Hamilton the musical: Non-traditional literacy and historical thinking
For the last few years, I’ve come to depend on my kids to keep me up to date on the latest pop culture stuff. Jake shares his favorite music and books. Erin makes sure I’m connected with fads such as the Hunger Games phenomenon and art trends.
The most recent update from my kids? The Hamilton musical.
If you don’t have my kids around to help you keep up with all of the latest happenings, here’s a one-sentence heads up. It’s a Broadway musical that follows Alexander Hamilton from the time he leaves the Caribbean to his death in that duel with Aaron Burr.
And, yes, I can hear you thinking all the way over here.
Broadway musical? Really? How is that gonna help me teach American history?
First, we should always be on the lookout for ways to expand the types of evidence we have our students mess with. Just as a textbook is an interpretation of the past, so are movies, plays, and yes – Broadway musicals. Hamilton is just one more source that our kids can use to address the historic and authentic problems we give them.
Second, one of the skills we need to train our students to use is corroboration – the act of looking at a variety of evidence to evaluate those pieces of evidence. Using song lyrics and scripts are examples of what our students can use to support or disprove more specific primary sources such as Washington’s Farewell Address or the Federalist Papers.
Third, context is a huge piece of understanding the past. When our kids can see, hear, and experience a specific period of time – language, clothing, relationships – there is an emotional connection between then and now. Music and role playing provides a powerful entry point into past place and time.
Fourth, sourcing practice – in a sense, Hamilton is a primary source. It’s how Hamilton is being viewed right now by a particular playwright. So we can have kids source the music, lyrics, and script from Hamilton as they would other primary sources – who’s the author? When was it created? Who is the audience? What is the author’s intent?
The New York Times review provides some additional background:
Yes, it really is that good.
Since it was first staged at the Public Theater this year, this brave new show about America’s founding fathers has been given the kind of worshipful press usually reserved for the appearances of once-in-a-lifetime comets or the births of little royal celebrities.
Washington, Jefferson, Madison — they’re all here, making war and writing constitutions and debating points of economic structure. So are Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette. They wear the clothesyou might expect them to wear in a traditional costume drama, and the big stage they inhabit has been done up to suggest a period-appropriate tavern, where incendiary youth might gather to drink, brawl and plot revolution.
But these guys don’t exactly look like the marble statues of the men they’re portraying. For one thing, they’re black or Hispanic. And when they open their mouths, the words that tumble out are a fervid mix of contemporary street talk, wild and florid declarations of ambition and, oh yes, elegant phrases from momentous political documents you studied in school, like Washington’s Farewell Address.
In temperament, they’re probably a lot closer to the real men who inspired this show than the stately figures of high school history books. Before they were founding fathers, these guys were rebellious sons, moving to a new, fierce, liberating beat that never seemed to let up. “Hamilton” makes us feel the unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born.
It’s this particular interpretation of the past – with modern music and a variety of ethnicities – that I think may resonate the most with your kids. One particular line provides what I think is a great entry point into a lesson or unit:
Hey yo. I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.
And I know that I’m not providing a ton of specific ideas of what this might look like in the classroom. I’ve pasted a variety of sources below that can help support your thoughts on how best to integrate Hamilton’s story into instruction. But resources are on the way.
The Rockefeller Foundation is ponying up $1.5 million to subsidize student tickets and to develop educational materials that will help students contextualize the show. Foundation president, Judith Rodin:
Here’s a story that talks about American history and the ideals of American democracy, and it features an immigrant who is impoverished initially and shows through perseverance and grit what he can achieve, in a vernacular that speaks to young people . . . Could there possibly be a better combination in terms of speaking to students?
Until those tools become available, browse through some Hamilton related materials:
- Hamilton on Broadway: History with a Beat
- Students Will Get Tickets to Hamilton
- Review of the Sound Track
“As much as it’s plainly American history told through the life and times of a singular person, it’s also rap as understood by one Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was born in 1980 and grew up in New York City and went to Wesleyan, with all that man’s nostalgia and associations and vernacular. The songs he wrote for Hamilton are not rap songs. This is musical theater made by someone who knows rap to be all our cultural lingua franca, whose sense of humor is legible to people like us. It is songwriting done within rap’s regulations and limitations. It’s a work of historical fiction that honors the sentiments of rap, a play off collective memory that feels overwhelming personal.”
- 60 Minutes interview with playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and related videos
- You might also be interested in 1776, a much earlier Revolutionary War musical, and some of its lesson plans.
- Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow
- Entry level / higher order literacy questions
- The Stanford History Education Group has a great related lesson on Jefferson and Hamilton.
- Discovering Alexander Hamilton from PBS
- Hamilton Revitalizes Civic Education
- Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made America
- Get the soundtrack with links to iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon
- Go directly to the Spotify playlist
- Download the song lyrics
- Watch the Youtube videos
Several weeks ago, KSDE social studies guru Don Gifford shared some of his thoughts about Alexander Hamilton and literacy:
He wrote himself out of poverty and into the history books.
Don went on to suggest that we need to redefine what writing looks like in our classrooms. I couldn’t agree more. We need to encourage student understanding of past and present. The historical and musical Hamilton is one tool that can help support thinking and writing in non-traditional ways.
I’m very curious to hear your thoughts. What might this look like in your building?