Billy Joel, history teacher

Most of the 11th grade U.S. history grade for the semester will be determined by the final project: A group presentation on the significance of the lyrics of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, which lists events and people from 1949-89. It starts with Harry Truman and Doris Day, goes on to “birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again” and ends on “rock and roller cola wars.”

Done With Mirrors, who wrote 20-page papers on Reconstruction and on the Congress of Vienna for history classes, is annoyed.

I might be able to grasp that assignment if this was a class of low-achievers who were hyped about nothing but pop music and this was a current hit song. It’s not, they’re not, and it’s not. These are the the district’s college-bound kids.

Each student researched one aspect of one part of the song. Mirrors’ son, assigned to a ’50s segment including Brigitte Bardot, did a quick Google search that revealed an analysis of the historical significance of each line in the song.

Michelle Malkin likes the song’s non-utopian slant. She links to this version.

I can see using the song as a writing prompt, assuming the second semester was devoted to the post-war period and students couldn’t write only about Hula Hoops or Marilyn Monroe. But these kids aren’t writing; they’re presenting. My daughter did a bunch of presentations in high school — though none counted for most of the semester grade — and they were judged primarily on creativity and energy, not on content.

Teachers, feel free to jump in. Does this assignment make sense to you?

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Comments

  1. No, it doesn’t make sense.

  2. I’m not a teacher, nor even the parent of a high-schooler; I think if I was, I’d be disappointed with my kid’s teacher. It seems like a pretty weak assignment to me, and I can’t help wondering if part of the appeal is: it’s got to be easier to grade than a bunch of 20-page papers exploring a topic in depth.

    Cool old song, though.

  3. I vaguely recall hearing a joke about how kids would learn history from this song. That would have been almost 20 years ago.

    It’s not a joke anymore.

    As Done With Mirror pointed out, the song isn’t a current hit. Are today’s teens even familiar with the song? It appeared when they were born. Even if it were current, I wouldn’t like my teacher trying to be hip, man.

    When I took AP US History in the 80s, my teacher, who was a student activist in the 60s, did not create assignments based on songs from his era. I did happen to listen to 60s music at the time, but that was my choice, and I never told him about it. 🙂

    Class time was for discussion. I don’t remember any lectures. Why be told what we could (and were supposed to) read at home? There were definitely no presentations. Our teacher’s complex questions (not simple yes-no or trivia questions) were much more valuable for us than parroting some facts about Truman or Ho Chi Minh. We learned to respond quickly and intelligently, and that required “creativity and energy” – and content! Thinking on my feet was the number one thing I learned from that class.

  4. I have had two girls go complete high school and AP History and their projects were a little better than this. Part of the other problem is that AP tests are given mid-May and they still have a month left of school. So rather than cover more material, teachers have resorted to the non-teaching method of group projects. Since group projects usually result in a few kids doing the work and none of the kids really learning anything, the topic doesn’t really matter.

    Until teachers learn how to teach real 21st century workplace skills – like team work, problem solving, group dynamics, presentations, etc – through group projects none of these will have any real value.

  5. This is ridiculous! A presentation, without some sort of serious research to back it up, it merely fluff. This is an inappropriate assignment for high school.

    Heck, when I taught junior high (7th grade) history, I gave an assignment to research an event of recent history (Vietnam era or before), using interviews of older people. After some kvetching, they bit the bullet, and ended up classifying it as their favorite assignment of the year.

    And, BTW, it fulfilled standards and was educationally rigorous.

  6. It would make more sense to me as a beginning activity rather than as a final project. I introduce some literary periods by giving several student teams small topics to research and do presentations on, to an introductory overview to the whole class and to provide enough background knowledge to begin stimulating interest. These are done quite quickly.

    But as a final, it seems slight.

  7. Independent George says:

    Until teachers learn how to teach real 21st century workplace skills – like team work, problem solving, group dynamics, presentations, etc – through group projects none of these will have any real value.

    I take issue with this statement. All those things are nice, but they’re built on the (somewhat shaky) assumption that everyone on the team has mastery over a particular skill, and can contribute something to the effort utilizing skill. The problem is that all these project-oriented lessons mimick the superficial appearances of that sort of collaboration, without teaching the underlying substance; it’s like holding a meeting on an IT project and inviting everyone in the firm except the engineer and the client.

  8. I find an occasional nod to pop culture acceptable and even fun, but I would not give it the same weight of importance as other assignments.

    Hey- we had Perry Mason week here at our homeschool, so I can’t disparage a teacher for using Billy Joel to jump start an assignment, although, as others have said, did the kids respond with “Billy WHO?”

  9. Michael,

    “It would make more sense to me as a beginning activity rather than as a final project.”

    That might work if the song covered the whole of US history, but it only covers four late decades. So it has to be at the end, if it has to be anywhere at all.

    Independent George,

    “All those things are nice, but they’re built on the (somewhat shaky) assumption that everyone on the team has mastery over a particular skill, and can contribute something to the effort utilizing skill.”

    Yes. And sometimes only one group member has the skills. What does that teach the others? Answer: exploitation, not collaboration.

    Sunniemom,

    Did anyone ask, “Perry WHO?” Perry Mason is an even older icon than Billy Joel.

  10. When I was in school (Class of ’90, so it was a current song), one of the English instructors used the song as the basis for an assignment. However, the purpose of the assignment was to learn research skills, not to learn history.

    In that form, and at that time, it was actually a rather difficult assignment to complete. With no internet or other electronic research tool, you’re somewhat hard-pressed to learn the details of what is effectively a collection of random words.

    I recall that :children of Thalidomide” was causing no end of problems, as even the librarian was not familiar with the phrase. Fortunately, I was familiar enough to give them the basic background – but since I couldn’t remember where I learned it they were still stuck with nothing more than “medical journals” and “FDA history” as their starting points.

  11. Nels Nelson says:

    That’s what the kids today love: a twenty-year-old song aimed at middle-aged baby boomers, teamed with a U.S. History assignment.

  12. Yuk. I’m glad my kid isn’t in that class, and that I don’t have to go up to school complaining about crap that passes for art.

  13. “Part of the other problem is that AP tests are given mid-May and they still have a month left of school. So rather than cover more material, teachers have resorted to the non-teaching method of group projects.”

    You mean this is busy work so they can fulfill their required number of school days? If the school can’t figure out any substantive work for the kids to do, why not release them from school so they can go do something meaningful?

  14. Andromeda says:

    I think an assignment based on this song could be done well, but it depends very much on the teacher’s aims, the requirements, restrictions, and grading standards. (For one, the teacher needs to take into account the wealth of information readily available via Google…)

    Certainly someone who knew the significance of everything in that song would be way better educated about modern history than I am (none of my history classes could ever be bothered to go past 1900)…but not if all you need to do is google it and write down what you find.

    I don’t think we have enough information about the assignment; the original blog post doesn’t make all the details clear and is obviously biased, which makes it hard to interpret the details we do have. I am not at all sanguine about the quality of this assignment, but I believe you could craft a superficially similar good one.

  15. hobbitt says:

    I think its a good one. If you can understand the contents of the words then you have a good grasp of the history of the last half of the last century. It is not a be all and end all for history but it is a very nice addition.

    My husband uses it for teaching “culture” in his college marketing class. Now its just one or two days worth. He especially points out, for business people, that it takes place in a kitchen and points out the icons in it. How much is a Lone Ranger lunch box now?

  16. Sounds like the teacher didn’t “cover” the last 50 years of the history book & this would take fewer days in class than actually trying to come up with something that would challenge kids and bring them through the events/topics that shaped the period of time.

    Not good — UNLESS the teacher who gave the assignment also was in the middle of yearbook distribution, planning grad night, or away reading AP exams.

    In those cases, well … OK. David make the critical point that pre-Google, this would have actually required some digging. Now, well, not so much.

    Jeri

  17. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    I was 14 when I first heard this song. I was already well into history at that point, and it didn’t hurt matters that my parents bought me the massive “Chronicle of the 20th Century” for my 14th birthday. I remember going through the lyrics noting that I knew virtually everything it referenced, and this without the benefit of 9th Grade U.S. History (yet to be taken at that point).

    I would use this song as a shining example of how historical refences can even seep into popular culture; yet another reason to be familiar with, know, and understand history. However, I cringe at the idea of placing things like this at the center of history lessons. Believe me, as one who holds a B.A. in History, there is much to history that is dry and painfully dull, YET is quite insightful and revealing, and all too necessary to comprehend and learn.

  18. It’s not the kind of assignment that I think should carry a lot of weight in a grade. It seems like the kind of assignment that could be done in about a class period with the power of wikipedia.

    But I will say this in defense of teachers reluctantly giving crappy projects in the the month of May after AP exams: you kind of have to go with what your school culture will support. You might be amazed and/or horrified by the number of schools at which the administration as well as the kids and their parents think that school should just kind of fade out with funzies after spring break. In such a school, woe to the the teacher who holds the students’ feet to the fire of actual assignments with rigor and quality.

    We’d like to think that the instructional bond would be so powerful and enduring that the kids would just keep working because the teacher was motivating and the kids loved learning. But many of the kids don’t seem to see it that way. Often you have to decide to ratchet up the value of the grades so the kids see them as important enough to complete or crank down the importance of the work so it doesn’t matter if they don’t. Occasionally and bafflingly, some people do both, like the assignment mentioned here, and that IS hard to understand. Even in the worst of circumstances, it seems like it ought to be big grade and actually worth doing in terms of learning or small grade and maybe a little silly but engaging.

  19. Oh, and the incidences that I’ve heard of for instructional use of this song were for teaching the idea of historical allusions in songs as poetry: not particularly great as assignments go, but about average for anyone teaching pop songs as poetry.

  20. Devilbunny says:

    A friend who graduated HS in ’94 mentioned that, in his AP US History class, his teacher assigned the song about a week before the AP exam. They hadn’t had time to study post-WW2 US history, and that pretty well covered it. Of course, it wasn’t for a major portion of the grade.

    I agree: pre-Internet, that would have been a hard one to research for most people. (My dad was older, so I would have had an inside track to the 50s, but most of my friends’ parents were born in the early 50s. Anything before around 1965-68 was pretty much a blur to them.)

  21. I had an experience similar to David’s.

    When I was in 6th grade, my gifted and talented english class was given an assignment similar to this in order to learn library and research skills. We broke the song up among several groups and then did our best to figure out each lyrical reference using the resources available to us. At the time, the song was fresh and the assignment was considered pretty cool. Plus we got to spend a bunch of class time in the library on our own which was also cool.

    It was cool enough that another 6th grade teacher copied it without attribution for her own class and got in trouble for it. That taught me an unintended lesson about workplace politics that I haven’t forgotten.

  22. Had a professor in Teacher Education School (SDSU Calexico Campus) who used this exact assignment as an sample lesson back in 1993. So it has been around.

    I think that it’s alright as a WRITING assignment, but NOT as a significant part of a semester grade.

  23. Using the song as the basis of a historical study of the Cold War period is not a bad idea and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The song has everything, from political history, “Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again,” social history, “Children of Thalidomine,” “moonshot,” and pop history “Bardo” “punk rock” cola wars.

    Now, if the project is simply to recite facts about each item, then yes, the teaching opportunity is lost because the song offers a chance to see how the political, social, pop culture and other forms of history feed off each other, inform and contradict each others.

    For example, 1968 was an incredibly tumultuous year, between Dr. King’s assassination, RFK’s assassination, riots and other distress, but the year ended with a scientific, engineering and exploratory triumph of the Apollo 8 circumnavigation of the moon. Play those off of each other and you get a wonderful oppotunity.

    I like that concept of one commenter, that using the song as poetry and how historical allusions inform poetry as much as methaphor, simile and allegory.

    The secret ingredient is not that the project is done, but how it is used. Otherwise the project itself is simply neutral.

  24. I don’t teach US History, but as a World History teacher I might show the video to open a class when we discuss more modern world history. But, a project on the song? I don’t know if I would go that far. If so I would have a very strong research based rubric that went into lots of detail about certain aspects of the song & history.

  25. Nony Mouse says:

    In my AP class, we actually covered the more-recent decades. In our standard classes, in earlier years, our preceding four decades were squeezed into about an hour-and-a-half. This would have been an actual education to some of the kids in my class.

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  1. […] Billy Joel, History Teacher at Joanne Jacobs Most of an 11th grade U.S. history grade for the semester will be determined by the final project: A group presentation on the significance of the lyrics of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, which lists events and people from 1949-89.  […]