Distance learning: Middle School Resources for Exploring Hamilton Together from Home

Image via BroadwayDirect.com

We’re six weeks into the 2020-2021 school year, and the charm is starting to wear off a bit. Maybe you’re feeling it, too?

August, in all of its uncertainty and whirlwind, felt a bit like the pandemic’s beginnings in March. New and scary, with lots of questions, but a heightened sense of togetherness. We can do it! If we work together, anything is possible! Change is good! But now, tumbling through October, things are wearing a little thin. In person Covid protocols are getting harder and harder to enforce; teaching outdoors is getting a little less kumbaya and a little more Lord of the Flies; and the stress of concurrent/hybrid teaching is really starting to show. We’re all frazzled, scared, and worn out.

And this goes for the kids, too. What felt like a new adventure to them at the start of the school year has become a grind, no matter where they’re learning. Just like the honeymoon fades at the beginning of every school year, masks and distancing and virtual classes aren’t a new challenge anymore. Connecting with peers in-person or online, which was so welcome after a strange and lonely summer, has taken a backseat to academic anxiety and internet issues. Kids learning from home miss their friends. Kids learning at school are sick of staying in their bubble. It’s a struggle from all sides.

You might remember that I started a new job this year – my first foray outside of the classroom. I love the ever-changing challenge of this job, and I’m so grateful to have landed here. While there is no “routine” to settle into (this is 2020, after all), there are a few anchors that I know will be the same day-to-day, and my favorite is lunch. Our little learn from home cohort connects virtually for lunch each day, and it’s a time full of riddles, logic puzzles, venting, joking, and asking, “I’m feeling/experiencing this – how about you?” I love watching them normalize this weirdness in ways that only tweens could. For those of us learning or teaching alone in our homes, this connection time is an important and joyful part of the day. It’s wonderful to see each other and engage.

But let’s be real – after six weeks, those lunches have started to lose their luster, too. I’m just not interesting enough to keep kids entertained every single day in the same way that a class full of their peers could. So when a middle schooler jokingly pitched the idea of themed lunches, I jumped at the chance to bring some excitement and extra fun to our social time. Our first theme was requested by overwhelming demand – and that’s how last week become Hamilton week in middle school lunch group. As a huge fan of the show myself, I was all for it! And I loved watching the excitement in the group as the idea started to take shape.

Here’s some background info that might be helpful:

  • Our lunch group meets every week day for 30 minutes.
  • Virtual lunch is always optional, and we don’t always have the same crowd every day. We generally have a core group of 5-7 students and myself.
  • I do meet with students in K-3 and 4-5 for lunch, as well, but Hamilton week was just for middle school (grades 6-8).
  • I gave middle school parents and students a heads-up before the week started so any Hamil-fans could be sure to tune in, and any families that wanted to opt out had advanced warning.
  • Our students have school-issued Chromebooks and headphones, which means that they have the choice to tune in without having to borrow a device or share all the noise with everyone at home.
  • All videos and activities were shared over a Google Meet.
  • While kids wanted to stream the show from Disney+ in 30-minute chunks over the course of the week, we nixed that idea in order to model proper respect for copyright law.
  • To keep things legal (and interesting), I instead collected resources made available for free online and used them to plan a week’s worth of fun.
  • And finally, These kids work crazy hard in their academic classes for 8+ hours every day, so this was not at all designed to be academic. Lunch time is a fun social break for them, and I wanted to really focus on the fun.

A few resources that we loved during our Hamilton week:

Making our own music using “at-home instruments”, inspired by the Hamilton cast, Jimmy Fallon, and The Roots

It’s a challenge to get middle schoolers to loosen up and just be kids, especially in the middle of an intense school day. But I guess there’s just something about a grown woman playing the lobster-bottle-opener-pot-lid that teens find deeply inspiring. Once I started drumming and singing myself, the rest of the group joined in – either playing along or watching in equal parts horror and delight. By the end, everyone was laughing and singing, so I call this one a success!

Laughing ourselves silly at the Hamilton Polka

A student suggested this video halfway through the week, and it made us all laugh so hard we nearly cried. If you’re an educator, you’re probably old enough to remember the 90’s glory of Weird Al Yankovic. To my delight, he’s still making magic! The 8th grader that supplied this video made my whole week. I’d save this one for later in your week/unit/theme, as it’s the most effective once the whole group is familiar enough with the original music to understand why recreating the score with polka is so darn funny.

Reminiscing with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first public performance of Alexander Hamilton at the White House Poetry Jam, May 2009

Of all of the videos that we shared, this one may have been the best conversation starter. My students couldn’t believe all of the differences they spotted, from Miranda’s youthful glow (Why do you think he looks so much older now? Do you think it’s easy to make and share art? Does being rich and famous make life better or worse?) to musical structure (What differences do you notice between this draft and the final cast recording of the show? Why do you think Miranda changed the music the way that he did? Which version do you prefer?). A particularly insightful student commented on the many ways that Hamilton has had an impact, which got us all wondering how much of this 2009 Lin-Manuel Miranda could have predicted. I loved the way they put themselves into his shoes in this performance and talked about what it would feel like to share something that you’d worked so hard on for so long and felt so passionately with a room full of some of the country’s most powerful and influential people. I’m constantly looking for ways to push kids to see things from a different perspective and put themselves into someone else’s shoes, and this video provides a wonderful opportunity to do that.

Peeking behind the scenes with Hamilton Backstage

This quick video from Forbes goes behind the scenes with Okierete Onaodowan and Anthony Ramos, two Hamilton stars that our group didn’t know much about. Our group was totally enthralled with seeing into the dressing rooms and theater, since most of us had only experienced the show via a streaming service. They loved hearing about how Anthony stumbled into musical theater, and sighed in unison when Okierete talked about how much he appreciates the show’s fans and shared his favorite fan art. Another cool conversation starter, as we talked about what it would be like to be a part of such a huge cultural phenomenon at such a young age. One thing to keep in mind – this video has a couple of curse words in it, so know your audience before you press play!

Hosting our own duel over Hamilton’s 10 best tunes

Want to get a group of tweens thoroughly riled up? Tell them to list their 10 favorite Hamilton songs, then play a video that says they’re all wrong. From there, you can pretty much sit back and enjoy the fireworks. We each created our own personal top 10 lists – fair warning, this process was much longer and more involved than I anticipated – and shared them in the chat. Then, we tuned in together to see the top 10 as decided by this video by MsMojo. While I don’t agree with their top 10 selection – any list that leaves Satisfied off is inexcusable, as far as I’m concerned – I do love the tidbits and facts about Miranda’s musical inspirations, and ways that his love of pop music are weaved into the infamous songs. By the time the video drew to a close, my group was beside themselves with arguments about all of the fabulous songs that had been criminally ignored. I had to kick them off of the call to send them to their afternoon classes! If you don’t mind playing referee to some angrily rapping tweens, this one is totally worth it.

Other links and games:

Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Zoom Performance “Alexander Hamilton” – My group had all seen this video already as a part of John Krasinki’s viral series, Some Good News. But if you haven’t seen it yet, the video is so much fun and a great example of the way the show has sparked a new love of history and theater in young people.

Time Zone X Alexander Hamilton BrainPop Interactive Timeline Game – For the group that knows everything there is to know about the musical, this quiz about Hamilton’s life and accomplishments – some of which are not a major part of the show – is a fun challenge. Putting the Hamilton timeline in the right order was super challenging for me when I previewed it before sharing, but my students completed it effortlessly. If you finish the Hamilton timeline, you have the opportunity to add in other subjects, like the American Revolution, political party origins, or the Articles of Confederation. Although this is a BrainPop resource, we were able to play together without having BrainPop account.

Hamilton Complete the Lyrics QuizLife – There are tons of Hamilton complete-the-lyrics quizzes out there, and I really thought that I had found the toughest one. I was sure that this 48-question quiz would stump my Hamilton lovers, and I was 100% wrong. As in… they effortlessly got 100% on the quiz, and easily ran laps around me. I put the quiz up on my screen, shared my screen with the group, and made sure we had a majority vote before clicking any answers. Every new question came with a burst of singing, drumming, and yelling. It was tons of fun, and they unbelievably finished it within 20 minutes!

Can You Guess the “Hamilton” song based on these emojis? – My group loved guessing the titles of the songs based on these emoji stories that Buzzfeed created, but my hope to have them create their own Hamilton emoji stories fell totally flat. I saw that theme a lot – we were very into the quizzes and the videos, but needed a major push to create anything ourselves. It may have been because of time constraints, or the difficulty of finding and sharing emojis on a Chromebook keyboard. Next time, I’ll plan to introduce this at the end of one lunch and give them the job of making their own emoji challenge overnight, kicking off lunch the next day with sharing and guessing.

Song Exploder: Lin-Manuel Miranda – Wait for It – If you have a little more time (and an older group that doesn’t mind some cursing), this 28 minute deep dive into Aaron Burr’s quintessential theme Wait For It is truly awesome. I love the way host Hrishikesh Hirway takes the song apart, layer by layer, and showcases some of the tiny details that make it exceptional. Lin-Manuel Miranda calls Wait for It the best song he’s ever written, and it so cool to hear Miranda talk about his inspiration and writing process. Plus, you can’t help but catch some of his geeky excitement as he rocks out listening to the song for what is probably the millionth time.

Middle School Resources from Teaching History with Hamilton – If you’re looking to go a more academic route, these lessons from Teaching History with Hamilton designed for grades 6-9 look stellar.

Have you ever shared Hamilton with your classes?
Are your students nuts about this show, like mine are?
What kind of activities are you doing to make school feel fun and exciting in 2020?

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