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Lois MacMillan also assigned historical hip-hop raps for her eighth-graders, all of them grounded in historical documents.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!”
We will do well to listen to what teens tell us about music as a common need and a constant presence in their lives. Music is their social glue – a bridge for building acceptance and tolerance for people of different ages and cultural circumstances. –- Patricia Shehan Campbell, Ph.D., NAMM Foundation “Sounds of Learning” research study, 2008
Each year, School Band & Orchestra Magazine conducts a nationwide essay contest for 4th – 12th grade students. Ten students reflected on the 2011 Essay Question:
“How my music teacher has influenced me and my goals in school….”
Music is essential to a complete education, and music teachers show their students that long hours of practice pay off in skills mastery and pride of accomplishment. Studying music teaches children how to face challenges head-on, builds confidence and helps them achieve academic success. And, playing music offers teens joy and respite from difficult life situations.
Students Say: My Music Teacher Encouraged Me and Built My Self-Esteem
Since 2000, under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), educators have recognized the value of art for its own sake. They also acknowledge that arts activities can “enhance children’s self-awareness, self-confidence, and acceptance of others” and can further motivate youngsters, especially those at risk or with learning disabilities, to stay in school.
These students agree:
“My music teachers have taught me that my disability doesn’t matter – only my ability does. I am autistic and . . . they value my perfect pitch, good rhythm, solid percussion technique, and ability to help an ensemble sound great. . . this year I even won 2nd place on timpani statewide. . . Music is how I connect with the world; it’s how I express myself. I now want to major in music performance in college because of the opportunities given to me.” (Ryan, 17, Washington)
“(My band teacher, Mr. Darrell Benjamin, has always given me) upbeat support . . . His encouragements have motivated me to practice more and make progress every day in music, as well as in all my academic subjects. My hard work paid off when I was able to move up to advanced band . . . Mr. B. has reinforced what my parents have always told me to do, which is to put education first, do my very best to hit high notes in my academic studies.” (Widchard, 11, Pennsylvania)
Students Say: My Music Teacher Motivated Me to Excel in All My Subjects
According to a 2006 report by the College Entrance Examination Board, “students of music continue to outperform their non-arts peers on the SAT.”
The experience of these students supports the research:
“My music teacher, Mrs. Zebley) . . . told our class, ‘you are only as good as you want to be, if you practice honestly you will only get better, and maybe even become perfect at some things.’ I ran with this encouragement . . . (and) applied her theory to other subjects. As my ability to play the oboe amplified so did my grades in other classes . . . (and) I found myself with straight “A’s” in all areas. This was a first for me.” (Haunnah, 12, Florida)
“(My music teacher Mr. Berdahl said), ‘Perfection is expected, but excellence is accepted.’ This taught me never to settle for mediocrity, to always strive for the best. With his words of advice in mind, I have since become first chair euphonium in the school’s symphonic band and lead trombone in the school’s top jazz band. Also, I have found myself applying his advice to my academics . . . He has pushed me to become the best student, the best musician, and the best person I can be.” (Caleb, 17, Montana)
Students Say: My Music Teacher Taught Me About Leadership, Teamwork and Self-Discipline
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) defines the arts as a core subject, and the arts play a significant role in children’s development and learning process. The arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers who are confident and able to think creatively. –- U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, 2009
To thrive in the 21st century, our future leaders will need strong character and a diversity of skills. These students are well on their way to becoming responsible world citizens:
“(My music teacher, Mr. Seckla) helped me reach the goal of learning how to play the flute by stressing the importance of practicing to reach your goals . . . After every concert, I feel pride swelling inside me and . . . it reminds me of one of the most significant qualities of playing music: teamwork.” (Emily, 14, New Hampshire)
“(Mr. McHenry, my new band director) never made me feel inferior for not remembering how to play, but instead gave me just the push I needed to achieve my goal. I look upon his example of leadership to know how to lead. He has helped me to become the player that I am today and placed one ultimate goal in my sight: fulfilling the potential that he so often reminds me that I possess.” (Sarah, 17, Tennessee)
“(My band director, Ms. Shemeka Nash) reminds me that I can achieve my goals and that I can make a difference . . . She always encourages me to study in all of my classes. She encourages me to practice so that I am a well-rounded student. Ms. Nash consistently reinforces . . . that WE CAN achieve our goals, we can be productive citizens, we can live good lives and be proud of our accomplishments.” (Adam, 18, Illinois)
Students Say: My Music Teacher Showed Me That Music is Fun, Inspiring and Comforting in Times of Adversity
Studying music and the arts elevates children’s education, expands students’ horizons, and teaches them to appreciate the wonder of life. -– U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, July 1999
Learning to “roll with the punches” and improvise is both a musical and a life skill. Teaching students how to use music to help meet challenges and gain enjoyment has long-lasting impact:
“My teacher, Mr. Scott Backus . . . (is) easy to talk to and is understanding. Most of all, he makes music fun to learn. Mr. Backus’s love for music has influenced me to become a better student and person . . . Mr. Backus has taught me to be prepared with my instrument and music and most importantly with a smile on my face and a positive attitude. I realize music helps us relax and forget about our problems . . . I know I can accomplish anything with hard work, dedication, and practice.” (Briannah, 12, Washington)
“(My high school band teacher, Mr. Ned Smith) . . . constantly demonstrated a pure sense of respect and sensitivity towards music . . . (and) instilled a deep appreciation for the power and beauty of music in all his students. Never before had I recognized the comfort, healing and hope that could be offered through music . . . My love for music has strengthened each year of high school because of Mr. Smith. (Valerie, 17, Connecticut)
And, one very special teacher, who passed away from cancer last year, left his students with an enduring legacy:
“(My band and jazz band teacher Mr. Paul Isaacs) . . . taught me that I could succeed even in a daunting and scary environment if I just practiced and played my heart out. Now, only a year later, I’m playing solos in front of the entire school . . . He taught us to love life no matter what it throws at us, and he always wanted to be teaching us, even at the peak of his illness . . .No storm ever shook that calm, and he never stopped singing. Because of him, neither will I.” (Alex, 13, Minnesota)
Pass It Forward: Be an Advocate for Music Education!
If you are a music teacher, you are on the frontline of advocacy efforts to keep your school’s music programs strong and visible. Teachers, students, parents and other community members can all work together to make a difference:
1. Share these essays in their entirety with parents, students, school board members, school administrators, elected officials, music retailers, and community leaders.
2. Use resources to build a strong music education coalition in your school district; put the SupportMusic Community Action Kit to work today!
3. Write a Letter to the Editor of your local newspaper about why music education must be part of a well-rounded curriculum.
4. Post a link to www.SupportMusic.com on your website & social media (ie, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to build awareness.
5. “Like” the SupportMusic Facebook page and post news about your school music program and your community.
6. Encourage students to attend school board meetings to speak about how music education impacts their lives.
7. NOW MORE THAN EVER….raise your voice about the importance of music education for every child!
Read School Band and Orchestra’s winning student essays – and get information about the 2012 essay contest (beginning September 1, 2011) – at www.sbomagazine.com
-- Debra Bresnan is a communications consultant for SupportMusic.com. She produces web content, newsletters and other written materials for businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org