As a Tuesday morning rolled along, a couple of Delta Middle hallways bustled with activity.
In one spot, a teacher and a student reviewed a research project about British colonization since the 18th century. Nearby, a troop of girls worked out dance steps, and around the corner from them, two classmates hunched over a laptop fine-tuning a video presentation. Meanwhile, a rehearsing singer’s voice warbled from the adjacent auditorium.
It may have looked like different classes, but it was just one — an innovative creation by teachers Leah Mueller and Paul McCormick.
Mueller, a music and drama teacher, and McCormick, a social studies teacher, collaborated this semester on a hybrid course inspired by the hit musical “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Combining social studies and performing arts, their partnership is allowing 27 students to learn about the American Revolution through exploring the history behind the show’s characters and numbers. Students also delve into the history of musical theatre itself while studying our nation’s origins.
The course, McCormick said, has been “a natural fit” between the teachers’ respective areas of expertise, and an effective way of teaching history and civics.
“We can check a bunch of boxes while we teach this class together,” he said. “And we can also check the box of student engagement. It’s not just the content. We have a class that’s just crazy excited for every class.”
Student enthusiasm spurred the idea. Last summer, Mueller listened to the “Hamilton” soundtrack for the first time, joining its legions of fans a bit late. Thinking it didn’t fit her taste in musicals, she hadn’t embraced Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony, Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning show based on historian Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton — until a friend urged her to listen.
“I sat down and listened to it, and I listened to it three times in a row, and I was obsessed,” Mueller recalled. “I thought, ‘This is how we should be teaching history,’ because our kids are wild about the show. So I reached out to Paul and said, ‘Can we make this into a class?’ I just think this is the way to teach about the American Revolution.”
McCormick liked the proposal immediately.
“The engagement was already there,” he said. “Students came back from summer break knowing all the lyrics to ‘Hamilton.’ ”
The course alternates between the teachers, looking at Hamilton’s life and the era through the lenses of musical theatre and history. Units complement each other. For example, Mueller taught the show’s hip hop number “My Shot,” including choreographed dance steps, for a class performance. At the same time, McCormick took four characters in the number — John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan and Aaron Burr — and examined their stories with the class.
“I think for me, as a history teacher, it underscores that history really has to be told through story-telling,” McCormick said, noting that approach hooked the musical’s media fans such as journalist and talk show host Charlie Rose.
“You don’t think of these people as history buffs, but they’re invested because Lin-Manuel Miranda told a great story. And Ron Chernow told a great story. So history teachers have to be able to bring facts from the past alive through stories. What better way to do that than through a musical?”
In designing a class for students with varied interests, talents and performance experience, Mueller and McCormick devised a projects grid to provide choices.
Students can perform a “Hamilton” song and complete a character profile, select a track that details a part of Hamilton’s life and conduct further research, or do the same for a track about his political career and explain how it impacted American history. Another option is to research one of Hamilton’s letters written for George Washington or a Hamilton-penned essay during the ratification of the Constitution as part of the Federalist Papers.
In addition, students can compare “Hamilton” to the musical “1776,” write and perform their own rap tied to the musical or time period, record different performances of a “Hamilton” song to make a video, and do an open project related to the course content. Three projects on the grid must be completed, in “tic-tac-toe” fashion.
It’s a something-for-everyone array that resonates with students Lilly Caldwell and Ellie Hirsch, both “Hamilton” aficionados.
“Paul teaches us more about the history side of it, about Hamilton and how he grew up, and Leah teaches us about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the history of musical theatre,” Caldwell said. “It’s kind of a mix for musical theatre lovers and people who love American history. It’s mixed together. It’s so fun.”
Added Hirsch: “You don’t have to be an expert on ‘Hamilton’ to join this class. There are a lot of people who didn’t know a lot about ‘Hamilton’ but are learning about it and really getting into it. What’s nice about it, it’s a combination of social studies and musical theatre.”
For his first project, Evan Marcinkevage chose the open option and researched British colonization in North America and globally. A musical theatre actor who loves “Hamilton,” he jumped at taking the class.
“It ties into social studies, which is one of my favorite subjects, with theater, which is also one of my favorite subjects,” he said. “It’s a really awesome class, and the projects that you can do are pretty broad topics. I like doing that because I don’t have to be forced into doing one thing.”
Mueller has enjoyed teaching musical theatre history, such as about the seminal musical “Oklahoma,” and connecting it to the class.
“We took a look backwards in musical theatre history,” she said. “We’re able to pool a lot of questions, taking a look at ‘Oklahoma’ and what it means to be an American and how that ties into when [the state] was a territory and becoming part of America. How does that relate to ‘Hamilton’ and how America was forming?”
For his part, McCormick has liked helping his students understand the historical “Hamilton” characters’ motivations — and tossing in civics discussions along the way.
“What did people risk in the American Revolution?” he said. “Kids say they risked their lives. But they also risked doing something far more pedestrian with their lives. [John] Laurens was from privilege. He could have probably copped out of the Revolution and done something far easier.”
Both teachers have learned much themselves, not only about each other’s subjects, but also about their profession.
“At Delta, we get to teach these new classes twice a year, based on student interest,” McCormick said. “It’s the hard way to do things. You’re baking from scratch, but it also keeps you sharp as a teacher. You have to love learning so kids can see you just as excited about something they love, and that can be infectious.”
So far, it has been for Mueller.
“I would have loved to learn history through this way,” she said. “We just need to start turning out musicals about everything, every time period.”
By Chris Rosenblum
Photos by Nabil K. Mark