and art, and working with teachers in tech integration).
“I have always loved singing and rhyming – and particularly coming up with silly, catchy lyrics. Often when a person moved away or took another job I’d make up song lyrics about him/her to popular tunes, then perform at the goodbye ceremony. When I first started teaching almost 20 years ago I would write simple French lyrics to well-known children’s songs for the kids to practice concepts.
“I think the first songs I created for my history classes were Civilization (to Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls”) and Henry VIII (to Abba’s “Money Money Money”). These were both created on a whim while listening to those songs repeatedly in the car. In fact, I remember rushing home to jot the lyrics to Henry down before I forgot them after my drive.
"Herb took a liking to them and suggested we record and film them instead of me trying to sing them to and with my classes.
"So, we did! I think “Iceman” and “Prehistoric” were some of the other earliest ones, since chronologically they had relevance at the beginning of the year. I started to get inspiration and write lyrics as I was teaching a unit, while everything was still fresh in my brain. Later the filming, costuming, and editing got more elaborate, especially when we saw that the students’ response was so positive – it really encouraged us to experiment with the green screen, etc.
"Shortly after my first two songs I was diagnosed with breast cancer (not fun with a 2 year-old at home). The chemo caused me to lose my hair – which resulted in the purchase of the variety of wigs you’ll see in all the videos (since most were filmed when I was bald).
"The drugs made me have a terrible case of insomnia, but I turned that into a positive thing as I worked on lyrics in the middle of the night. In fact, I have never since felt so creative! Sometimes the songs just flowed...I remember driving to radiation therapy everyday listening to a collection of my favorite ‘80’s tunes – most of which blossomed into a history parody soon thereafter.
"Herb eventually got into the lyric-writing as well, and I think three of his masterpieces are “Chinese Dynasties”, “Mary Queen of Scots”, and “Viva Roma No. V.”
"My personal favorites are, in order: Elizabeth I (“She’s Not There”), Canterbury Tales (“California Dreamin'”) and Napoleon (to Violent Femme’s “Gone Daddy Gone”, which we haven’t even filmed yet).
"After about a year of showing the videos in class as either an intro/teaser to a lesson and/or as a recap for study help a lot of students expressed an interest in doing the project themselves, so I made that a culminating project option.
"I’ve had some amazing student-created lyrics and videos over the past few years. Some include “Jack the Ripper” to “Womanizer”, “Mussolini” to “Paparazzi”, and a beautiful song about Corrie Ten Boom to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”. The students really appreciate how time-consuming the process is after creating their own.
""Speaking of time-consuming ... lyrics can take anywhere from an hour to eight hours, depending on how much writer’s block I have. I am always being inspired by songs and topics, and now that we have “fans,” we get requests.....
"...To be honest, most kids have really enjoyed the ‘80’s songs--overall favorite being “99 Luftballons”/”Beowulf.”
"They frequently purchase the original after hearing it in my class. They often tell me they hear the song outside of school (like at the dentist) and can only remember my lyrics. My 6-year-old says that, too, she listens all the time and has all the lyrics memorized, though frequently asks me questions about “coup d’etat” or “illegitimacy.”
"One particular class felt drawn to “Agincourt”/ “As Tears Go By”, which really shocked me. The next was so into “Charlemagne”/”Call Me” that I called the group of girls who danced everytime the “Charlemagnettes”.
"The only song a student has helped write was our most popular one – the French Revolution “Bad Romance” parody. I had a change of curriculum and am just starting to need more modern history songs...I had this idea for “bad romance/ revolution in France” and the “la la liberte” line, but he came up with lyrics for the song (including “bread bread bread off with her head”) and Herb and I reworked them to include more info....
"As for the songs’ effectiveness in the classroom, for several years I took polls on this. The kids seemed to really think they helped them remember the basic info, but more than that they sparked an interest in history to learn more independently. I am constantly surprised to see how many college-level profs are using them, as they were originally intended for 15 year-olds. I’m glad, though, because we don’t try to “dumb down” any lyrics.
"I am also surprised at how some YouTubers take them so seriously – as if a two- or three-minute song could ever replace a thorough historical study or seminar. There are just a lot of things a lyricist need to omit due to timing or rhyme concerns. They read into the lyrics, too.
"Basically, they have to realize that these songs need to have discussions that bolster them, and maybe even call into question the advantages and disadvantages of learning history through pop culture.
"Overall, we are quite pleased with the response both from our students and the public at large. We hope they really help to make history fun and memorable. We have several recorded songs that we haven’t filmed videos for, and even more half written lyrics or brainstormed ideas for new parodies. We’re both quite busy and do everything on our own time and budget, so that is limiting. We plan to make a web site, perhaps sell the mp3s, (since we have many requests), and make more original videos using animation.
"Next subjects to tackle: Marie Antoinette, the Russian Revolution, and Genghis Khan!
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| December 30, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: Arts Education, History | Tags: bad romance, dear prudence, french revolution, history and the arts, history class, history lessons, history songs, jennie from the block, jennifer lopez, lady gaga, music and history, teaching history, the beatles
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