Teachers are using the music in various ways, with multiple educational goals. Andrea Moverman, who teaches U.S. history to 11th graders at Millennium Brooklyn High School, used snippets of songs to provoke interest in the Revolutionary War.
“I played the beginning of ‘Guns and Ships,’ and then asked them, ‘What was our secret weapon?’ ” she said, referring to Hamilton’s friend and ally, Marquis de Lafayette, which the song soon reveals. “The kids wanted more,” she added. “They said, ‘Keep playing it!’ ”
To help her students understand the arguments for and against creating a national bank — a subject many kids might find snooze-worthy — Moverman played the song Cabinet Battle #1, which pitted Alexander Hamilton in a rap duel against Thomas Jefferson. Her students’ delight over this exchange prompted Moverman to assign rap battles as projects; she divided kids into competing sides and asked them to craft arguments in rap form. One of her favorite rap battles: two opposing camps debating the legacy of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, some representing plaintiffs and others defendants, and all relying on major court cases to make their case.
“I’ve rethought almost all my projects after this rap battle was so successful,” she said.
Lois MacMillan also assigned historical hip-hop raps for her eighth-graders, all of them grounded in historical documents. They performed their rap debates on a variety of issues — the soldiers’ conditions in the American Revolution, the virtues of Henry Knox, the legacy of various British kings — in front of their class.
Teachers insist that the learning goes beyond composing and memorizing catchy lyrics. Using excerpts from biographies, Hamilton’s correspondence, clips from the soundtrack and other primary documents, Emrich’s eighth-graders try to discern if Hamilton’s character caused his death. MacMillan’s main educational goal in focusing on Hamilton is to underscore the primacy of writing. Alexander Hamilton wrote his way out of poverty, she said, and she reminds her students that skilled writing is the clearest sign of scholarship — and the best way to rise up and alter your circumstance.
For his part, history teacher Dr. Jim Cullen, who will be offering an elective course for 11th and 12th graders on the musical Hamilton at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, will ask students to delve into three themes: looking at a period of history through one person’s eyes, studying the artistry of the play itself and exploring how non-historians understand the past. Like MacMillan and Emrich, Cullen uses primary sources to ground the course in scholarship. “They are learning at such a deep level,” Emrich said of his students.
Hamilton is especially galvanizing for the student who believes that stories about 18th century America are distant and irrelevant. For many history teachers, making “ancient” subjects come alive is their biggest challenge. “As much as we’d like to make it exciting, history is mostly about a bunch of dead guys,” Emrich said.
Hamilton works in the classroom — and the theater — because these founding fathers aren’t bloodless, two-dimensional cutouts who devoted their lives to abstract principles. Rather, they’re husbands, rivals, fathers, friends, lovers — all of them human, and afflicted with vices along with their virtues: pride, arrogance, anger, envy, lust and greed. Emrich’s students are so emotionally involved in the music and the story of Alexander Hamilton that some blew up when they learned about his extramarital affairs. “Some kids were destroyed by his infidelities; that’s how passionate they are,” Emrich said. One hopeful student wrote Miranda and invited him to the school.
Eighth-graders in MacMillan’s U.S. history class are equally enthralled with Hamilton, both the man and the music. “I’ve memorized the soundtrack,” said Alexandra Baksay, who added that she’s never felt for a historical figure the way she does about Alexander Hamilton. Her classmates, many of whom have read David MuCullough’s mammoth account of the Revolutionary War, 1776, while preparing their rap battle assignments, nicknamed her “AH” in honor of Hamilton.
“He was a super-inspiring person who took advantage of his brilliant mind and changed the world for the better,” said classmate Elie Lindsey. Briony Bowman chimed in: “The musical aspect made it a lot more fun, and easier to learn about Alexander Hamilton.” The complexity of the material she’s encountered while studying Hamilton, adds Jenna Robinson, has improved her understanding of language arts. And the racial diversity of the cast, Alexa said, “is really empowering.”
None of these students in Grants Pass, Oregon, has seen Hamilton performed in New York. But starting in April, some 20,000 public school students in New York City will be given tickets to the play for a mere $10 each. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nonprofit devoted to improving history education, was awarded a substantial gift from the Rockefeller Foundation to make the play accessible for kids who otherwise wouldn’t likely see the show — a deprivation felt by many for the sold-out play. To make the performance more than a fleeting experience for the students, and to help teachers guide discussions, Gilder Lehrman has provided an online reservoir of resources on Alexander Hamilton, including primary sources, videos and essays.
Teachers needn’t let geographic or economic obstacles, nor their unfamiliarity with modern music, keep them from introducing Hamilton to their students.
“I had to learn what hip-hop was,” said MacMillan, who tends to prefer jazz. “It just turns on kids,” she added, especially those who find history sedating and lifeless. At least 100 kids at her school have downloaded the soundtrack; they play it nonstop at lunch, and several performed the opening number from the play at the school’s talent show. Andrea Moverman in Brooklyn encourages teachers to try just snippets of songs in the class if the whole soundtrack feels overwhelming; use it as a hook to engage and introduce a subject, she suggested. Justin Emrich, on the other hand, advises teachers to listen to the entire soundtrack.
“You will be emotionally connected to Hamilton at the end of the music, and you’ll want to use the soundtrack,” he said. Either way, he added, “You’ve got to use this thing! It’s awesome!”
Five Great Movies About Education (And You Should Watch Them)
|Dead Poets Society|
Similar to my book post, I thought it would be appropriate to make a list of movies that get me excited about learning, academics, and are just generally inspirational, perfect for someone about to go to university. So when you need a break from studying hard or you are just procrastinating, check out any of these five movies and try to restrain yourself from getting so excited about university and your future in education and therefore start packing for school...even though it's January.
1) Dead Poets Society (1989)
Notable Stars: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard (Dr. Wilson from House), Ethan Hawke.
After being told I had to watch this movie before I went to university by my friend's Mom, Dead Poets Society will forever be one of my favourite films. Based around an all-boys, upper class, conservative school in 1959, Robin Williams shakes everything up thanks to his unorthodox teaching methods when hired as a new English teacher. By making a huge impact with his students, Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke being among them, Williams inspires, awes and teaches them all about carpe diem.
Memorable Quotes: "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boy. Make your lives extraordinary," "No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world."
2) Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
Notable Stars: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
What I sometimes refer to as the girl version of Dead Poets Society, Mona Lisa Smile is similarly based around a conservative, upper-class, all-girls college in 1953. Like Robin Williams' character, Julia Roberts is the new art history professor and begins to test the conservative ways of thinking and learning by her students. (Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal...the list goes on) Although there's a little romance thrown in throughout, the movie questions women's gender roles in the 50s, a time in America where gender roles were a hot-button issue, the importance of education, and to always think outside the box.
Memorable Quote: "See past the paint. Let's open our minds to a different idea."
3) Good Will Hunting (1997)
Notable Stars: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck
Maybe this list should have been, "The Best Roles Robin Williams Has Ever Played"... Incredibly charming and heartbreaking at the same time, Good Will Hunting tells the story of Will Hunting, Matt Damon's character, who's a genius, but has chosen to work as a janitor, and how he's dealing with the struggles endured throughout his childhood. With the help of his therapist Sean Maguire, Robin Williams, Hunting learns that he's not alone when it comes to battling past demons. (It was also partially filmed in Toronto!)
Memorable Quotes: "Will - I read your book last night. Sean - So you're the one." "Son of a bitch...He stole my line."
4) An Education (2009)
Notable Stars: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard
An Education doesn't focus on the typical classroom style of learning like some of the other movies on the list but issues surrounding academia are not overlooked. A British coming of age story, Mulligan's character is on her way to being accepted to Oxford University when she meets an older man, Peter Sarsgaard, who starts to romantically pursue her. Showing her there's more to life than education, Mulligan's character starts to abandon her educational desires until the truth about him is discovered.
Memorable Quote: "If you never do anything, you never become anyone"
5) School of Rock (2003)
Notable Stars: Jack Black, Joan Cusack
This is another movie that doesn't base solely around "classroom" academics but when I think of school, I think of the School or Rock. Struggling musician played by Jack Black impersonates his friend and roommate to land a job as a substitute teacher for a fifth-grade class at a prestigious prep-school. After hearing his class in their music class, Black's character decides to enter them into a local battle of the bands competition. Instilling the best kind of education in these kids, the education of rock, Black teaches them to be themselves, be confident in who they are, and the most important lesson of all, always stick it to the man.
Memorable Quotes: "You're tacky and I hate you," "We will continue our lecture on The Man when we return. Have a good music class," "Your homework is to listen to some real music. Get inspired."