By Ramona Martinez
Hamilton the musical is a phenomenon, but you probably already knew that – especially if you are a young person, or have kids.
Young people (many of whom haven’t seen the Broadway show) are really taken with the two-and-a-half hour, 46-song soundtrack. They roam the hallways of schools singing every single word. And teachers have noticed. Many are harnessing this enthusiasm, and using Hamilton to enrich their history curriculums.
We asked some of those teachers to comment on our website and had the pleasure of speaking to some students as well. (Thanks to everyone who offered their thoughts on our “In The Works” page for this episode!)
Student-composed raps from primary historical documents have become staples in history classrooms across the country, spurred in part by the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s Hamilton Education Program. This great article by Linda Flanagan for KQED lead us to a lot of our guests for the audio piece & this blog post.
Here are the two videos that Flanagan featured in her article, which came to her from South Middle School in Grants Pass, Oregon:
‘SMS Knox’ written by Anna Macey, Sarah Sturley, Jesse Burman, and Makenna Cubic from Lois MacMillan’s 8th Grade History Class.
This rap about Henry Knox, the first U.S. Secretary of War, was written while students were reading David McCullough’s 1776. Anna Macey said most of their information came from a letter that Henry Knox wrote to George Washington in December of 1775, detailing how Knox dragged 59 cannons & mortars from the recently captured Ft. Ticonderoga to the siege of Boston.
The student composed raps are so popular that students in Lois MacMillan’s eighth-grade history class now write them for almost every period they study.
“I love how Hamilton is bringing this whole new life to history,” Macey says, “a lot of people see it as something that isn’t very relevant, but it compares so well with what’s going on today.
Referring to the musical’s famous Cabinet Battles between Hamilton & Jefferson, Macey says “They’re showing how these politicians have so many conflicts and views, and they’re arguing over these real issues. It compares a lot to how politicians argue today, but it makes it much easier to understand through the flow of music and rhyme.”
‘Joseph Plumb Martin’ written by Kregg Scarcello’s Second Period history class also from South Middle School in Grants Pass, Oregon
This rap was based on excerpts from A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin, a memoir of a Continental Army soldier during the American Revolution.
After listening to “Rappers Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, and “New York State of Mind“ by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys as examples, students found their own beats. Broken up into groups, the students drafted four verses relating to adventure, danger, suffering, and enlistment. Each group listed important facts, dates, and terms to include in the rap, and then created rhyming couples for each fact. The class then came together as a whole to write the chorus.
“We want to emphasize that we found that students were intrinsically motivated to revisit the primary source text over and over again in order to get the rap to work,” said their teacher, Kregg Scarcello.
“It is EXACTLY what we want the kids to do. The analysis happened effortlessly, yet with great intensity. The students discussed meaning behind the text in a very natural way.”
Students from Millennium Brooklyn High School in New York City perform raps about the Early Republic Era.
Andrea Moverman, a history teacher at Millennium Brooklyn High School in New York, said she used the Cabinet Battle scene from Hamilton to launch a project about the early republic era.
Students created their own rap battles to present two sides of a political debate. They covered topics including the War of 1812, relations with Native Americans, the Marshall Court, Henry Clay’s American System, and the Age of Jackson.
“My students absolutely loved the song from the musical and ran with it. They turned these otherwise dry subjects into engaging, educational, and entertaining songs,” Moverman told us.
Students from McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, New Jersey perform raps highlighting the political differences between Thomas Jefferson & Alexander Hamilton.
Many teachers we spoke to said that students typically viewed the revolutionary and early republican era as arcane, overly-philosophical, and boring.
History teacher Laura Siegel from McNair Academic High School says that before Hamilton, students had trouble keep the Federalists straight from the Democratic Republicans. But not this year.
“They engaged with the revolutionary era in a completely new way,” Siegel says, “I think it was because [in Hamilton] the founding fathers were depicted as multi-racial, much more similar to the kids I teach.”
Student Akyla Butt says the musical turned unrelatable, dead white men into living, breathing heroes, that kids could identify with.
“We’re able to imagine someone who’s not the stereotype of a powerful figure in American history and that’s why it’s so great that Hamilton has a diverse cast.”
Students from Justin Emrich’s class at Olentangy Berkshire Middle School in Galena, Ohio perform The Schuyler Sisters, one of many numbers from Hamilton that they’ve memorized
In addition to inspiring students of color, the musical is opening the eyes of white students who are used to seeing a cast that looks like them.
Kristen Lillemoen, a rising ninth-grader from Galena, Ohio, pointed out, “I’m pretty sure if any of us had written a musical about history, we wouldn’t be so inclusive. But Hamilton taught me that history isn’t only what’s written, it’s what you make of it.”
For more on Alexander Hamilton, take a listen to “Hamilton: A History.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist