Thursday, January 30, 2014

From Boob Tube to YouTube

By Jeff Burns

            Viewing habits are changing every day.  Ask someone in his twenties or younger, and he’ll probably tell you he watches less “live” television and more alternative television:  itunes, Hulu, recorded material on DVR, and YouTube for example.  I regularly use YouTube to find clips for class myself.  You truly can find just about anything on YouTube, including lots of history. Here are some examples of YouTube channels for you to check out.  Some contain clips good for classroom use; others might be best for your own entertainment and education. 

            You may subscribe to any of these channels and see all their posted videos and get notified when new ones are posted.

There are a number of channels that contain documentary clips or whole documentaries on a wide variety of topics:  Alpha History, History Essentials, History Tube, Greater History, and Superior History to name a few. 

The following series all contain videos that I either use in class or recommend to students.  Keith Hughes (HipHughes) is a history teacher in New York who has created a channel of videos designed to review for the New York state Regents Exams.  His videos are pretty spartan, basically just him talking to the camera, but he can hold your attention.  His videos can be a bit long, as long as 20 minutes or more, and he even has a couple of marathon review videos that are a couple of hours long, but they cover the essentials from a different point of view.

By now, everyone’s probably heard of Khan Academy, and it’s a great story.  As of now, their history offerings are pretty slim, and their primary focus is math and the sciences.  What’s there is good; there’s just not much.

How it Happens is also geared more toward math and science, but there are a few history videos, mostly of the variety in which someone draws as someone narrates.

TED-Ed’s self-description: “TED-Ed's Original videos aim to capture and amplify the voices of the world's greatest educators. Within the growing TED-Ed video library, you will find carefully curated educational videos, many of which represent collaborations between talented educators and animators.”

I use CrashCourse videos all the time in class.  Author John Green presents 10-12 minute videos on topics in US and World History, and his brother Hank presents chemistry videos.  They are fast-paced, factual, insightful, and humorous.  While AP and honors kids love them, the videos may not be quite as accessible in regular classes or lower grades.

The historyteachers channels features well-produced music videos about various events, mostly in world history, with lyrics set to popular songs.  For example, a song about Marie Antoinette set to Lady GaGa’s “Paparazzi.”  They’re fun and catchy.

And then there are the YouTube channels you might not want to show in class, but they can be lots of fun for you.

Ask A Slave was created by an actress who has years of experience portraying a slave woman at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and other historical venues.  In the videos, she stars in the series as Lizzie Mae, housemaid to the Washingtons, and she answers actual questions from visitors that she has been asked over the years.  However, she answers them as she only wished she could answer them while on the job.  Some of the questions are astoundingly …… shall we say misguided or na├»ve, and her answers are hilarious.

Ever wonder what a debate between Blackbeard and Al Capone would look and sound like?  Me neither.  Some twisted minds did, however, and made it a rap battle.  Epic Rap Battles in History pits two historical figures against each other in a fierce rhyming war:  Rasputin vs Stalin, Tesla vs Edison, Babe Ruth vs Lance Armstrong, just to name a few.  There is an occasional swear word and some sexual innuendo that make them un-classworthy, but they are all entertaining.

John Green also appears in many of the videos on the Mental Floss channel, brought to you by the people behind the magazine of the same name.  They specialize in all aspects of historical trivia, lists, and fun facts.  Almost every video guarantees that you will hear something you never knew before.

The Colony Bay channel features a web series called “Courage, New Hampshire.”  Set during the American Revolution, it’s a drama about the role of a fictional town and its citizens.

I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface.  Check these out if you want, and if you know of other YouTube channels for history  buffs, comment and tell us about them.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Enjoying Some Miniseries with Historical Slant

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

While the 70s and 80s may be considered the Golden Age of miniseries, there has been a revival in recent years leading to a new “Silver Age.”  Although the Golden Age consisted of weeklong events on the Big Three networks, the Silver Age has taken place on cable.  Leading the charge to revitalize the genre has been HBO, Starz, and the History channel.  Today’s miniseries still have the all-star casts, big name producers and directors, and many are rooted in history.  Just like Golden Age miniseries, some are true to history, some are more fiction than not, but all are worth a look. 

From the Earth to the Moon—HBO was one of the first cable networks to revitalize the miniseries genre.  Tapping into America’s love of the space race glory days, HBO partnered with Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Brian Glazer.  From the Earth to the Moon was a weekly miniseries which told the story of the American space race culminating with the Moon landing.  The series covered all of the NASA missions from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo and eventually landing on the Moon.  It was a great success and would lead to more HBO miniseries.

Band of Brothers—was HBO’s next big event miniseries effort.  Tom Hanks teamed up with Steven Spielberg and writer Stephen Ambrose.  The miniseries is based on the story of "E" Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division from their initial training starting in 1942 to the end of World War II.  HBO would follow up the great success of Band of Brothers with The Pacific. 
The Pacific—was created by the same folks from Band of Brothers and can be considered a companion piece but also stands on its own.  Whereas Band of Brothers covers WWII in the European theater, The Pacific follows the lives of a U.S Marine Corps squad during the World War II campaign throughout the Pacific against the Japanese Empire.

John Adams—is another HBO miniseries brought to us by Tom Hanks.  Based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, this miniseries covers the life of John Adams, Founding Father, second President, and his role in the nation's first 50 years.  The miniseries was shot on location in Williamsburg and has motivated many (including me) to give John Adams a new look and respect.

Pillars of the Earth—is based on Ken Follett’s book of the same name and set in 12th century England.  The heart of the story is the building of a magnificent Cathedral.  While the story is fiction, the world created by Follett is true to the medieval world. Follett's follow up book World Without End miniseries was not picked up by Starz.  While I recommend reading the book, go ahead and skip the miniseries.  Sadly, it does not do the book justice and is not must see television.
Hatfields & McCoys—in the last few years the History channel began making and airing miniseries.  One of their most successful was Hatfields & McCoys.  While the series may be more dramatization than reality, the story it is based on is real.  The series is based on the bitter blood feud between two families—the Hatfield and the McCoys.  They lived in the West Virginia and Kentucky border area and carried on a deadly feud for decades after the Civil War.
The Bible—following the great success of the Hatfields & McCoys, History followed up with The Bible.  This miniseries from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is exactly what the title suggests.  The story follows the story of God's creation of the Earth and the landmark events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  This miniseries is religious in nature, and like the 1970s epic miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, it is for those who believe the Bible to be true.
While the Golden Age of miniseries may be gone, a new age has been created thanks to cable networks.  Just like the miniseries of the past, many of today’s miniseries are rooted in history and worth a look.  These are just a few of my favorites from the last few years.  Which miniseries would you include in your must see list?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Enjoying Some Old School Historical Mini-Series

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

As I child, I remember watching many must see television events.  In the 70s and 80s, these events were the weeklong mini-series.  In those days, everyone was expected to watch nightly, and in the morning head off to school or work ready to discuss.  These were the days before cable or the VCR.  This was the Golden Age of the mini-series, when the big three—ABC, NBC, and CBS each competed for the American public’s attention.  Mini-series were so important that each would have an all-star cast, director, and many would be based on a well known book.

In order to really cash in, the networks would sometimes air one part in the fall and a sequel in the spring.  A who’s who list of Hollywood stars, many who normally would never do television could be seen in these epic events.  Many of these series were set in historic time periods, some were historically accurate and some more fiction than factual. 

 Roots—as a child of the 70s, I still remember this series.  Indeed, I doubt anyone alive at the time did not watch and discuss Roots.  This series created by Alex Haley was based on his own family history.  At a time when American TV largely ignored any storyline dealing with race or race issues, it was considered a turning point.  The original Roots took place from the Revolutionary period to the Civil War.  However, it was so successful that several sequels and TV movies followed.  The series is still so popular that when the History Channel announced plans to remake it, many reacted negatively.

 Masada—this 1981 mini-series is about 900 Jewish Zealots who refuse to surrender to a 5000 man Roman legion.  Instead of surrender, the Zealots will commit suicide rather than be Roman slaves. The series was filmed on location in Israel at the Masada fortress.  I remember watching this series as a child.  Not only did I go to the library wanting to learn more about Masada but decided that someday I would visit the historical site. 
North and South—is a mini-series from 1985.  As a southerner, this was must see TV. The series covers events from the Mexican-American War to the Civil War.  The series is about two lifelong friends—one a Southerner and one a Yankee, but the story is told from the Southern perspective.  The series was popular and while the backdrop is the Antebellum South it is more melodrama than historically accurate.  Also, this is an example of mini-series that premiered in the fall in order to create an audience, and then aired a sequel, North and South, Book II in the spring.   

 I, Claudius--this 1970s British mini-series is about the Roman Empire from the perspective of the Emperor Claudius. All the events take place during his lifetime.  Like Roots, I, Claudius was extremely popular at the time.  Also like Roots, it has been rumored that the BBC plans to remake the series.

 Shogun—this 1980s mini-series was based on James Clavell’s novel about an English navigator who became shipwrecked in feudal Japan.  Again, this mini-series is more melodrama than historical.  Nevertheless, was a glimpse into a Japan that most in the West knew very little about and as a teenager I made sure to watch it each and every night. 

These are just a few of the Golden Age mini-series I remember vividly from my childhood.  What series would you include in your must see list?