The Mesopotamians & Jumping the Classroom Shark

Some of you are familiar with this 2007 release from They Might Be Giants:

They Might Be Giants - The Mesopotamians (official TMBG video)

Pop culture connections are a blessing and a curse in the high school history classroom. On the one hand, YAY ANYTHING THAT REINFORCES CONTENT IN UNEXPECTED WAYS! – even if it’s strange, inaccurate, and fictional {I’m looking at you, Hollywood}. On the other, it’s difficult to anticipate when such things have jumped the shark in relation to teen culture. Just to keep things really frustrating, some of the most promising and engaging sources are so far from school-appropriate that no amount of editing will make them OK, no matter how much I want to use them anyway.

But I don’t. Because... employment.

Joan of Arc Leads an Army (feat. Vanessa Hudgens) - Drunk History

{In case you’re not strong on making inferences based on close reading and context, neither of these are particularly appropriate videos, language-wise.}

The Epic of Gilgamesh – Thug Notes Summary & Analysis

So we’re left looking for clean-but-engaging – a fragile field, to be sure.

Think of those school assemblies where administrators wear their caps backwards and rap about school policy. There are elementary students who will forever find this the coolest thing in all of academia, but not enough mental bleach to redeem participating "authority figures" in the eyes of those same kids five years later. You see it happen with stuff that's pretty impressive in its own right – like Flocabulary or those cool History Teachers songs. I know others who’ve experienced this in relation to Crash Course or Hip Hughes History, although I still find both of them valuable resources. It’s just hard to anticipate with a given group.

There was a painful video several years ago of a public school teacher doing parody math songs karaoke in class. I won’t link to it here because I appreciate the risk involved – the leap of shameless faith she decided to take in hopes she could break through the expected drudgery and have a real impact out of the proverbial gate. But it was, well… it was awful. The worst sort of painful. Better she read the syllabus to them until the room lost collective consciousness.

That’s what I worry about with stuff like The Mesopotamians. I love the band, and the track, and I don't want it to be party to anything cringe-worthy – or even something tired. Most of my students, strangely, have heard it before. Last year when we started covering Hammurabi, a number of them asked if we could watch it. {Standard answer: of course you can. I’m sure it’s on YouTube and any number of other websites. I hope you enjoy it – just don’t do so during class.} But when I changed my mind the next hour and started with it as an introduction, there were sighs and eye-rolling.

So go figure.

The MesopotamiansAdd pop songs and zany videos to the list of things that can be brilliant with one group and suddenly mean nothing to another. It’s another reason the whole teaching thing is as much art and guesswork and gut-level improv as it is a craft or a science. It’s another reason that online education or computerized learning may have a role to play in public education, but like symphonies composed by algorithms or those confession booths in THX-1138, there are limits to what they can do.

Seriously, where are they hoping to find all of these kids who will stay focused and self-motivated if only the software can adjust to their reading levels and multiple choice responses quickly enough?

But I digress.

I don’t know if I’m going to show the video again this year, but I am going to reference it as an anchor for the unit. The four individuals referenced in the song lived in different times and different civilizations united only by their geography and pre-classical status. One of them (Gilgamesh) is most likely entirely fictional. But they matter both for who they were (or were supposed to be) and what they represent in the larger story. My hope is that by using the song and video as a starting point, I'll give my students a non-threatening frame-of-reference to help them slog through the substance.

We’ll see.

Several years ago I began a rather ambitious project I called “Have To” History, the goal being to produce 2-3 page summaries of essential people or events in history for students who don’t actually care but are expected to know stuff about them. There are, of course, already numerous reference sites online, but there are countless blogs as well and that certainly hasn’t stopped anyone from adding one more. I’m hoping the focus and format make them useful for certain sorts of students (or teachers). At my current rate, I should have at least two dozen posted and available for download by 2089 or so.

In any case, I’ve recently revised and (hopefully) improved the four H2H installments drawn from The Mesopotamians. My current plan for class is to do some sort of jigsaw activity with them, although we’ll see once I’ve actually met this year’s kids. We’ll do something with them, most likely. They’re attached to this post on the off chance anyone else teaching Ancient World History or AP World (which includes ancient civilizations for one more school year before the curriculum shifts) might find them useful. Let me know.

Washy Ad Jeffy

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