About the Author

Amy Burvall

Amy Burvall has been teaching the humanities for 19 years in Hawaiian private schools. She currently teaches World History and Theory of Knowledge at Le Jardin International Baccalaureate World School in Kailua, Oahu.
For the past 11 years she has been active in educational technology professional development programs, and serves as a faculty liaison for her school’s “Schools of the Future” grant committee. Her work in the “History for Music Lovers” project with Herb Mahelona has appeared in Wired magazine, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, CBC, NPR, and various international blogs and media.

Amy Burvall's Life as a TechnoTroubadour

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Sun 16 2011

Growing up in the '70’s, I can recall Schoolhouse Rock being a wonderful respite from the otherwise frenetic and vacuous menagerie of Saturday morning cartoons. It still had funk (who can forget the red-bell-bottoms-with-star-top ensemble and get-down voice featured in “Sufferin’ ‘Till Suffrage”), but it called to my inner Barbara Tuchman.

A decade later all that flew out the window as my generation became known as the “MTV generation,” unified by the power of fast-paced, self-indulgent, visually-stimulating music videos. Bopping around in my room in a neon mini to Culture Club, I had no idea then that someday I’d marry the two concepts together for use in my teaching career.

I’ve always liked to sing, and make no apologies for my insistence on “retro” ‘80’s new wave in the car CD changer or on karaoke nights. Having a rather dark sense of humor, I’ve also always been drawn to parody, whether it be a Weird Al hit or Mel Brooks blockbuster. Enter Clio, the muse of history. One long drive home on the freeway, I was blasting ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” and could not get the day’s European History lesson plans out of my head. That’s right, suddenly “money” morphed into “Henry” and by the time I’d reached my destination I’d worked out lyrics relating to four of Henry VIII’s six wives. A few days later I penned a song about significant “Renaissance Men” to a Violent Femmes classic. I’d used rhymes and even short ditties as educational mnemonic devices before, and saw no reason why my 9th-grade students wouldn’t enjoy having a listen to these—at least, I thought, they’d remember the order of the Tudor women and that only two were actually beheaded.

Renaissance Men

Enter Tyche, goddess of luck. It just so happened that at the time I was working with a true Renaissance man, Herb Mahelona, who not only was an accomplished musician and composer (he had written more than one opera), but also a former history and art teacher with some mad tech skills! He suggested that, in lieu of me standing awkwardly in front of the class singing, we make a music video that would incorporate a decent recording and some eye-catching visuals using Adobe Flash animation. After our third song, he suggested I appear in the actual video as well. The videos, although time-consuming, were an instant hit and students began sharing them with friends from other schools and—gasp!—parents!


The students' enthusiasm had an effect on us, and we created more videos. Subject matter came naturally—we tried to stick to classically significant people and events. Movements or eras were a bit trickier, which was why I could never quite get to writing that feudalism song.

We both begin a song by plotting out the key concepts and vocabulary we feel students will need to understand and remember.

I say “we” because at this point, both Herb and I were penning lyrics, each driven by our own passions and tastes and each expressing our unique style. Although our processes are slightly different, we both begin a song by plotting out the key concepts and vocabulary we feel students will need to understand and remember. I usually take that list and see if anything even slightly rhymes (you can cheat a bit when singing), such as “acral necrosis/yersinia pestis” in “Black Death” or “quill pen/vermillion” in “Illuminated Manuscripts.” Of course, prior to that one has to make the perfect match of original tune to parody and topic. The music should make sense with the feel of the story, but to make parody memorable, it’s imperative that a “hook” can be established—that the new lyric replaces a crucial element in the original (such as “Oh, Constantine”/”Come on Eileen”). To be honest, this match sort of “hits” me—usually whilst driving and singing along to a favorite chart-topper. We both have a running list of ideas to start when we get that most precious element—time.

Tapping Students' Creativity and Reaching Out

Despite the fact that our own students were raving about the videos and finding them useful as study aids and provocations to learn more, we knew we needed to do something grander with this labor of love. My first idea was to have students synthesize their own research into lyrics (not an easy task!) and learn more about technology and project management by recording their songs and creating music videos using iMovie. I was blown away, and they get better every year. Finally, after much prodding from students, we decided to post the videos on YouTube to see what sort of response we’d receive. The site had only been around a few years, and I didn’t realize then how useful it could be in the classroom. To this day I strongly disagree with any attempt to block (especially educators) from accessing YouTube at school.

We were surprised by:

  1. The sheer number of self-professed history geeks out there;
  2. The overwhelming support we received from teachers and teens—our target audience—and the unexpected kudos from higher education, particularly professors, education majors, and PhD candidates;
  3. The realization that history is still very much alive in the minds of people (just check out the comments on “Macedonia”);
  4. The law of nitpicking—no matter how creative or professional your piece is, if you leave out an accent mark or round up a number, expect to be called on it; and
  5. The necessity of humor in learning—people crave joy, laughter, wit, and, yes, '80s music. The more fun you can have while learning the more it sticks with you.
Creativity is contagious, and only brings our world closer together as we share in what makes us human...

This past year we’ve been asked to consult with museums, speak at conferences (including TEDx Honolulu), and do live interviews. We’ve even had friends in another state tell us they’ve heard students singing one of our songs in a coffee place. The greatest joy is communicating with “fans” of all ages through social media, where we’ve discovered some innovative kids taking up the torch and producing history videos of their own. That’s the beauty of 21st-century technology—everyone’s passion, expressed through their creative ideas, can come to fruition with the ease of the tools at hand. Teachers and students can shift from content consumers to content creators, and truly break out of the classroom box to share with an authentic, global audience. Creativity is contagious, and only brings our world closer together as we share in what makes us human—art, music, storytelling, and collective memory.

For more information

To see more of Amy Burvall's videos, check out her YouTube channel. Remember that Burvall's techniques and ideas aren't limited to world history—U.S. history students can also benefit from synthesizing and presenting their content knowledge in creative, coherent ways.

Teachinghistory.org blog author and assistant professor of social studies/history education Anthony Pellegrino has used music in his classrooms, too. Read his general principles for teaching with music as a primary source or examples of how he uses it when teaching about labor movements.

If you're interested in creating music videos yourself (or in asking your students to create them), you'll need to know the tools to use. Tech for Teachers looks at digital storytelling tools like Animoto, hardware like document cameras, and video-hosting services like Vimeo and YouTube. Think about what you want to do and find and familiarize yourself with the tools you'll need, before you jump off into the deep end!