How Song Parodies Help Synthesize History

A MiddleWeb Blog

history_logoBy Jody Passanisi

A few weeks ago, Shara Peters and I talked about using music in the classroom to help strengthen the connection between the past and the present. This week’s article looks at the connections students can create for themselves when they write their own lyrics.

I am sure many history teachers have seen educator Mr. Betts’s lively video: “What Does John Locke Say?” If you haven’t heard this parody of Ylvis‘s “What Does the Fox Say” using Locke’s philosophy, stop reading and watch. Really, it’s great.

372px-JohnLocke 220While this video only came to my attention after my class had already covered the similarities between Locke’s philosophy and the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, I recently showed it when the class discussed the Texas Revolution. Students were comparing the Texas Revolution to the American War of Independence, asking whether, according to Locke, the Texas Revolution was justified.

To remind the students of some of Locke’s important ideas about corrupt government and revolt, I showed Mr. Betts’ parody. My students were so inspired that they begged to create parody songs of their own.

Mr-Betts-LockeWhile I was initially reticent (because, of course, we were a little behind at the time–who has enough time to teach everything?), the students were so excited that we used a few class periods to create parody lyrics.

My only two caveats were that the final product needed to be (1) appropriate for a classroom, and (2) relevant to what we had studied in class so far.

What my students created

Even if their end results hadn’t been awesome (they were), I would have been pleased just with the way that choosing the content and the lyrics required students to do so much synthesis of course content.

One team chose “Hold On, We’re Going Home” by Drake to do a lesson on QAR – the question/answer relationship strategy. They explained each QAR stage and how the technique helps us read the text more closely.


Song Parody – Just Hold On It’s QAR

I got some questions for you
They’re levels one, two and three (and four!)
I want your question answer relations,
(alarmed) I need a level 2!
I found a level three!
I want your question-answer relations,

‘Cause we will answer you and you know it
Cause your answer’s one sentence (-q -a -r)
‘Cause we will answer you and you know it
I know exactly where you are located!
Just hold on it’s QAR (QAR)
Just hold on it’s QAR (QAR)
It’s hard to read this text alone
Put this on Goo-gle-Drive woah oah oah

I got a level two
I see you in more than one place
I want your question answer relations, endlessly
I cannot find you
‘Cause you’re a level three
I want your question answer relations,

Another team chose the ideological conflicts that were being discussed after the Revolutionary War– their title? “Do you Want to Build a Nation?” from Frozen’s “Do you Want to Build a Snowman?”


Do You Want to Build a Nation?

Do you wanna build a nation?
Come on let’s go and conquer
We can’t stand England anymore
We have to fight
It’s like we cannot stay
They used to be our buddies
And now we’re not
I wish you would tell me why!
Do you wanna build a nation?
It doesn’t have to be America.

Go away, Washington
Okay, fine…

Do you wanna build a nation?
Or ride our ships around the seas
I’ll throw some tea overboard
Please, No taxation
without representation
(Hang in there, Alex!)
It gets a little lonely

All this empty land,

Please, you’ll write the Constitution

People are asking why we left
Have life and liberty and now we do
I’ll lead the fight, just write the Bill of Rights?
We only have this land
It’s just “We the People”
What are we gonna do?
Do you wanna build a nation?

Another team chose: “Talk Zinn to Me” explaining what Zinn’s historical bias tends to be:

h zinn cover“Cause I know what the Americans need, a source like me
I got views on almost everything,
wars included too
Been across the country, don’t see equality
So the Country needs explaining
All I really need to understand is
When you talk Zinn to me”

Some teacher takeaways

The process that I noticed the students going through was interesting to watch. While deciding what content/idea/skill to choose, the students talked through the course content of the past year, going through each unit and idea one at a time. They debated talking about the Constitution or U.S. expansion, they weighed the Revolutionary War vs. the War of 1812. It was gratifying to see students incorporating big ideas like historical bias.

While the students did seem to have an understanding of topics they would need to be sensitive about (slavery, Indian Removal Act), I could see that in some of my classes, I would need to be more explicit about what might not be appropriate in this way for a parody.

While writing the lyrics, too, the students were synthesizing all they knew about the topic that they were going to be discussing. For example, the Zinn team brainstormed everything they’d read from Zinn and succinctly summarized his perspective and then talked about what examples they would use to show it. Their chorus was Zinn’s main perspective, and the verses were their examples. It was almost like they were writing a paper, but were much more motivated to do it this way.

Do you see parody as helping your students to synthesize material? How do you use this idea in your classroom?

[John Locke – image credit]

Note: Due to an editor’s misunderstanding, an earlier version of this article suggested that Jody’s students made videos, when in fact they wrote lyrics but did not “produce” them. Our apologies to Jody and her readers. 

Jody & Shara

Jody Passanisi is an eighth grade U.S. History teacher in Los Angeles and the author of History Class Revisited. She earned her teaching credential and an M.S. in education from Mount St. Mary’s College and an M.A. in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union. Shara Peters teaches eighth grade U.S. History in a Los Angeles independent school. She earned her teaching credential from Hebrew Union College and her M.A. in teaching from American Jewish University. Follow them on Twitter @21centuryteachr

4 Responses

  1. Wesley Hall says:

    You read my mind on this one. I was recently thinking about using one of Mr. betts videos on George III singing to the colonists asking them to stay with him and another video I found on YouTube using the music of its too late to apologize. I wanted to give my students lyrics to both because they show both sides of the American Revolution viewpoints. I hadn’t considered having them write their own, but that might be an awesome project. Do you have any rubrics or Handouts you used to introduce the assignment. I foresee my students wanting to listen to music in class for ideas. How did you handle this?

  2. Julie says:

    I think you struck gold with this one! Sometimes the lesson that involved the least amount of teacher preparation turns into a synthesized gem. You also tapped into multiple intelligences by allowing students to create these parodies. Why stop with history? I recently asked students to create their own chant with movements in math class to remember multiplication properties. After sharing, they’ll never confuse associative and commutative again!

  3. Lisa says:

    We’ve used these: and (I think this might be the video referenced above, so now you have two thumbs up for it.)

    • Jody Passanisi says:

      Wesley, Julie, and Lisa- thanks so much for reading and commenting. Love the links and resources- thank you!

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