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Hamilton is the Broadway success story of the year, maybe the decade. And it’s about to become the hottest item on your 11th grader’s U.S. history syllabus. In classrooms from New York City, where the show packs the Richard Rodgers Theatre nightly, to the West Coast, Hamilton is making educators rethink how they teach early U.S. political history—and making students rethink how much they care.
"I first heard about it the way most of us did—from rapturous reviews," says Jim Cullen. A high school teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, where he chairs the history department, Cullen's interests range from U.S. political history to popular music. (He’s probably the only New York City schoolteacher who’s published a book on Bruce Springsteen.) So when a group of Fieldston middle schoolers and faculty scored a block of tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical about Alexander Hamilton, Cullen tagged along.
He was startled by how much he loved the show. That was in the spring, before Hamilton debuted on Broadway. Then, in his advisory class in the fall, Cullen noticed his students had caught the bug. They blasted the Hamilton cast recording from their phones and devices. “They were singing these songs the way they might sing the latest release from Drake or Adele,” Cullen says. After noticing the Hamilton soundtrack made a dent in the Billboard 200 sales chart, he realized, "This has got tremendous cultural currency."
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So Cullen did the inevitable: He designed an entire course centered on Hamilton (the figure) and Hamilton (the show). He’ll be teaching Hamilton: A Musical Inquiry in the fall. Students will be asked to sift through primary sources like George Washington’s farewell address and show tunes like “One Last Time” and “Washington on Your Side”; one essay assignment is to pick a song from the cast recording and analyze it. And Cullen isn’t the only teacher mining Hamilton fever to get 16-year-olds enthused about the profoundly unsexy details of Revolutionary-era nation-building.
A marquee is lit up on the opening night of "Hamilton" in New York on August 6, 2015. Lucas Jackson/Reuters
For theatergoers, Hamilton has been a revelation. The show has drawn universal acclaim—a New York Times reviewer stopped just short of urging readers to “mortgage their houses and lease their children” for the chance to see it—and tickets routinely go for $400 or more on StubHub and eBay. (No wonder, since it’s sold out at least until September.) Celebrities ranging from David Byrne to the late Alan Rickman have been spotted in the audience; President Barack Obama deemed the show “fabulous.”
But for educators, the play’s success is ripe with untapped teaching potential. Yes, it takes creative liberties—the Founding Fathers didn’t really spit rhymes or use phrases like “John Adams shat the bed”—but the story is historically sound. (“The thing about Hamilton’s life,” Lin-Manuel Miranda tells Newsweek, “is the truth is invariably more interesting than anything I could have made up.”) Historian Ron Chernow (whose 2004 biography of the first secretary of the treasury inspired the script) has praised the musical for capturing Hamilton’s ambition and his obsession with controlling his legacy. And along the way, Hamilton delves deep into U.S. history–friendly issues like the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers and the bitter Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson presidential election of 1800.
“It brings history to the classroom in such an exciting and engaging way,” says Patrick Sprinkle, who teaches U.S. history and public policy at the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies. Sprinkle recently played his students a few tracks from the show, including a back-and-forth between Hamilton and Jefferson. He’s used songs from another Broadway show with a historical spine, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in previous years, and once he schlepped 82 students to see All the Way, which starred Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson. But Hamilton is different, both because it’s fashioned from hip-hop and rap (a genre largely absent on Broadway) and because it casts actors of color to depict, as Miranda put it, “old, dead white men.”
The show ruminates heavily on Hamilton’s status as a West Indies–born bastard child, and the immigration themes have resonated in the year of Donald Trump. “Many of our students are first-generation or second-generation Americans,” Sprinkle says. “The story speaks to them.”
The irony? Miranda, who also plays the title role, wasn’t much of a social studies student in high school. “I basically lived in the English and communications department,” he tells Newsweek. He was a first-generation city kid attending Hunter College High School and then Wesleyan University, where he wrote and directed an early draft of the play In the Heights, which opened on Broadway in 2008. “It’s been kind of amazing to have my social studies teachers reach out.”
Miranda realized Hamilton would be useful for educators years before the show was completed, when he performed what would become its opening number at a White House event in 2009. Since that video surfaced online, “the No. 1 YouTube comment has been, ‘My teacher showed us this in APUSH,’” Miranda says. “I think teachers used just that one clip for the past six years as their intro to Hamilton.”
What he never anticipated was the scope of the Hamilton teaching phenomenon. The playwright has heard from “lots of teachers and educators” about bringing Hamilton into their curriculum. “I get videos from 4-year-olds to college students ... of them performing songs from this show,” he says. “They’re learning songs they like and weirdly learning U.S. history in the process.”
Over the holidays, Miranda received a text about students raising money to buy their social studies teacher tickets to Hamilton for Christmas. “It’s very surreal and beautiful.”
The trend has made its way to the opposite coast. In Los Angeles, Angelica Davila, an eighth-grade teacher and self-professed musical theater nerd, heard the Hamilton songs and immediately began planning an American Revolution unit. Davila works at a small charter school where faculty teach a variety of subjects and 95 percent of students are Hispanic. So she handed out a packet dividing the characters and songs into three categories—political, military and personal—and had them choose one figure on whom to write a five-page biography. “I teach a lower-income Latino population,” she explains. “They're really into hip-hop and R&B—especially ’90s hip-hop—and [Miranda] draws a lot from classic hip-hop. There are Biggie and Tupac references everywhere in the show. My kids were really drawn to that.”
The eighth-graders started requesting Hamilton as background music even when they weren’t working on those projects. When it came time to choose a song to perform in the school’s annual winter concert, they picked Hamilton’s opening number. And though they are young, the kids picked up on the show’s racial inclusivity (Davila made a point of showing YouTube clips and interviews).
“Not only is this the music they love to listen to on their own free time, they're seeing faces that look like theirs telling American history,” Davila says. “It's really challenging for them to relate to American history when their stories are not being told. With this musical and with the casting of the show in particular, they finally have a chance to see themselves in our country's history for the first time.”
The material has been embraced by younger kids as well. “As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to find a way to use it in class,” Molly O'Steen, a fourth-grade teacher at Rodeph Sholom School in Manhattan, tells Newsweek. Though some of the songs aren’t age-appropriate, the kids have latched onto a playful series of songs sung by King George III. “[The class] is a pretty homogenous demographic of 9-year-old Jewish kids,” O’Steen says. “I wasn’t sure how into musicals they were. Or how into rap music. But they really love the music of it.”
Director Spike Lee, right, and rapper Busta Rhymes, second from right, stand in the crowd after watching "Hamilton" on August 6, 2015. Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Most students, thwarted by distance or prohibitive ticket prices, won’t wind up seeing Hamilton on Broadway. There’ll be a movie someday, but not too soon (there are no plans to film the current cast, Miranda says, contrary to a widely spread misquote). A book containing the script and photos from the show is being published in the spring, but that’s hardly the same. Fortunately, educators and benefactors have found ways to bring some lower-income students to see the show in person.
The Rockefeller Foundation in October joined forces with the show’s producers to commit $1.5 million to subsidize tickets for 20,000 New York City students. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has been involved, creating a Hamilton-related curriculum as an online resource.) And a theater teacher at the Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem took a group of more than 100 students to see Hamilton during its off-Broadway run last spring.
"That was the first [show] that didn't make me want to go to sleep when I was in it," says 16-year-old Pedro De Los Angeles, a student at the school. "It just stuck in my head, and I found history interesting. If history class was like that every day, I'm pretty sure the Regents wouldn't be a problem." The student is an actor himself, and Hamilton inspired him to perform in a school production of 9 to 5. "Once I saw Hamilton, I was like, Whoa—a musical is just on a whole 'nother level. I was like, Maybe I should try, even though I can't sing."
The Democracy Prep outing was courtesy of a Theatre Development Fund program, says the teacher who coordinated it, Lisa Kowalski. The students were later assigned to imagine writing their own obituaries, to consider their legacies, as Hamilton does throughout the show. Some of the kids stayed after the show to meet Miranda. (“They’re obsessed, as I am, with his work,” Kowalski says.) One African-American student reportedly told principal Natasha Trivers, “Hamilton made me realize that this is our country too.”
This show has done more than any work of pop culture to bring Alexander Hamilton out of the ivory tower and into the popular consciousness. It’s shown how the founder helped shape and articulate the country’s ideals, and regardless of whether or not it helps kids understand the Federalist Papers, Miranda is happy to be bringing theater to the 11th-grade masses. “The hope is always to expose theater to new audiences,” he says. “It's the oldest thing we got going. If the robots win, if Terminator 2 comes true, if the robots take over, we're still going to tell each other stories in the dark.
“There’s going to be kids who see this show, [and] this will be their first Broadway show,” he adds. “That's just what musicals are going to look like for them. Of course it's a cast full of actors of color. Of course it's music that uses hip-hop and contemporary music but also tells a story. That's just going to be their default experience of what a musical is. That just blows my mind.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of “Hamilton” perform during the Tony Awards show at the Beacon Theatre on June 12 in New York City. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)
The blockbluster Broadway musical “Hamilton” is, for anybody who has been hiding in a cave, about the rise and fall of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who was, among many other things, the first U.S. treasury secretary. The musical’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, based it on history but did not strictly stick to every historical detail, as Joanne B. Freeman, a Hamilton scholar at Yale University, writes here on Slate:
Of course, in transferring that life to the stage, Miranda has taken some liberties for clarity and flow. Time is condensed and historical events are shifted in time; for example, the presidential election of 1800 didn’t lead to the Burr-Hamilton duel, nor did Hamilton’s son Philip fight a duel before that election. Big-name characters take the place of lesser-knowns: Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison didn’t solicit Hamilton’s 1798 adultery confession. Representatives Frederick Muhlenberg, James Monroe, and Abraham Venable did. Some events are invented: John Adams didn’t fire Treasury Secretary Hamilton, who resigned under Washington in 1795, but this invention handily explains Hamilton’s opposition to fellow Federalist Adams’s bid for reelection as president in the election of 1800, highlighted later in the play.
Still, Freeman wrote,
Miranda’s telling of that life contains a remarkable amount of historical fact, even concerning policy debates that hardly seem suited to the Broadway stage, let alone a musical. The creation of a national bank, the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, the “dinner deal” that moved the United States’ capital south: All receive their due in rap battles and ballads. Part of Washington’s Farewell Address is quoted — or rather sung — verbatim. Indeed, quotes from Hamilton’s writings are sprinkled throughout the show. One of the play’s many achievements is its blend of an inclusive present with a historical past that is rooted in fact.
Given that, it is no surprise then that someone would find a way to use the show to help students learn something about U.S. history in an unconventional way. This is a post explaining how “Hamilton’s” creators worked with two nonprofits to do just that — and to challenge them to create their own performances. This was written by Wayne D’Orio, editor-in-chief of Scholastic Administrator magazine, where it first appeared. I have permission to republish.
By Wayne D’Orio
Six years before the play “Hamilton” opened Off-Broadway, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda had a thought: Whenever I finish this play, it will be useful for teachers. That’s because before “Hamilton” won 11 Tonys, before its cast album was streamed 365 million times, before the top ticket prices soared to a record $849, Miranda debuted the show’s first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009. When video of the 4½-minute performance hit YouTube, the No. 1 comment was, “My teacher showed us this in APUSH,” Miranda told Newsweek, using the acronym for AP U.S. History.
Six years later, when the play opened at Manhattan’s Public Theater, one very interested observer made smart use of his second ticket by inviting Lesley S. Herrmann of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. As soon as the play finished, Herrmann turned to the man who invited her, historian and award-winning author Ron Chernow, and said, “We have to get this in the hands of kids.” Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton inspired Miranda to write his play.
Fast-forward to May 2016. Thirteen teams of 11th-graders from around New York City are waiting anxiously in the wings to perform their own two-minute pieces on events or people from the birth of our country. “Welcome to the best day of the year for us here at the Richard Rodgers: EduHam,” says an enthusiastic Miranda as he looks out on a theater packed entirely with high school students. After the student performances, the high-schoolers will see “Hamilton,” culminating their immersion in the life and times of the “10-dollar Founding Father without a father.”
So how did the hottest show on Broadway not only team up with two nonprofits to bring 20,000 11th-graders — one of every four in the city — through the doors of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, but then entice each of them to interpret original documents from the founding of our country and create their own artistic interpretation of a historical moment?
Laying the groundwork
In some ways, this partnership between “Hamilton,” the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Rockefeller Foundation was a whirlwind project, going from idea to fully realized program in less than a year. But in other ways, the seeds of the project were sown much earlier.
Miranda knew firsthand how powerful creating your own artistic project could be to young people; indeed that’s how he got his start in musical theater. He wrote three original songs when he was in eighth grade to help teach classmates the content of “The Chosen,” a coming-of-age story that takes place in Brooklyn in the 1940s. “My first musical I ever wrote was a class assignment,” he revealed to Arrive magazine.
“Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller himself has a history of bringing Broadway to high school students. He created an educational program for the musical “Rent,” his first theatrical success.
And Gilder Lehrman has a long track record of creating history programs that benefit schools. Two-thirds of the students who take AP U.S. History visit the institute’s website, and its total traffic is expected to increase to 10 million visitors this year, up from fewer than 2 million visitors two years ago.
Miranda’s father, Luis Miranda Jr., expressed interest in creating a program for schools, and he and Seller subsequently met last summer with Gilder Lehrman’s director of education, Tim Bailey. Bailey showed them a recent program he had written called “Vietnam in Verse.” The lesson plan used poetry and music from the era to discuss the issues of that period. Seller was impressed: “You’re in,” he told Bailey.
He and Luis Miranda found the money needed for the project, getting the Rockefeller Foundation to put up $1.5 million. The funds helped pay for the curriculum’s creation and subsidize the tickets needed for the 20,000 students. The play offers each seat for $70, basically its cost to run a performance of the play without making a profit. Rockefeller pays $60 while students pony up $10, both a nod to Hamilton and a way to make sure they’re invested in the project.
“Works like this don’t come around very often, and when they do we must make every effort to maximize their reach,” said Judith Rodin, president of the foundation.
“Here’s a story that talks about American history and the ideals of American democracy . . . in a vernacular that speaks to young people, written by a product of New York public education,” Rodin told the New York Times. “Could there possibly be a better combination in terms of speaking to students?”
Creating a student study guide
Bailey started working on the framework of the project in September. He knew he wanted to have students deal directly with primary sources. Gilder Lehrman is the owner of 60,000 documents from American history, and Bailey knew that having students read and respond to these sources, while challenging, was key.
Summarizing key documents and events reduces moments to one story, Bailey says, robbing students of the ability to interpret, and disagree, about both people and history. But Bailey knows that asking students to read documents written more than 200 years ago can lead to lots of eye-rolling. “There’s a fine line you have to watch as a teacher, between good instruction and frustration, and that line is different for every student,” says the former history teacher. “It’s a really complex skill for an educator, but it’s really what you have to aim for.”
Bailey’s study guide has students do a close reading of two documents, loyalist Samuel Seabury’s “Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress” and Hamilton’s “A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress.” The guide instructs students to pick key words from the excerpts, then summarize the readings in the author’s words. For the last part of the lesson, students then restate each excerpt in their own words.
“We have to teach students the skills to unlock those sources,” he adds. “We provide enough structure so that students won’t freak out.”
He also has students mine the two excerpts from Seabury and Hamilton to discern exactly where each line in the song “Farmer Refuted” originated, demonstrating how Miranda went from fact to verse.
While Bailey worked on the classroom materials, others at Gilder Lehrman set up a private website where students can log in and not only see parts of five songs that are performed during the show, but also view nine video interviews created exclusively for them. In the videos, Miranda explains how Hamilton is different from other Founding Fathers, Chernow discusses the artistic license used in historical non-fiction, and actors read from actual documents of the period.
Miranda, handling the actual love letter Hamilton wrote to his not-yet wife Eliza, reads: “You not only employ my mind all day; but you intrude upon my sleep. I meet you in every dream, and when I wake, I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetness.” He looks up and tells students, “This puts whatever R&B song you’re listening to right now to shame.”
“We have amazing access to the show,” Bailey says. “It’s unprecedented.”
The website also features information on 30 different historical figures, ranging from Martha Washington to Hercules Mulligan, the tailor who used his access to British troops to spy for the Patriots. The site highlights 14 key events from the era, as well as 20-plus documents from the Federalist Papers to Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.”
Projects and performances
If the program sounds like a lot of work, it’s actually not, Bailey explains, adding that the whole project is expected to take only two or three classes. Most of the student work, including a suggested three hours of rehearsal, takes place outside the classroom. The program includes an 11-page teacher guide that discusses objectives, procedures, and alignment with four Common Core State Standards. The lesson includes a rubric that guides teachers in how to assess student work.
Students are given wide latitude in what, and how, they perform. They can present a rap, a song, a poem, a monologue, or a scene. And while their performance has to represent the era, they decide which key people, events, or documents to include.
“There are performances that had nothing to do with the shows,” says Bailey. One girl recited poetry about Phyllis Wheatley, a former slave and the first published African American poet, who’s not in the play, and another student reworked the rapper Drake’s “5AM in Toronto” to tell the story of the Boston Massacre. (To see all the student performances from the May show, visit ABC’s Good Morning America.)
In May, students performed as Miranda and Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington in the play, introduced each act and led the cheers. When a student named Reynaldo performed a dramatic rap as Hamilton that ended with his being shot by Aaron Burr, Miranda and Jackson were floored. “Whoa,” Jackson exclaimed. When Miranda recovered, he said, “I look forward to catching that single on iTunes.”
Right now, the educational program is only slated to run in New York for one year. (There have been two all-student matinees so far. The remainder will take place in the fall.) Bailey is confident the program will be approved for another year, and hopes that it can be expanded to other cities where the show is expected to open; Chicago will get a production starting in September, while two touring productions are expected to start in San Francisco in March 2017 and in Seattle in 2018. A London production is expected as well, and running an educational program overseas is certain to elicit different student viewpoints.
The program has reaped praise from high schools all the way to the White House, where the whole project first got started. When the cast came to perform at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in March, President Obama said the soundtrack has become a favorite in his household, and he praised the educational component.
“I’m thrilled they are working with New York public schools. There’s now a curriculum to give students context and a deeper meaning — or deeper understanding of our nation’s founding,” he said. “I hope this helps every teacher who spent hours trying to make the Federalist Papers teenager-friendly. The remarkable life of Alexander Hamilton will show our young people the possibilities within themselves and how much they can achieve within the span of a lifetime.”
For more about “Hamilton’s” high school initiative, listen to Wayne D’Orio on EWA Radio.