Eighth-grade history teacher Lois MacMillan makes no secret of her enthusiasm for Alexander Hamilton. She wears a T-shirt that says, “If Hamilton can write 51 essays in six months I can probably make it through the day” — a little-known reference to his prolific Federalist Papers output. She debates fellow teachers about the relative historical significance of Hamilton versus Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. And when the soundtrack for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton came out in September, more than a dozen former students made sure she knew, intuiting that MacMillan, who considers Hamilton her “historical boyfriend,” would adore it.
And she does: After hearing the 46-song soundtrack, she knew instantly that the music needed to find its way into her classroom.
MacMillan isn’t the only teacher to feature the soundtrack from Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mesmerizing hip-hop and rap musical about Alexander Hamilton, in her classroom, though she may be the most decorated and far-flung. An Oregon history teacher of the year in 2006, MacMillan is one of a growing number of intrepid U.S. history teachers, most of whom haven’t set foot in the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street, who are harnessing the Hamilton phenomenon to inspire their students.
“This has just given us a cool factor beyond any means,” said Justin Emrich, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at the Olentangy Berkshire Middle School in Galena, Ohio, who brought Hamilton to his students after seeing a clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda performing at the White House. “They are obsessed with this thing right now,” he said.
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!”