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Lincoln educator uses song parodies to teach history

March 31, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Weird Al Yankovic has nothing on DJ Thatch.

OK, maybe he has a little more finesse in the vocal department, but Schoo Middle School teacher Cody Thatcher has Yankovic’s talent for parody, which he combined with his skills as an educator and took to YouTube.

And, man, the Crusades and the Black Plague have never been so much fun.

Ariana Grande might have “No Tears Left to Cry,” but according to DJ Thatch, “Everyone Starts to Die.”

The Chainsmokers tell listeners “We ain’t ever getting older,” in their hit “Closer,” but for DJ Thatch’s students, “The Crusades are getting started.”

Thatcher teaches seventh-grade social studies, where students dive into world history.

The curriculum, focused on helping students sharpen their thinking skills by analyzing original documents in the context of the events they’re learning about, gives teachers a lot of latitude in how they teach, Thatcher said.

So he’s taken advantage of that.

“History can be boring,” he said. “I don’t want history to be boring.”

When he was teaching about the Black Plague a couple of years ago, he played a popular parody on the subject called “Black Death” written to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” for his class. A student told him he should do one of his own — and the two even came up with a song to use: “Dirt Road Anthem,” made famous by country singer Jason Aldean.

It took about a year, but “Silk Road Anthem” was born.

Almost immediately, it got more than 300 views from Thatcher’s students, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

“They absolutely just ate it up,” he said, so he kept going.

He borrowed Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” and wrote “That’s How I Live That Caesar Life.”

Then he sang about Alexander the Great and Rome and the Renaissance.

He’s got six videos on YouTube, and “Silk Road Anthem” has more than 1,000 views. The Caesar ballad has more than 800.

The songs are meant to help students review what they’ve learned, he said, and music can be a powerful tool.

Students hum the songs as they’re taking tests, he said, to help them remember what they’ve learned, and the songs have caught the interest of students who might not otherwise get involved in class.

“That’s the whole point of this,” he said. “Maybe I can catch some kids I wouldn’t have caught.”

He finds other ways to bring history to life in his classroom, where on a recent Friday, the door was covered with crime scene tape. Giant plastic rats were strewn around the place and students hovered over the outlines of corpses, victims of the Black Plague.

They wore masks and goggles (borrowed from a science teacher) and played out an episode of Black Plague CSI, drawing the symptoms and the treatments on the life-size outline of a corpse.

The forensic scientists-in-training were into this assignment, because, really, where else do you get permission to draw boils and diarrhea and vomit?

“Be sure to think like a historian. Use information from class,” their teacher reminded them. “The more detail the better. Show me what you know.”

So they did, and soon, they’ll get to listen to their teacher’s version of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.”

Because Thatcher loves music, he sees the benefits of using it to help him teach, something he’s known he wanted to do since he was a kid. So what if he’s no Drake. It works.

“I can’t sing at all,” he said. “I haven’t let it stop me yet.”

Some 3,000 Lincoln Public Schools ninth-graders got new Chromebooks recently because the ones they checked out this fall had a manufacturer’s defect.

The freshmen were the first group of high school students to get a different model than younger students, one that includes a touch screen and video capabilities that district officials decided would allow them more flexibility for school projects.

Unfortunately, problems began to arise a few months ago. The computer folks at LPS had been getting more complaints from students who couldn’t turn them on, a problem that became undeniable in October, said Kirk Langer, the district’s technology coordinator.

Often students close their Chromebooks without turning them off, so the size of the problem wasn’t apparent, but in October they were taking standardized tests that required they turn their computers off, then back on — and lots of them couldn’t get them back on, Langer said.

Dell officials gave the district 320 computers to loan to students while they tried to fix the problem. When they couldn’t come up with a fix, they recalled them — and sent LPS 3,300 new computers with a different on-off button that didn’t cause the same problems.

In the end, the problems affected nearly 500 students, Langer said, but the switch was quick and easy and the problem cost LPS nothing.

Bob Rauner, who found himself running unopposed for southeast Lincoln’s District 6 seat on the Lincoln Board of Education, told supporters he plans to donate campaign contributions designated for advertising and printing to the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools.

Rauner is running for the seat now held by Matt Schulte, who is not running for re-election. No one else filed as a candidate, and after Rauner realized he wouldn’t have an opponent, he decided to shift his focus to studying the issues and meeting with as many PTOs as possible.

“After discussing with the campaign committee and staff, we think it would be best to pay off our remaining expenses and hold off on buying any more ads or yard signs,” he wrote.

According to the latest filings with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Rauner has about $5,200 on hand. Once he pays all his expenses, he said he hopes to have $1,000 to $1,500 to donate.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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