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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Making Work that…Works

It’s been a while since my creative partner Herb Mahelona and I, have uploaded a video to our History for Music Lovers Channel on YouTube. We’ve been occupied with other pursuits (he wrote another Hawaiian opera, new marriages (for him), new jobs, and family concerns but I’m excited to say that after having met him in person again while co-presenting on the Big Island for #ksedtech Tech Slam Conference the future looks bright for some new productions. We have several videos in the editing mode and still other songs that have been recorded but not filmed.

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I sometimes forget, if I don’t check our Facebook or YouTube comments, what a surprising impact our work has made on teachers and students around the globe. I was thinking about that when Alan Levine (@cogdog) issued a call for vlogs sharing what happens when we openly share online (“True Stories of Openness”). I submitted this “Nichetastic” video as a result.

I’m posting the following letters I received this week by an Ohio Social Studies teacher not because they make me feel good (even though they do!) or I want to toot our own horns but rather because she has some great ideas for using our history-based music video parodies (and music and singing in general) in the classroom.

Given the recent History curriculum/pedagogy controversy on the other side of the pond with Russel Tarr (@historyteacher) and Michael Gove (a person who would probably despise our creations), I thought it timely to post.

Hi Amy.

My name is April Thompson and I teach 7th grade Ancient World History in a small town called Mount Vernon. A couple of years ago, I came across your song about the Minoans while doing some research.

Since then, I’ve incorporated many of your songs into my class because they go right along with my content. Today, while studying for their final, my students asked to have your songs playing in the background. This led to a conversation about how awesome your songs are and how much the kids HATED singing and learning the songs at the beginning of the year but how they beg to listen to them now and even play them at home and show their parents.

I want you to know that your songs have transformed my teaching. I’m a story teller. That’s how I teach history. My kids have always responded well to that BUT now, before I tell any story,  I frontload the information with your songs and make them learn the words out of context. I have had exceptional results. Those “ah-ha” moments that the kids have when they hear the story and finally understand the song makes for an incredible experience for me as a teacher and for them as my students. When there is no song for a while, I have found that they will ask me when we will learn a new song and if we can learn it early because they miss singing.

Today, I told the kids I was going to do some research and, hopefully, find your email address so I could thank you. So, on behalf of my 137 seventh graders and myself, thank you for all that you’ve done to make my history class all the way over in Ohio so meaningful to my kids. You have truly made a difference.

April Thompson

Social Studies Teacher

Mount Vernon Middle School

I followed this lovely note up with a thank you and a request to share, (as well as a hint I might send her class a little something), and she responded with even greater detail of how, specifically, she uses the videos as a teaching aid.

The kids will flip out if you send them something. They love you. To them, you are a literal rock star. In fact, they always make me laugh because there have been so many times that we’ve started watching a new video and they’ve been confused by your costume or wig that they’ve asked me “Is this the same lady?!?!” They all think you are awesome. And despite their initial  blustering about being forced to learn the words to the songs, it truly does help them and they do love it. In fact, whenever we have any kind of a visitor, (substitute teachers, administrators, guest speakers) they beg me to let them sing to them! Today we had a guest speaker who lived in India for a couple of years and when the kids walked in, they asked her if they could sing to her. I told them that we didn’t really have any songs about India so they would have to pick one they knew. I KID YOU NOT, an argument broke out about which song was the best! Most of my kids have a very special place in their heart for the Minoan song (it’s the first they learned), some kids LOVE the Constantine song, someone else wanted to sing Renaissance Man (the latest one they’ve learned). Finally, we settled on Cleopatra and they belted it out for our guest.

When my kids move on to 8th grade (American History), they often come back to tell me how boring class is because they never sing. Singing is probably what they remember most about my class…Thanks entirely to you! It has also been my experience that the songs work wonders for my lower level, learning disabled kids. If they can sing it, they will learn it. Test scores have improved and they will remember key phrases from the songs and bring them up to make connections to new things that we’re learning. It. Is. Amazing. Too, I made all of the “big” words in the Cleopatra song vocabulary words and posted the words and definitions around the room when they learned that song. They learned that song in January and they will still bust out “auspicious” or something—in the correct context, during class or in their writing. Awesome.

Thanks again for all that you have done and will continue to do. Your kids (and mine!!!) are lucky to have you!



Just last night I watched the incomparable Seth Godin in a Creative Mornings Q and A.  At about 15:30 he starts critiquing the “in your face” nature of “trading lunches” mentality and working it with business cards and über networking. He affirms what’s most important is:

“When your work goes into the world…and touches people…then you are connected – not because YOU showed up, but because your work showed up”

I love when he says:

“’s that idea of being missed that gets us past Dunbar’s Number”

I’m thinking of putting a sign that says:

“Will someone miss your work?” 

in my classroom for inspiration for students and me as we work together and independently creating and sharing  “Work that Works”.

#history #music #sethgodin #work #alanlevine #pedagogy #herbmahelona #historyformusiclovers #aprilthompson

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