On the video-sharing website YouTube.com, Hawaii residents Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona are known as the "history teachers." And their lessons, masked as music videos for chart-topping tunes, are quickly gaining views and national attention.
One of their latest videos — "The French Revolution" — is set to Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance" and features Burvall, dressed in period costumes and wigs, singing lines like, "La la liberte," and "Walk, walk scaffold baby."
(Don’t listen to it if you don’t want it playing in your head all day.)
The video has topped 166,000 views and was recently featured by several national blogs and the Washington Post. Burvall and Mahelona have also been gotten rave reviews from teachers, students and classical history buffs from around the country — and as far away as France.
Burvall, a high school history teacher at Le Jardin Academy, and Mahelona, technology curriculum coordinator at St. Andrew’s Priory, have been doing the music videos for about four years.
Back when they started the project, Burvall was also teaching at St. Andrew’s Priory and was looking for ways to engage her tech-savvy, pop culture-hungry high school students in sometimes dry history lessons.
One day in the car, while singing along to Gwen Stefani’s "Harajuku," Burvall had an epiphany. Why not sing fun songs about history? She tried a few lines in the car that day, and then went to Mahelona for help.
Mahelona suggested she make a music video and offered to lend a hand.
The two produced their first video together, the kids loved it — and screamed for more — and a creative partnership was born. "It just kind of snowballed," Burvall said, laughing. "It got more fun and more elaborate."
Now at Le Jardin, Burvall also has her students create their own videos.
Mahelona and Burvall produce their music videos in their free time, mostly on weekends, and from start to finish the process takes about three months. So far, they have posted 49 on YouTube, including "Black Death" set to Gwen Stefani’s "Hollaback Girl," "Martin Luther" set to "Manic Monday" by the Bangles, and "Henry VIII" set to ABBA’s "Money, Money, Money."
Their next video will be on Napoleon.
Burvall asked that the music it’s set to remain a surprise.
Anybody who grew up on "Schoolhouse Rock!" knows the idea of putting lessons to snappy music is nothing new. But Burvall and Mahelona appear to have appealed to their students — iPod-toting Millennials — by using music teens love (or at least have heard) and posting videos online.
"We’ve only had wildly ecstatic responses. It just blows them away," Mahelona said. "The kids just eat it up. And then they take the exam and just from singing the songs, they would remember everything."
Burvall said students also like to see their teacher willing to dress up, dance and sing — all to get them to learn. "They appreciate the passion that both of us have. We love history. We love music," Burvall said. "They just find them refreshing after all the tedious, serious study of history."
Burvall has developed lesson plans that incorporate the music videos, which she hopes to put on a new website the two teachers are developing. Burvall and Mahelona also plan to post the videos they’ve produced, along with lyrics, so that teachers anywhere can use them in classrooms.