Summer is here, but school is not out for McKinley High School teacher Keith Hughes.
He has been teaching U.S. history and government from his fourth-floor corner room for most of his 15-year tenure at McKinley.
But for the next few weeks, his classroom is the History Channel’s sister network H2, where he’s part of a new show called “United Stuff of America,” which airs at 10 p.m. every Saturday.
Hughes, who has a knack for transforming history lessons into lively videos, won an international YouTube contest that got 3 million views and helped him land the History Channel role. A Buffalo connection at the network didn’t hurt, either. The “United Stuff” show that Hughes stars in is hosted by Rick Harrison of “Pawn Stars.”
With the help of a few history buffs like Hughes from around the country, Harrison examines artifacts and puts them in the context of history.
“Piece them together in just the right way,” and get the whole story, Hughes tells viewers in the opening of one of the episodes.
And that’s exactly what he and other historians, including professors from Columbia and Rutgers universities, do as experts on the hourlong show. Each week the talking heads take viewers on a cross-country treasure hunt for the relics that helped shape U.S. history.
“I’m a good storyteller. I’m a facilitator of learning experiences,” Hughes said of his role as a teacher at McKinley and on television.
There are eight installments in the summer series, which debuted on June 14 with “Badass Presidents,” an episode that described just how tough some of the country’s leaders were. Andrew Jackson, for instance, thwarted a gun-carrying assassin with an ivory-knobbed cane before there was such a thing as the Secret Service.
In the July 26 episode, Hughes will be the on-camera expert on a subject he knows a lot about: William McKinley, the 25th president and namesake of his Elmwood Avenue school.
“I’m doing a McKinley story for an episode on crimes of history. I get to talk about the assassination of William McKinley in Buffalo,” said Hughes, who also is an adjunct professor at the University at Buffalo.
He will make briefer appearances in many of the other upcoming episodes.
The door to Hughes’ classroom at McKinley shows he has a fondness for U.S. presidents. It is wall-papered with Time magazine covers of Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, both Bushes, one of the Roosevelts – Franklin Delano – and many others. Inside, there’s more than one poster of President Obama, and a small Richard Nixon action figure hangs from the ceiling.
“If you look carefully, you’ll see Nixon is watching you,” joked Hughes, who calls his collection of images and props quirky but considers them effective teaching tools. “I think it makes it interesting.”
Hughes’ eccentric personality is what grabbed the attention of the TV show’s producers, and it is reflected all over his eclectic classroom.
On one wall, there’s a large picture of John Lennon – post-Beatles. A yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flag hung on a wall before it fell off the last day of school. And a poster of Albert Einstein sits just below two pictures of women’s red lips, one of which Hughes calls “maladjusted lips.”
“The idea is what real lips look like,” he said pointing to one picture. “And this is how the media portrays them,” he said of the maladjusted ones, which looked plumped up by injection and airbrushed. Hughes uses the posters to make a point about media manipulation of images.
When he teaches, Hughes has been known to jump off of desks and run down the hall without shoes. And instead of presenting research papers, his students produce iMovies, public service announcements and infomercials.
His lectures are an event, said Shane Smith, a student in Hughes’ Advanced Placement government class this past year. Smith will be attending SUNY Buffalo State this fall to study business administration.
“He even does dances,” Smith said of Hughes’ teaching style. “His class is fast-paced. He’s completely eccentric. I’ve never seen the man sit.”
John Lichtenthal had Hughes for history in the 11th grade and Advanced Placement government in 12th grade. A recent University at Buffalo graduate with a degree in environmental design, Lichtenthal remembers Hughes as always being upbeat.
“It was never a slow day with him,” Lichtenthal said. “It’s his style that I believe is the true fundamental difference that makes him shine brighter than other teachers.”
Hughes employed some of the same storytelling and lecturing skills in the educational videos for YouTube that he’s been producing the past seven years.
His creation won him a spot in the YouTube Next EDU Guru program, which provides training and mentoring to creators of educational videos.
Hughes, who was flown to YouTube headquarters in California for the program, was one of 10 people picked from all over the world to participate. After that honor, his YouTube channel “blew up” to 3 million views, he said. And that’s when some producers took notice.
“Last year after I won that, Leftfield Pictures contacted me, and we did a pilot in Vegas,” said Hughes.
Leftfield produces the History Channel’s hit series “Pawn Stars” and H2’s “United Stuff of America,” as well as other shows on Lifetime, Discovery Channel and A&E cable networks, according to its website.
Buffalo native Scott Miller, co-executive producer of “United Stuff of America,” did not know Hughes or anything about him when the production company began casting for the new show. But it didn’t take long for Miller to see that Hughes was perfect for the role.
“We began production in January, and the casting department gave me a list of potential experts they had researched and gotten from other shows, and one name on the list was HipHughes History,” said Miller in a telephone interview from his Manhattan office.
HipHughes History is the series of Web videos that Hughes aired on YouTube. Miller was hooked right away.
“They were entertaining. They were educational,” he said. “Right away, the camera loves him. When he tells a story, it isn’t like he’s lecturing. When he tells a story, you get absorbed in it, and he connects with you right through the camera.”
The fact that Hughes was a fellow Buffalonian gave him an edge.
“Being a Buffalo guy myself, that was a clincher,” Miller said.
The icing on the cake was the McKinley connection. Turns out, Miller’s mother went to the school in the 1950s.
And the rest is history.
“I was sold. The fact that my mother went to McKinley. The videos are great. I was hooked with the Buffalo connection,” Miller said.
Hughes travels to New York regularly to film the episodes, and it’s a treat for Miller as much as it is for Hughes.
“I love the fact when we have down time on set, he’s constantly talking about how to educate kids, all about kids,” Miller said.
“He’s not talking about sports, he’s talking about schools. He wants schools to be better. He’s the kind of teacher you want for your child. He’s passionate, and he cares.”