John Legend Can’t Teach My Students

I am not a big fan of using history videos in my classroom.  Most are poorly produced and fail to add anything of substance to the various activities that I employ.  If I use video at all they are in short clips of historical footage such as a speech, parade, etc. pulled from YouTube.  At the beginning of the year History Channel mailed me a copy of their recent series, America: The Story of Us.  It sat on my shelf and I really had no plans to use it after having viewed a few segments.  However, as a way to get their intellectual juices flowing again after their Thanksgiving break I decided to show them the section on westward expansion through the 1850s as a way to introduce them to the next textbook chapter.  I wasn’t so concerned about the content; rather, I asked students to evaluate the narrative, along with the visuals, choice of talking heads, and the intended audience.

The video clearly kept their attention long after the point where you begin to see eyes glaze over or heads hitting the table.  They were impressed with the visual effects, especially the panoramic shots that helped them to conceptualize the pace of expansion.  We especially enjoyed the segment on the construction of the Erie Canal.  What they did not like at all was the choice of commentators.  They understood early on that the video was meant to attract the audience, but the choice of Michael Douglas, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg did not impress them at all.  A few students asked me to explain their qualifications for discussing American history.  Even more surprising was their reaction when John Legend, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Martha Stewart appeared.  One of my students thought it was appropriate that Stewart was dressed in orange, but for the most part my students just laughed.  A few of them were visibly confused as to why the producers of this video would ask these people to offer commentary about specific historical events.

Keep in mind that I didn’t anticipate their responses, but after thinking about I have to say that I am encouraged by it.  I think they acknowledged the video’s usefulness, but their reaction to seeing high profile public figures as well as entertainers that many of them identify with suggests that our students are more sophisticated than we sometimes give them credit for.  I think what they are saying is go ahead and entertain us, but don’t assume that the only people we listen to and value are entertainers.

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11 comments… add one
  • Dick Stanley Dec 6, 2010 @ 10:42

    Talk about dumbing-down education. Surely they could have found someone more thoughtful than that crew of celebrities. But, then, it is the History Channel. So called.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Dec 1, 2010 @ 10:00

    As a talking head, let me offer a dissenting view. Who really cares who mouths the lines that in any case encompass the obvious in pseudo-profundity? Have talking heads on camera ever said anything other than the obvious? All that’s left is to see which talking head gives the best performance in what comes off as a bad high school production. In the Grant production for American Experience a rather disproportionate time was given to a novelist and someone who was an American Experience favorite, Don Miller, and they put Geoff Perret on not because of his work (they were openly skeptical of that) but because of how he sounded. The staff was very, very interested in having African American faces appear, regardless of their previous work (it took some time to point them in the direction of qualified commenters).

  • Woodrowfan Dec 1, 2010 @ 6:29

    I hear it’s going to be a major source for the next revision of 4th grade textbook for the state of Virginia…

  • London John Dec 1, 2010 @ 6:16

    Re videos in general, how do you rate the Burns Civil War set?

  • Larry Cebula Nov 30, 2010 @ 17:37

    Kudos to your students. If only the Civil War Preservation Trust had the same judgement!

  • Matt Nov 30, 2010 @ 12:56

    Clearly, all the effort you’ve put into helping students source documents to assess the author’s credibility has been time well spent!

    • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2010 @ 14:08

      Thanks Matt.

  • Scott Manning Nov 30, 2010 @ 12:53

    They’re desperately trying to make history relevant, but Martha Stewart? Were they trying to reach the housewife demographic?

    • JViere Dec 1, 2010 @ 10:37

      Try Sean P Diddy Combs…
      As one of Mr. Levin’s students, I can speak for the class that it was humorous that the History Channel thought that this depiction of America’s history was accurate.

  • Nat Turners Son Nov 30, 2010 @ 12:28

    My wife teaches 7th and 8th grade history and she has little use for that video either.

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