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Educators' Videos Become YouTube Sensations

Three teachers tell Education World how they capitalize on familiar tunes by adding meaningful lyrics that explain topics from chemical bonds to the French Revolution. Not only are students responding, but thanks to YouTube, their work has drawn a global audience. Included: Follow the creative process of teachers who put challenging concepts to music.

Top of the Charts

The most successful songs released by educators Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona have had lyrical hooks that actually sound similar to the original, which creates a stuck in my head feeling, says Burvall.
Many students are visual learners and many are "plugged into" sites like YouTube on a constant basis, so music videos are a logical format to reach them. Videos combine the strengths of images, storytelling, and music.
Selecting a topic involves inspiration and gut feeling. Burvall keeps a running list of topics and songs she’d like to cover.
"Sometimes the match will be obvious because some part of the original lyric will rhyme with some element of my topic, or at least have the same number of syllables," Burvall explained. "That’s true of Mary Queen of Scots ("Jenny from the Block" by Jennifer Lopez). Sometimes the feel of the music itself drives the choice. An example would be the Vikings song to "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode -- it just had that Viking sensibility! And then, of course, I can find a perfect mesh of music and lyrical similarity, as in Pompeii to "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" by Nancy Sinatra. That one had to be somber."

"A few years after a particular student took my class, he came up to me and said, 'I heard your song in the dentist's office, and all I could think of were your lyrics!'" recalls Amy Burvall. "I've had so many people write in that they aced a test or earned their first good grade on a history exam due to our songs.

"But I’m equally impressed by the people who tell me they have been inspired to probe further into some aspect of history after hearing me sing about it or seeing some element in a video. It’s important to note that, while these songs are excellent for review, they can also be used as hooks to spark a genuine interest."

Burvall and Herb Mahelona are the creative team behind a series of videos about world history based on popular songs by a variety of famous artists. Published on YouTube under the name History Teachers, the two have developed an enthusiastic following. A world history teacher at LeJardin Academy in Kailua, Hawaii, Burvall gives credit for her love of blending history and music to growing up with the influence of such musical television programs as Sesame Street and SchoolHouse Rock.

"I’ve also really enjoyed the popularization of history in pieces like Falco's 'Rock Me Amadeus' and in Sofia Coppola's film, 'Marie Antoinette,' set to an 80's New Wave soundtrack. It makes the history more relevant and interesting," shared Burvall. "Using pop songs that span a few generations means students have either been exposed to them or are currently listening to them, and that is an essential factor for the catchiness of the lyrics."

Mahelona and Burvall are free to choose their own topics and melodies, so they select music they love -- from The Beatles and 80's New Wave to Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani. While they've had many requests to delve into American history, Burvall has elected to stick with world history topics, and primarily pre-1800's European history. She hopes to explore more art history and literature topics in the future.

"My personal favorite is Elizabeth I, set to "She's Not There," by the Zombies. It just looks really cool. Herb did an amazing job filming and editing, and it is a true homage to their look," stated Burvall. "As for lyrics, Black Death (Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl") is probably my favorite -- and a lot of other people's too. It was hilarious when I discovered someone had actually hashtagged 'ooo, fleasonrats' [the line "Ooh, fleas on rats!" from Burvall's song] on Twitter!"

For Mahelona, the video he’s most proud of is Joan of Arc ("Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes). Reminiscent of the video for the original song, the teachers' version contains more than 500 video layers to generate a "tunnel" effect. The work was especially difficult with limited equipment, but Mahelona feels that even with its flaws, this video shows what can be achieved with resourcefulness and perseverance.

"Black Death" and The French Revolution, written to "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, are among the teachers' most popular videos on YouTube. Each year, Burvall's students have different tastes. One group surprisingly favored Battle of Agincourt ("As Tears Go By" by Marianne Faithful), but Beowulf, set to "99 Luftballons" by Nena, is a frequent crowd pleaser. Many kids love the original German version of this song by Nena, and some have even purchased it after hearing Burvall's rendition.


The process to turn a song like this into a fact-filled three-minute video is a long one.

"You really have to be passionate about it, and it's hard when you are working full-time. We used all our own equipment, filmed on Saturdays, and wrote and edited at night," Burvall recalled. "After the lyrics are finished -- some I write, some Herb writes, and some we work on together -- we do a recording session. Herb is a professional musician, so he has all the proper equipment to create the music (usually based on midi files) and record/produce."

Next, the team plans the video. A green screen is used, as well as a Mac computer and software. Burvall and Mahelona do everything themselves, with the exception of a few "guest actors" in their videos. Based on their experience, Burvall thinks that other teachers and students can make similar videos with less sophisticated equipment, and she has done so in her own classroom.

"The students use the same process, but record with an external mic into Apple's GarageBand, and use iMovie to edit their footage or photos," she explained. "I've even had students make stop-motion animation music videos with origami. The latest version of iMovie has a green screen feature, so students can do all those magical effects. It's really important to add subtitles of the lyrics, though. It makes such a difference for the viewer. I've had some really wonderful student music videos based on historical research, and they get better every year."

At first, Burvall had no intention of publishing the videos, but at the insistence of students, she and Mahelona did so in 2010. Since that time they've received global attention. Comments have been offered from many countries, even from Iran through Twitter. A beautiful sentiment was shared by a man from China, who admired the culture of creativity that is found in America. Burvall hopes her students appreciate what they are able to do in their country. To her, it is an important lesson to show students that although anything can be published on YouTube, that doesn't mean that everything should be published.

"There's a lot of pure junk out there, but YouTube can be an excellent classroom tool as well," she added. "I think if you are going to publish anything, it should be the best you can make it. You should take pride in the overall aesthetics and production value."

Never ones to rest on their laurels, Burvall and Mahelona have four videos currently in editing mode and three new sets of song lyrics ready to develop. They recently established a Facebook fan page and are developing a Web site with extra features, such as downloadable lyrics, behind-the-scenes information, lesson extensions, and bloopers. Eventually, Mahelona would like to design interactive computer games to go with each video topic.

Now that it has been four years since the teachers rolled out the first videos in Burvall's history classes, Mahelona is teaching the same students as seniors.

"I can start to sing any one of our songs, and the students can finish the song word for word," reports Mahelona. "And they even remember information that’s not in the song they were taught along with it. Every time, it’s a great moment, and confirmation that this is a fun and effective way to help students internalize information."


"What has surprised me is the widespread global popularity the songs have had," admits Doug Edmonds. "I receive comments from teachers and students all over the world about how the songs have helped students study, do well on tests, and finally understand a concept after being confused when it was covered in their classes."

When Edmonds created his first parodies of popular songs, he knew that his eighth grade science students at Wood Oaks Junior High would be a brutally honest audience -- either the songs would be a success or a complete flop! Linking science topics to music was a natural for Edmonds, who enjoys playing guitar at home and had written parodies previously just for fun.

"I wrote my first five song parodies and recorded them using my keyboard and guitar and voice to lay the tracks," he recalls. "When I used them in class, I saw my eighth graders come alive and start to really acquire correct verbal ways of expressing science concepts as well as connect ideas."

Edmonds chooses topics that are difficult for his students to remember. After he identifies a concept for a song, he uses musical "fakebooks" to find a melody that fits the words he wants to convey. Popular songs that listeners enjoy singing and dancing to are especially appropriate because of the beat and repetition of words.

"Students love music and they love to get involved playing rhythm instruments while learning the songs," says Edmonds. "It keeps them more involved."

The science tunes have caught on through YouTube and TeacherTube, where Edmonds publishes his work to give the Northbrook (Illinois) students immediate and unlimited access. The parodies can be played repeatedly until students have mastered the material. Edmonds finds that making the videos available continuously helps students become comfortable with the patterns of scientific language in the song phrasing. For example, they often struggled with the term "grams per cubic centimeter," but now that students hear it repeated in his songs, the phrase rolls off their tongues.

"I was having dinner with a friend in a restaurant last April and he had said to me, 'What is your next song going to be, Dancing Queen by ABBA?'" Edmonds recalled. "I looked at him as he was laughing and I said, 'You know, that’s a great idea.'"

One week later, Edmonds unveiled The Chemical Bonds Song, a tune based on the ABBA song. It was created to assist chemistry and biology students who are challenged by ionic and covalent bonding. The song is one of his greatest "hits," but Edmonds prefers The Solutions Song, to the tune of "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, because of its appealing melody.

"I actually enjoy all the songs to some extent," Edmonds told Education World. "My students at Wood Oaks for the past two years have liked The Density Song [similar to "Popular" from the musical Wicked] the best. They always ask to sing that one over and over. "

College psychology, high-school, and middle-school students who have trouble with variables in science experiments sing the praises of Edmonds' The Variables Song, based on "I'll Be There," by the Jackson 5. The Properties Song ("Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," by The Beatles) and The Energy Song (KC and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way [I Like It]") have received acclaim from students and teachers at all levels. The parodies clarify the differences between physical and chemical properties and explain energy transformation.

When his students began to use more precise scientific language in class discussions, Edmonds recognized that his music was "sinking in." Students reported that his parodies helped them organize their ideas during tests, and others told Edmonds that the tunes had "staying power," i.e. the meaning from the songs stuck with listeners.

As a musician/scientist, Edmonds is comfortable with moving between digital recording equipment, Webcams, song files, and software. His students have gotten into the act of making instructional videos for the school audience, but those are not published in order to protect students' privacy. Edmonds believes it’s essential to research material to be sure it is absolutely accurate, and to try new material in class to gauge student response, before releasing a video to the general public. That is what he did, and he is glad that he waited and knew that the songs would be welcomed by the wider community.

"I have plans to make a video on the phase changes of water, and I’m entertaining a few tunes that might work," Edmonds shared. "I just completed a new video on the workings of The Simple Voltaic Cell Circuit. The song '(I've Had) The Time of My Life' worked out well for the parody about the various energy transformations that take place in a wet cell battery circuit."


Article provided by Cara Bafile
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