New York State School Boards Association

Passion for history lands teacher on YouTube, new H2 TV network

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • September 1, 2014

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Buffalo social studies teacher Keith Hughes calls his video camera his “second classroom.”

Tens of thousands of viewers have seen one or more of the 200-plus videos posted on his YouTube channel, HipHughesHistory, over the last five years or so.

“Learning should be fun, focused and free,” Hughes declares in a video invitation to students, life-long learners and other prospective viewers he playfully refers to as “the cray-cray on the Internets.” (Cray-cray is slang for “crazies.”)

With his black-framed hipster eyeglasses and whacky-yet-intense presentation style, Hughes could inspire comparisons to comedians Drew Carey and Lewis Black. Exclamations of “Giddyup!” punctuate his remarks, and an oft-repeated catchphrase – “Where attention goes, energy flows” – doubles as a slogan for his educational philosophy.

Hughes, 42, began reaching a new audience this year through his participation in a nationally televised program called United Stuff of America. The show is produced for the H2 network, an affiliate of the History Channel, by Leftfield Pictures, best known for the popular show Pawn Stars.

Hughes is part of a cadre of experts offering commentary and explanation for a six-episode season of United Stuff, which aired in June and July. The series kicked off with a topic close to the McKinley High School teacher’s heart: “Badass Presidents.” Other episodes that feature Hughes include one focused on guns and weaponry called “American Firepower,” one exploring organized crime called “The Mob’s Secret Stash” and one called “Ultimate Engineering,” which examined the historical impact of ordinary objects, from shovels to video cameras, and feats of construction, such as the Erie Canal and Hoover Dam.

Hughes said he originally was approached by Leftfield representatives to contribute to a pilot for a different series, but “that show didn’t get picked up, so I guess they put me in the vault.” When Leftfield began developing United Stuff, which uses old objects as launching points for stories drawn from American history, the producers remembered him.

“Keith brings expertise and passion, the dream combination for television,” said Jason Tolbert, a spokesman for the production company. “First and foremost, he knows his stuff. Secondly, when he talks history, you can feel his passion for it, and it’s contagious.”

In the “Badass Presidents” episode, Hughes is among several historians who provide brief bits of narration that are pieced together with video and photo images to tell stories of true presidential grit. “Stuff,” including Abraham Lincoln’s ax, Ulysses S. Grant’s pencils and George H.W. Bush’s parachute, is used to help illustrate tough qualities like perseverance, courage and ingenuity.

But, while he said he enjoyed his work on United Stuff of America, which involved several trips to New York City to record episodes with professional-level television equipment and staff, Hughes said he remains most energized by the free-wheeling, seat-of-the-pants video production process he employs for his YouTube channel.

He told On Board that his passion for video production was first inspired by a digital film initiative at SUNY’s University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education called “City Voices, City Vision.” He started regularly incorporating video elements and projects into his lessons more than a decade ago.

Shortly after the 9-11 attacks in 2001, Hughes and his students collaborated on their first video, which they called “Wings of Hope.”  The video technology, equipment and expertise available to Hughes and his students at McKinley High School have improved considerably since then, but Hughes remains proud of the project and the creative learning possibilities it revealed.

“It came out so fantastic, it pushed me to do more,” he said.

Then, a few years after he started incorporating video production activities into his classes, Hughes started recording condensed versions of his classroom lectures and uploading them to YouTube for his students to use for review outside of class.

Hughes’s homemade videos soon turned into a tool for building a so-called “flipped” classroom approach, which aims to cut class time spent on traditional lecture-style instruction and open up more time for activities and discussions while the teacher can personally guide and encourage students.

“I like to say I was an early flipper,” Hughes said. “There is more time in the classroom to compose meaning” from the informational material covered in lessons.

Hughes’s U.S. History and AP Government students now spend part of their class time conducting research and working on creative projects. They produce videos, podcasts, songs, faux TV commercials, websites and more.

Hughes, who also teaches at the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education, has stayed busy this summer uploading new tutorials sparked by current events and issues in the news to the HipHughes History catalog. He doesn’t shy away from tackling controversial topics, as is clear from recent offerings about the influx of Central American children across the southern U.S. border and the Mid-East conflict in Gaza.

His site also offers practical teaching tips and a growing collection of exasperated commentaries that turn a critical eye on elements of New York’s educational reform agenda. While Hughes emphasizes his support for teacher accountability, his sharpest critiques concern what he sees as overly bureaucratic processes enveloping the Annual Professional Performance Review system and a “robotic” requirement to produce Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) for each student.

His on-camera wardrobe in his current events videos has featured a Pink Floyd T-shirt under a blazer. But sometimes, especially when he perceives a topic to be particularly controversial or potentially divisive, he turns to the Man in Black for sartorial support. “I had to put on my Johnny Cash shirt to ‘walk the line,’ on this one,” he quipped as he outlined arguments and context related to a Supreme Court decision on contraceptive health insurance coverage for Hobby Lobby retail chain employees.

Hughes relishes the challenge of deconstructing complex, contentious issues from history and today’s headlines and helping viewers understand them well enough to form their own opinions.

“Everything is so hyper-polarized. There’s not a lot of non-biased sourcing out there,” he said.

Hughes also values the leeway for spontaneity and inspiration that comes with conceiving his own video projects. He records his YouTube videos on a home set he describes as “masking tape, Jo-Ann Fabric and me.”

And he doesn’t dawdle. “From start to finish, I can do a video in five hours,” he said. “I wing everything. I’ve always had this ‘spaghetti philosophy.’ I do whatever comes into my head, and I throw it up against the wall and see what sticks.”

He admires the work of others who produce online educational content that might be considered more polished, such as the videos by The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, who created the Crash Course channel on YouTube with his brother, Hank Green. But, Hughes jokes, Green is “really good for kids who love school, and I’m really good for kids who think school sucks.”

The future for United Stuff of America on H2 is unclear. Two episodes have yet to be aired, and the spokesman for Leftfield Pictures said no decision has been made on whether to produce a second season.

Either way, Hughes says he’ll be fine. Working on the program, he said, offered an eye-opening view of the world of professional television production, but he’s not looking for a career change.

“I’m a teacher first, so this all is gravy,” he said.

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