Word has it that the fabled Muses of ancient Greece, bored with a life of eternal ambrosia and frolic on the slopes of Mt. Helicon, have decided to take mortal form as teachers at a high school on Washington's Olympic Peninsula (naturally). As these timeless patrons of the arts drink herbal tea in the staff lounge during lunch break, they gossip as only Muses can about culture's newest art form -- YouTube -- and how that might bring some creative freshness to their classroom.
Euterpe, the muse of lyrical poetry and song, who teaches language arts and music, tells the others about a video she came across that shows a face-off between rap and poetry. "This lets me show students that while the two may seem very different, they have a lot of similarities. But even I might have trouble explaining that without a video." She does a search and finds several music videos on YouTube.
Because her kids tend to think that the history of pop music started with Coldplay, Euterpe opens her laptop and clicks on performance videos of Nat "King" Cole and Billie Holiday, just two of the many windows on great song stylists that show students what their grandparents' generation responded to. Then she shows her response to the computer game Guitar Hero, which many of her students play at home: a young Korean man playing on electric guitar an arrangement of the famous Canon in D Major, by baroque composer Johann Pachelbel. "I'm hoping to inspire the would-be guitar heroes in my class to play real music, not just video games."
The dance teacher, Terpsichore, shows her sister muses a vivid clip of Gene Kelly dancing to the music of George Gershwin in the 1951 movie musical An American in Paris. Of course, there are wonderful moments of dance in films about other cultures. Terpsichore has just discovered the high-energy choreography of Bollywood, but, being Greek herself, she lovingly mentions the last scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, in which Zorba (Anthony Quinn) teaches an emotionally restrained Englishman (Alan Bates) the classic style of Hellenic dancing.
"I also play old and newer music videos in class to show my students how choreography has changed throughout the years, and where some styles were adapted then changed into more modern forms, like tap and break dancing. I only wish we'd had video during those endless afternoons on Helicon."
Clio, the Muse of history and a popular political science teacher, jumps at the idea of combining curricula. "We could create a project that is a part dance and part history," she tells Terpsichore. "With all of the video clips of movies and operas old and new that YouTube has online, we could even bring in the history of film and compare performances of Shakespeare and Puccini."
She also tells her fellow Muses about her idea for an arts-appreciation/history session. "Students can view montage videos created as a tribute to artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Georges Seurat, and Edgar Degas, then they can compare more recent art with the techniques of these famous artists and see how some of these techniques have changed -- how pointillism led to micropointillism, for instance."
When the excitable Clio took a breath, her sister Thalia, the cheerful Muse of comedy who coteaches drama classes with Melpomene (the more morose Muse of tragedy), took a turn. Like her colleagues, she also finds the classics on YouTube useful, and offers a menu of mirth: Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, Charlie Chaplin's "table ballet" scene in The Gold Rush, a clip from the Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs in which comedian Michael Winslow provides radarlike sound effects in space, are just a few of the wide array of examples of different methods of comedy that she says she would like to show her students. "These movie clips give my kids examples of lots of comedy methods," she says with her usual big grin.
Melpomene heaves a sigh. "Othello and Hamlet scenes are just a click away, if you want to show how heartbreaking literature can be," she says mournfully. "Not to mention arias from Madame Butterfly and Lucia di Lammermoor. Wonderfully sad, and a great resource for showing our students dramatic monologues and other things they should know about how theater works."
The bell rings for afternoon classes, but the Muses, inspired by the Muse-like power of YouTube to help them bring culture into their classrooms, agree to meet the next day at lunchtime.
"Oh," calls out Thalia, "can someone bring diet ambrosia?"
Shari Wargo is a former editorial assistant at Edutopia.