Not everyone can say their teachers are YouTube sensations, but the lucky students of Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona have definitely earned bragging rights. Amy and Herb (also known by their YouTube name, historyteachers) have made their mark in the web world with a series of homemade music videos that use self-written parodies of popular songs to explain different historical events. And while this may have started as a teaching technique for their students, it seems tens of thousands of video viewers are taking a lesson as well. I, for one, can’t get “The French Revolution” (to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”) out of my head, nor do I ever want to.
So let me get this straight, you are an actual history teacher?
Amy: Yes, I am.
Have you always been interested in history?
Amy: Definitely. My mom always made me watch historical dramas growing up, and I’m from a family of teachers, so it fell into place. This is my 19th year teaching, and I think Herb’s been teaching about the same amount of time. He’s taught arts and music and all kinds of things, but I’ve pretty much stuck to history and some English.
How did you and Herb begin working together?
Amy: We used to work at the same school, and he was working in the tech department, and I came to him with one idea for a song – I think the first one I ever wrote was about civilizations to “Harajuku Girls.” At that time, I was just going to sing it a capella to the kids – really lame – and he said, “I can make a video with you in it!” so we started writing quite a few more. I was diagnosed with cancer that year, and due to the treatment I had terrible insomnia and would be up all night, my mind racing, so it was cathartic for me to write all these lyrics.
Herb: She would come to me and say, “Look, I wrote four or five songs! Let’s record all of them!”
What part of history are you up to now?
Amy: We’re doing Napoleon, that’s probably our most recent one, but I’m also writing one about World War I and trench warfare, and I’m working on a “Guernica” one about Picasso’s famous painting.
When did you start noticing your videos were going viral?
Amy: After we posted “The French Revolution,” which is our most recent one, and actually the only one that a student helped us write. That was fun because Gaga’s really au courant right now, and after we posted that it was a big deal. A few key blogs – like Brainpickings and Technorati – posted about us and that’s when I noted a rise in popularity. Our biggest thing so far is we’ve been on the news in France. Canal Plus is kind of like an HBO thing, and they have a show called Butterfly Effect (L’effet Papillon). They showed part of the video in the little bonus section at the end of the show, which was fun. I got to show my students that I was on French TV. My daughter thinks that is the epitome of awesome.
Herb: And another French TV show was talking about flying someone over next month to interview.
How do you decide what songs match up best with the historical events?
Amy: It’s funny because most fans who have written us go with the really literal thing like, “Oh, do Napoleon to Abba’s Waterloo, or do, “Sail Away” for Columbus,” but I try not to be that literal. It can go two ways. One thing is the feel of the music, so for the “Viking Song” I used the Depeche Mode version of “Personal Jesus” because I really thought that the music actually fit with the Viking feel. Then sometimes I go strictly for original lyrics that sound enough like the thing I want to talk about, so for Pompeii I used “Bang Bang.”
Herb: Or sometimes you have to fit in a certain number of syllables into a certain phrase and only one song fits.
Now that this Lady Gaga video has become so popular, do you think you’d do more recent songs to get the fan bases that come with or stick with your own choices?
Amy: I think we’ll do both. I love the 80s – I gotta do all my new wave stuff – but I always ask my students what they think would be a good song, and they give me ideas. I might do one to “Single Ladies.” I actually like to cover songs that men do as well, like the Beatles or David Bowie stuff, and I’d like to do a Beck one. I’m currently listening to a lot of Ting Tings and Lykke Li, so some of their tunes might be an inspiration.
What are your future plans for these videos?
Amy: We’re kind of hoping for a miracle right now. We just wanted to see what would happen on YouTube if we put them out. Right now we’re making zippo money. In fact we’re spending more money than we make. It would be nice to get some kind of thing like a sponsor that would package them. People have actually wanted to buy mp3s, and I know a lot of museums are appreciative. The Iceman is having a 20th anniversary and we have a song for that, so someone at the museum wrote me that they’d might like to include it in their exhibition. We have discussed creating a website with extra features like bloopers, lesson plans, and interactive study games to accompany our videos.
So when you’re not writing parody songs and teaching, do you have any other favorite pastimes?
Herb: Well, I’m a musician so I play in orchestras here, I do gigs, jazz, and recording. That’s how this worked out, I’m in recording studios a lot, so that’s how I learned how to do all this stuff.
Amy: I enjoy photography – and shopping! Especially shopping for costume pieces!
Would you ever think about writing original music and doing your own full-out history musical?
Amy: History of the World – “the Musical!” Actually, we talked about that once. Herb has written many original pieces, but original songs aren’t as catchy for students to remember.
Herb: Somebody pitched the idea for a TV series as a history teacher who’s a closet wannabe rockstar.
Amy: Like Hannah Montana, only a history teacher.
Until that happens, and I seriously hope it does, what can Daily BR!NKers do to support you?
Amy: I would say exposure. It would be great if we could find some kind of collaborator or sponsor, someone maybe like the History Channel, BBC, or a museum that would help us out with creating more things and getting out there to the public. I would love to spend my entire life making music videos and writing songs, but I don’t have the time or the money, so it would be nice to have the impetus.
Do you have any parting words for BR!NKers out there?
Amy: I think you should be able to have fun with history, and learning in general – it doesn’t have to be all that serious. It can be, certainly, but you don’t want to get bogged down in all that. It’s really just a story about people and people who are fun, dramatic, artistic and lovely, and I think we try to bring a little humor and beauty to a story. When you think about it, we’re just storytellers, and the most successful teachers in history have used storytelling as a means of communication… and they’ve done studies that show that music attached to narrative makes the message more meaningful.
Herb: Creativity makes life fantastic!
Amy: Music makes everything fabulous, especially 80s music. Long live 80s music!