Gina Maurer is a master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an intern at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital.
If you had asked me to tell you about Alexander Hamilton last week, I probably would have given a vague and uninformative answer. He’s on the ten dollar bill. He’s a founding father. My memories of tenth grade history can only take me so far, and I’m not exactly a frequent viewer of the History Channel. But if you ask me now? I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
I know I’m a bit late to the Hamilton bandwagon. My sister had tried to introduce me to the show’s songs last year. I wasn’t not interested, but I also wasn’t taken with it immediately. Last week at the gym, as I scrolled and tapped through Spotify on my phone in search of a good playlist, the show’s soundtrack appeared as a listening suggestion. I played it from the beginning, and let’s just say I had quite literally the longest workout of my life that night. I was captivated by the brilliance of Hamilton’s lyrics. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ability to craft engaging songs out of 18th century history is truly remarkable. The humor of the lyrics is what especially compelled me. I found myself laughing audibly during King George’s songs, only to receive some sideways glances from my fellow Harvard students at the gym. Who said working out couldn’t be fun?
As you can probably tell by my above enthusiastic reaction, I enjoyed listening to the album. But importantly, and perhaps surprisingly, I was also learning. When I came home from the gym that night, I found myself deep into a Google search, trying to learn more about Alexander Hamilton and his story. What came of Lafayette? Did Alexander Hamilton really have an affair, and then publish it in a pamphlet?
After that night, I listened to the album again while walking to class, riding the T, and cooking dinner. Each time I listened, I perceived additional nuances in the lyrics, and appreciated specific references in a way I had not previously considered.
Reflecting back on my newfound interest and curiosity of 18th century history, I realized how this experience of mine truly exemplifies the power of media to teach. As a student in a graduate school of education, I often find myself thinking about how to create environments and content that help children learn. Considering how the Hamilton soundtrack both informed and piqued my interest in history brought to my attention the way in which its influence could be translated to the education field. And what about going beyond historical contexts? Imagine rapping or singing about the quadratic equation. Or about the properties of solids, liquids and gases. But it’s more than simply singing and rapping facts – it’s connecting with the intended audience, relating lyrics to our lives in the 21st century. Lin-Manuel Miranda is not just writing songs about history, he’s composing a societally-relevant story by weaving in subtle cultural nods, humorous allusions, and themes that resonate with his audience. I’m aware that the notion of educating through song and rap has been discussed and even implemented in classrooms, but I’ve personally never encountered learning this way in my own education.
While media has many significant properties, its capability to teach may be its most impactful of them all.
-edited by Sarah Wolfson