Hamilton-Inspired Treatise on Teaching
February 9, 2017
It started on a road trip when my oldest daughter said, “just listen to this one song.” It culminated with my whole family going to see the musical in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. And it continues now in that most of my waking thoughts have now been replaced with Hamilton lyrics. If you’ve missed the buzz, Hamilton: An American Musical is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s retelling of our nation’s “10-dollar founding father,” Alexander Hamilton. A multi-racial cast combines catchy show tunes and intricate rap rhymes to depict our nation’s tenuous beginnings, and the show has met unparalleled success.
Offering a current rendition of this nearly 250-year-old story has compelled a whole new generation of young people to take interest in a subject they previously considered dry and unimaginative. May it now also offer an inspired approach to your teaching.
1. “I’m just like my country—I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.” –Hamilton, “My Shot”
Today’s students are often lacking the drive and sense of urgency that drove groundbreakers like Hamilton. What are you doing to instill ambition in your students? Don’t simply ask, “Do you understand?” but rather, say, “How can you use this learning to make the world a better place?” Shun complacency in your classroom, and celebrate determination, spirit, and the articulation of lofty goals.
2. “I may not live to see our glory, but I will gladly join the flight. And when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.” –Hamilton, “The Story of Tonight”
The upside of being a teacher is that you have the opportunity to make a tremendous impact on the lives of your students. The downside is that you may never know the reach of that impact. But just because you may never know how your seeds will take root, it doesn’t mean you can’t be purposeful about their planting. What story would you like your students to tell? How can this year be the year they’ll tell stories about for years to come.
3. “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive. Drop the niceties.” –Hamilton, “A Farmer Refuted”
Be supportive and kind, but don’t shy away from giving students clear and honest feedback. Be constructive with critiques and offer frequent and timely opinions. When you present students with challenges that seem insurmountable, don’t turn around and give them the answers the minute they struggle. Stand firm in helping them develop persistence; be ready to guide them when they fail. You’re not there to make them feel nice, you’re there to make them learn.
4. “I am the one thing in life I can control. I am inimitable, I am an original.” –Burr, “Wait for It”
Your secret weapon as a teacher is your authenticity. They can get content from Google. They can get entertainment from Netflix. What is it that you and only you can give them? How do you help them make their learning relevant and make sense of the world around them? What is the one thing that your students would miss about you if they never saw you again? Do more of that.
5. “I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!” –King George, “You’ll Be Back”
Don’t underestimate the role of humor in connecting with your students and engaging them in your content. Despite it’s weighty content, I dare you to listen to this song and not chuckle. Use humor—be self-deprecating, be silly, be witty, whatever style of humor you wear comfortably, but do use it. Turn your lesson into improv, apply personification to inanimate objects (like in this song, a break-up letter between England and the colonies). Be daring, be creative, be audacious. If you can make them laugh, you can make them learn.
6. I have never agreed with Jefferson once. We have fought on like seventy-five fronts. But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.” –Hamilton, “The Election of 1800”
Whatever you are, don’t be indifferent. Stand for something. Show your students that trying to please everyone, to morph what you believe based on who surrounds you, will not win you favor. Hamilton cast the deciding vote between presidential candidates Burr and Jefferson. He voted for his long-time rival , Jefferson, not because he agreed with his ideas, but because he had them. Aim to be respected more than liked. Know yourself, love yourself, and you’ll always be in good company.
7. “Don’t modulate the key then not debate with me.” –Hamilton, “Farmer Refuted”
Keep your eyes on what it is students need to know and be able to do. Don’t be distracted by any attempts to avoid learning. They didn’t do the assignment? If you give them a zero, they get away with not learning. Not learning is not an option. They didn’t pass the assignment? If you don’t let allow re-dos and retakes, you are saying to them, “it’s okay with me that you don’t master this content.” It’s not okay. Not learning is not an option. The real world is full of re-dos and retakes (bar exams, pilot licenses, just to name a few). What is the real world not full of? Handouts for those that don’t persist toward their goals.
8. “You’re on your own. Awesome…wow! Do you have a clue what happens now?” –King George, “What Comes Next”
Freed from England, the leaders of the newly formed United States were left to govern on their own. But they weren’t actually alone. They collaborated and debated with one another to bring a more perfect union into being. As teachers, we can be tempted to shut our classroom doors and tackle the weight of the job solely on our shoulders. Don’t. Join a personal learning network. Seek fellow educators in your building, on Twitter, in education forums. Share ideas, frustrations, and encouragements. You have the most important job in the world, so don’t subject it to burnout, resentment, or indifference. Protect it with an inspiring and informative cohort of teachers you trust.
9. “Talk less…Smile more.” –Burr, “Aaron Burr, Sir”
Students do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. Notice them. Call them by name. Know what makes them special, and let them know you see greatness in their future. They often rise to the expectations you set for them, so set expectations high, higher than they can dream. Greet them warmly and listen to them. You might be the only person that smiles at them all day.
10. “I am not throwing away my shot.” –Hamilton, “My Shot”
You are presented with a most distinguished opportunity—to prepare the next generation of citizens to make the world a better place. Don’t throw away your shot.
Who could have imagined a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton would capture the hearts of millions of fans and have teenagers reaching out to read the Federalist Papers? Maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda, but then again, maybe not. We don’t know where our dreams will take us. But they won’t take us anywhere if we don’t see them through. Let’s get going!
Miranda, Lin-Manuel, Christopher Jackson, Jonathan Groff, Leslie Odom, Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Thayne Jasperson, Jon Rua, Sydney James Harcourt, and Ron Chernow. Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording. 2016.