June 22, 2017

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Teaching with “Hamilton”

1605-Teaching-withHamilton-STARI knew I’d stumbled upon a powerful teaching tool when I woke up one October morning with a nagging impulse to read the Federalist Papers. While I freely admit to being a history nerd, my current preoccupation with post-colonial American history is born entirely out of my love for the Broadway musical Hamilton.

For those who have missed the buzz, Hamilton: An American Musical, written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, chronicles the rise and fall of the “10-dollar founding father,” Alexander Hamilton. The story is inextricably linked to that of the birth of our nation. Hamilton, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony Awards, has been blowing away audiences since it opened in February 2015 Off-Broadway and made it to Broadway last August. It’s a pretty great show, and as a teaching tool it’s darn near perfect. The story is gripping, more so because it is (mostly) true, the content is obsessively well researched and based largely on primary sources, and the language is complex and fun. Then there’s the music—an intoxicating cocktail of pop, R&B, rap, and Broadway show tunes—and the mostly non-white casting, all of which effectively erases the distance between the audience and the story. I had to share Hamilton with my fifth graders, who were about to begin their unit on the American Revolution.

I teach in a Title I school, and I knew many students would connect to Hamilton’s difficult childhood. My library also has a budding maker space. While I doubt Miranda sees Hamilton as a product of the maker movement, to me it is an excellent example of something created out of curiosity and passion—which is what being a maker is all about.

Before starting, I needed to grapple with a parental advisory-size roadblock: the language. Hamilton’s lyrics are complicated, and most songs have a word or two that I can’t play in a fifth-grade classroom.

In the end, I created two close-reading lessons—“Hamilessons”—focused on the songs “Farmer Refuted,” “You’ll Be Back,” and a clip from “Right Hand Man,” which collectively illustrate four perspectives from the early days of the Revolution. The lessons were framed by the question: How can art help us understand the world?

Hamilesson 1

“Farmer Refuted” and “You’ll Be Back”

We discussed how art can take many forms: a painting, song, book, movie, TV show—or musical. I asked students to share a time when art inspired them to learn more about something.

Then I told them about Hamilton—and the poor, orphaned, brilliant, immigrant kid and war hero who helped create our nation; and the duel that took his life. How Miranda picked up a book—Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2004)—while on vacation and heard hip hop in the story. How I listened to the soundtrack and went a little bit crazy (enough to go to New York just to see it). What’s striking about Hamilton is that between the story and the music, it has multiple entry points. Every student was engaged in a way that was meaningful to them.

Described by Miranda as a “battle rap in waltz time,” the song “Farmer Refuted” depicts the real-life pamphlet war between loyalist Samuel Seabury and Hamilton. “You’ll Be Back” is King George III’s British Invasion–style break-up song with the colonies as the Revolution builds.

I explained the purpose and process of close reading (or listening): it means reading a text several times while asking questions to gain a deeper, more meaningful understanding. For each song, I instructed them to skim through the lyrics, highlight words to look up later, and star anything that sparked a connection to history they knew. We listened to each song two or three times and discussed the historical perspectives these characters represent. Specifically:

Farmer Refuted

• What does each character want? How do you know?
• What does Hamilton think of Samuel Seabury?
• How does this song connect to what you already know about loyalists and revolutionaries?

You’ll Be Back

• Who is King George singing to?
• What is he singing about?

Students made connections to historical references such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. We dug deeper into the language—like the play on the word subject in this line from “You’ll Be Back”: “And no, don’t change the subject/ ‘Cause you’re my favorite subject.” Lastly, we discussed how each song’s tone matches the perspectives of the characters singing it.

Fifth graders practice their rap battle skills with the lyrics from  “Right Hand Man.”

Fifth graders practice their rap battle skills with the lyrics from
“Right Hand Man.”

Hamilesson 2

“Right Hand Man”

In “Right Hand Man,” singer George Washington is about to lose the Battle of Brooklyn and the island of Manhattan to the British. We only used the first two minutes, in which Washington voices his frustrations.

We began by thinking about the choices authors and artists make. I posed the question: Why hip hop? We watched Miranda’s video for the 2015 MacArthur Fellowship. He talks about his choices and the parallels between Hamilton’s story and the hip hop narrative. In our close read of “Right Hand Man,” students were charged with comparing the George Washington in the song with the legend they know. We considered how rap added to the emotion of the song.

Finally, I challenged them to give Washington’s rap a try. The rhythm and rhyme speak directly to the future president’s state of mind, creating an empathy that we rarely feel for this legendary figure. I wanted my students to feel that—and respect the skill required to perform it.

Throughout, students had a Google Doc with all of the lyrics and links to the songs and videos we watched. To wrap up, I challenged them to annotate the lyrics with definitions, reactions, and questions.

White River Elementary School fifth graders sing their favorite Hamilton numbers.

I’ve been floored by the growing impact of this show on my students. Many have listened to the whole cast recording. They refer to it in their history lessons, and they rap in the halls. They’re hardly alone. With the current #EduHam initiative, allowing 20,000 high schoolers, most from low-income families, to see the show for $10 and perform their own raps onstage, Hamilton’s educational potential seems limitless (see: SLJ/Hamilton). My own favorite response is from the fifth grader who came in one Monday holding Chernow’s biography. He’s reading it—a few pages at a time.

My principal, who witnessed my transformation into a superfan, calls these lessons my Genius Hour project. I think of them as my form of Hamilton fan art. I didn’t create an animated storyboard or an a cappella video. As a school librarian, I connect students to the stories they will fall in love with.

Matteson-Addie_Contrib_webAddie Matteson (@queenaddie) is a library media specialist at White River Elementary in Noblesville, IN.

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Comments

  1. As a Hamilton fan, (or #hamiltrash, as the kids say on the Tumblrs) I love this. Especially the fact that you consider the lessons your fan art. This is remix culture at its best!

  2. Jessica Lee says:

    I love this! I also used Hamilton in my school library. Teaching a lesson to 7th graders about historical fiction that emphasized the intersection between research and imagination. I played “Right Hand Man” as the kids came in and showed an image of the cast. I talked about Miranda using some of George Washington’s actual language but reshaping it into a rap. Had a great conversation with the students, particularly some who are disengaged from school. Also, it was an opportunity to give a shout out to Davees Diggs, Berkeley High class of 2000!

  3. I think the Hamilton Musical phenomenon represents about the best teachable moment in American History. I work with a bunch of high school kids that are crazy for Hamilton and they go to great lengths to demonstrate their fandom. This girl took the title song and made it about brain science. She spent 3 days on the music and video and it’s of unbelievable quality for a 1-person project. https://youtu.be/oo-WZy3865I

  4. Aliza Mann says:

    I don’t even know the right words to express my gratitude for this teaching guide. I want to cry, while simultaneously jumping up and down while I hug and kiss you. (Ok, too much?) The minute I heard the opening bars of “Alexander Hamilton” I knew it would be transformative for my teaching. I have been so overwhelmed with the task of creating this huge Hamilton-based unit that I haven’t even begun looking through resources to help me break it down for my students. My father actually sent a link to this a week ago, and just now did I actually open it and see this magnificence. But not only that, I worried when he sent the resource that maybe this was a guide for middle schoolers and high schoolers, and since the play already has some language and themes not appropriate for my class, I thought I may really be on my own as far as creating and brainstorming. When I saw that you created this for a FIFTH grade class, the same grade I teach, well… The hysteria was real! You are my teaching rockstar and I don’t know if you’ve seen the play yet, but you definitely deserve first row seats! Thank you!!

    • Addie Matteson says:

      You are so sweet! I am just now reading this comment because I hadn’t returned to the article in a while. I’m so glad that it’s helpful to you, and I hope you feel a little less alone. Hamilton CAN be appropriate for 5th grade, you just need a creative approach. Also, I DID get to see it! I saw it the day after Christmas, with the entire original cast, and it was hands down the best thing I’ve ever seen.
      Please feel free to contact me via Twitter (@queenaddie) if you want to ask any questions. Good luck!

  5. Harrow Strickland says:

    Wanted to say thanks for the resources! I feel like you are my spirit twin! I saw the original cast as well, and for the last 2 years have been using 12 songs with my 5th graders in Auburn, Alabama. I also teach with the novel, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, which has wonderful moments to integrate many songs from the first act. I do use the whole songs, but my fab music teacher helped me edit out language. We also do lots of vocabulary study and annotation of the lyrics! Just wanted to say I’m so glad I found others brave enough to take it to elementary age kids! They eat it up!!

  6. Haven Hilliard says:

    Hey there! I am teaching a 4th grade class and wanted to use a clip from Right Hand Man. The first two minutes, like you said, would be perfect for my lesson! Did you send out a parent consent form, even though the censored word is not present in the clip?