New school year. New schedule. What’s not new is my yearly need to scrap almost everything I did previously and try something new. It’s a vicious cycle and one not made any easier by the addition of an infant. As a teacher who delights in making teen slang uncool and engaging learners with unexpected connections to the things they love (like the Fallout: New Vegas easter egg *cough*allusion*cough* depicting Indiana Jones’s skeleton in a refrigerator), I found it hard to keep up with popular culture while measuring my life in late night feedings and dirty diapers. One pop culture phenomenon, however, rose up and revolutionized Broadway–Hamilton: An American Musical.
I gave Hamilton a shot with my on-track sophomores, and believe me it was not an easy sell when I announced that we would be studying a musical. We also had to have “the talk” about why writers use strong language and why this particular language was critical for the authenticity of this reimagining of the Founding Fathers; needless to say, my students didn’t mind the language. While the experience was nowhere near perfect, I found by the conclusion of the unit that my students and I had learned more than we had bargained for. At the end of the school year, I caught a few of my sophomore boys making Hamilton references, and a few remembered the rap battles fondly despite hating them during the unit. If you are willing to give it a shot…
- Annotation – I had students watch the opening number with the lyrics in front of them, and afterward I had them annotate using the usual guidelines. Students were quick to pick out “whore,” and then we got to have a little history/linguistic lesson on how the word has evolved since the 1700’s. Genius.com hosts annotations of the song, many of which were approved or contributed by Lin Manuel Miranda, himself! There are so many possibilities to take this further.
- Allusions – Holy allusions, Batman! This musical is full of them. A careful look at the lyrics will reveal a multitude of allusions from the familiar like Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” to the unfamiliar, such as “What time is it? Showtime!” which is an introduction for the litefeet dancers on the B train into Manhattan.
- Theme – A young man who rises from nothing and struggles through life to get what he wants. Another young man “[lies] in wait” for his turn in the spotlight, only to be dismissed and dishonored. Intense rivalry and jealously ensue. Sound familiar? This musical has thematic depth and merit. It’d be great practice to have students explore big picture, universal ideas in the story and defend their ideas with specific lyrics. This is both engaging and effective scaffolding for formal literary analysis.
- Rap Battles – A model to introduce the activity would be Cabinet Battle #1 & Cabinet Battle #2. Students created graphic organizers to keep track of each character’s argument. They particularly enjoyed when characters got “roasted.” You might consider having students claim notable literary characters — Jack and Ralph anyone? How about Beowulf and Grendel? Juliet versus Poppa Capulet?. Then have students delve into the text to sort out his or her position, craft an argument (read: rap), and spit some verse to battle it out. Students should aim to highlight his or her character’s good qualities and “roast” the nemesis.
There is so much that you can do with Hamilton: An American Musical. Feel like doing character analysis? Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are perfect foils. Want to dive into historical documents? The Federalist Papers would be excellent fodder for close-reading protocols, and The Declaration of Independence would be a great talking point for analyzing “The Schuyler Sisters” or vice versa! Want to prank your students? A strategically placed, handwritten love letter would be great for you to secretly share with the students. Take one of Hamilton’s love letters to his wife and paraphrase it so that it sounds like something the students would write; they will go ham (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself) over Hamilton affectionately calling his wife a nut-brown maid or as I called her, a Cocoa Puff.
Whether you choose to give Hamilton a shot or not, consider trying something new this school year. My students much preferred analyzing lyrics and videos as opposed to classic literature, and while we still do the latter it was fun to make those text-to-text references in the year. This fall, I may not do a full Hamilton unit (unfortunately many of my sophomores have me as juniors in American literature next year), but I will certainly incorporate more media analysis in an attempt to further engage and challenge my students. Somehow we’ll make it, in the words of the Schuyler sisters:
What will you be giving a shot this year? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
And for the complete Hamilton curriculum that inspired this post, be sure to check out Barraug Books and Curriculum.
Kate Harpel teaches English and Mythology at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. She is a West Virginia native, a graduate of the Benedum Collaborative 5-Year Teacher Education Program at West Virginia University, and has been teaching for the past four years. A full time mother to a one-year-old, a full-time wife, and a full-time teacher, Kate spends her elusive free-time in the company of mochas, YA literature, and Netflix.