The [Epic Rap] Battle of Teaching History written by @WilliamABerry11  

 June 26, 2014

Seeing as the US History teachers at my school are about to move into their World War I unit, I’ve been looking into specific resources and interesting media for this particular topic. It’s been an opportune time to search for these materials, as Michael Gove’s recent comments about the Great War and the public controversy and the discussion that has followed has been very interesting to read.

I majored in History in college, and although we did not have to formally choose a concentration area, I took a large number of courses in World War I. This event has piqued my interest in learning history like no other topic. Growing up, I’d always been interested in learning about wars and battles as my family’s vacations and weekend trips often focused on visiting the Civil War battlefields in and around Richmond, Virginia, but learning about World War I was different. What made it so different was that for the first time in my educational career, my teachers used art, fiction, movies, and pop culture to help teach historical content. Granted, reading Sassoon, Owens, Graves,Remarque and watching Paths of Glory does not provide a full picture or unbiased explanation of the war. But, to balance these sources, we ready plenty of textbooks with dissenting opinions, and analyzed a number of first hand accounts and other primary documents. World War I is the reason I became a history teacher. The use of fiction, art, and pop culture made the war “real” to me and encouraged me to go out question, explore, and find new information on my own. These experiences have shaped the way that I teach– personally, I believe that fiction has an important place in a history classroom and can engage and engross students in a way that the majority of non-fiction cannot accomplish.

So here’s where I’m going with this…I think there needs to be a showdown between Michael Gove and “The War Poets.” And what better showdown format than “EPIC RAP BATTLES OF HISTORY!” I think the showdown should not only focus on the Gove controversy (Of course, any good rap battle is going to use whatever it takes to win), but the ultimate “conversation” should focus on art, pop culture, and fiction’s role in a history classroom.

I think it would be great for the students complete some research of their own for this topic, but I think you could provide them with a variety of documents/sources as a starting point.

Here’s a short list:

  • Michael Gove’s original comments.

  • BBC News video on the Gove controvery and fiction’s role in history.

  • Textbook accounts of a World War I. When I say textbook, I’m not just talking about a class text, but instead something like John Keegan’s “The First World War” or Gary Sheffield’s “The Chief” (which I have not yet read, but stumbled upon thanks to reading about this whole Gove controversy.

  • Newsreel/original footage from the battlefield.

  • War poems and stories from Owen, Sassoon, and others.

  • Excerpts from Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” (or clips from the film version).

  • First hand accounts of the war from individuals who weren’t necessarily artists: (Database 1, Database 2).

Possible Unit/Lesson Structure:

1. Explain to your students that the culmination assignment for this lesson/unit will involve their opinion on how fiction, art, and pop culture should be used in a history classroom. They should think carefully about the type of documents they encounter throughout the unit, and the effect that these different types of documents have on their understanding of history.  Before watching the following video, discuss the following with your students:

  • Is it possible to learn history through art/fiction/pop culture?

    • What are some examples of history that you learned through art/fiction/pop culture?

    • Are art, fiction, and pop culture an effective method of teaching history? Why or why not?

After watching the video, discuss the following with your students:

  • What are some arguments for using art/fiction/pop culture to teach and learn history?

    • What are some arguments against using art/fiction/pop culture to teach and learn history?

    • What role do you believe art, pop culture, and fiction play in a history classroom? Why?

2. Introduce the causes of World War I through several different historian’s takes on the backdrop of World War I and the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand.

3. Explain America’s entry into the war by providing them with first hand-accounts of the Lusitania sinking, and the full text of the Zimmerman Telegram.

4. Discuss trench warfare and new technology of World War I through real film footage, movie footage, and fictional accounts and poems.

5. Discuss end of the war and America’s 14 points through an analysis of the original documents (14 Points, Treaty of Versailles) and several historians accounts of the war’s end.

6. Introduce the Gove controversy. Explain the “Rap Battle” concept by playing a clip or two. It’s hard to find a completely clean “Epic Rap Battle,”  but this one is relatively school appropriate and you could cut the best clean clips using this tool.

7. Watch the students have fun and discuss history in a way that they never have before.

This post orginally appeared on:

William Berry is currently an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher in Henrico County, Va. Former US History Teacher (6th and 7th grade) “My work habit ain’t no habit, I do it on purpose. I push myself to the limit so my talent will surface.” Follow him @WilliamABerry11


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: