In this lesson, students will explore how history is “written,” and how our understanding of the past informs our choices and beliefs in the present. By analyzing the music of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical and using the tools of historiography, students will consider how race, gender, class, and place shape historical narratives and our own relationship with our past. During the lesson, students will be introduced to the MacArthur Fellowship Program and view interviews with Fellowship recipients who are investigating, challenging, and documenting history. At the end of the lesson the students will become the storytellers. Using the Hamilton musical and the MacArthur Fellows as inspiration, they will create a unique creative work or presentation that shines a light on an individual or event from history.
90-120 minutes + Assignments (Approximately two to three 45-minute class periods)
- Examine how history is written and how our understanding of the past informs our choices and beliefs in the present
- Discuss how factors, such as race, gender, class, and place, shape historical narratives and our relationship with our past
- Define “historiography”
- Compare/contrast the work of MacArthur Fellowship recipients who are revealing hidden histories and challenging what we think we know about the past
- Analyze the themes in, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” from Hamilton: An American Musical and discuss how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s personal experiences inform his understanding of Hamilton’s life
- Create a presentation, performance piece, artwork, etc. that shines a light on a part of history that has been underrepresented or misunderstood
- Compose an Artist Statement that describes their project and demonstrates an understanding of the concepts and themes from this lesson
Prep for Teachers
Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:
- Familiarize yourself with the MacArthur Fellows Program Overview video and MacArthur Fellows Program handout
- Obtain a copy of the song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” from Hamilton: The Musical, download the lyrics from the link provided and prepare printouts (or project the lyrics during the activity)
- Select and view the MacArthur Fellows interview videos you will be using with this lesson
- Print out copies of the Student Handouts
- Prepare the multimedia projector for Learning Activities 1, 2 & 3
- The MacArthur Fellows Program Overview video
- MacArthur Fellows interview videos:
Videos for use with Learning Activity 1 (Show the interview with historian Tiya Miles, then select 1-2 additional videos to screen for the class):
- Tiya Miles: Public Historian reframing and reinterpreting the history of our diverse nation in works that illuminate the complex interrelationships between African and Cherokee peoples in colonial America
- Robin Fleming: Medieval Historian drawing on archaeological and textual sources to provide fresh insight into the social, economic, and cultural lives of inhabitants of late Roman and medieval Britain
- Laura Poitras: Documentary Filmmaker revealing the consequences of military conflict abroad in illuminating documentaries that portray the lives and intimate experiences of families and communities largely inaccessible to the American media
- Jerry Mitchell: Investigative Reporter with the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger whose courageous efforts have ensured that unpunished murders from the Civil Rights era are finally prosecuted
- Joshua Oppenhiemer: Documentary Filmmaker illuminating the social, psychological, and emotional dimensions of controversial subjects, such as state-sponsored violence, in works that challenge the modern aesthetic of contemporary documentary cinema in both intimacy of focus and visual construct
- Julie Livingston: Public Health Historian and Anthropologist combining archival research and ethnographic observation to illuminate largely ignored crises of care in both the developing and developed world
Video for use with Learning Activity 2:
- Lin-Manuel Miranda: Actor, playwright, composer, and performer expanding the conventions of musical theater with a popular culture sensibility and musical styles and voices that reflect the diverse cultural panorama of the American urban experience, most notably in Hamilton: An American Musical
Videos for additional lesson plan support, as needed:
- Jessie Little Doe Baird: Indigenous language preservationist who founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, an intertribal effort that aims to return fluency to the Wampanoag Nation
- Shannon Lee Dawdy: Anthropologist combining archaeological scholarship with historic preservation to reveal the dynamics of intellectual and social life in New Orleans from its establishment as a French colony to the present day
- Marina Rustow: Historian mining textual materials from the Cairo Geniza to deepen our understanding of medieval Muslim and Jewish communities.
- Tarell Alvin McCraney: Playwright evoking a sense of our shared humanity in works that explore the diversity of the African American experience and imbue the lives of ordinary people with epic significance
- Dylan C. Penningroth: Historian unearthing evidence from widely scattered archives to shed light on shifting concepts of property ownership and kinship among African American slaves and their descendants following emancipation
- Tara Zahra: Historian of Modern Europe combining extensive archival research with broad socio-historical analysis of notions of nation, family, and ethnicity to construct an integrative, transnational understanding of events in 20th-century Europe
- Peter Hessler: Long-Form Journalist crafting keenly observed accounts of ordinary people responding to the complexities of life in such rapidly changing societies as Reform Era China
- MacArthur Fellows Program Handout
- Handout 1: Who Writes History?
- Handout 2: Examining History
- Handout 3: Hamilton: An American Musical
- Handout 4: You Tell the Story
- Lyrics: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” from Hamilton: An American Musical (official PDF of lyrics from the original Broadway cast recording):
- Song: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” from Hamilton: An American Musical The song is available on several streaming services and can be purchased through the official website
Equipment and Supplies:
- Computers with Internet access
- LCD projector
- Whiteboard/ blackboard, markers/chalk
- Pens/pencils and writing paper
- White butcher paper (Kraft Paper)
- The MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program: Official website for The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
- Hamilton: An American Musical: Official website for the original Broadway cast recording
Historiography: The study of the writing of history and of written histories
Artistic license: The freedom to create an artwork, musical work, or piece of writing based on the artist's interpretation and mainly for effect
Introductory Activity: Who tells the story? (20 minutes)
- Do Now: “Wraparound” write and respond to the question “Who writes history?”
- Give students a minute or two to write a one-sentence response.
- Have students share their responses. To keep the activity moving swiftly and independently, have students share their response one at a time in the order that they are seated. (Students should keep their responses brief. Let them know that they can ask questions and add details after the Wraparound is completed and throughout the lesson.)
- Were there similarities in the responses?
- What do our responses suggest about our perception of “history”?
- Have students pair-up and read Student Handout 1: Who Writes History?
- Ask students to think about the question: “What factors might influence how a historian, biographer, or documentarian interprets or reports about an era or event from the past?”
- Have them share and discuss their response with their partner
- Ask for volunteers to share their thoughts and responses with the class
- In what ways does our understanding of the past affect our choices and beliefs in the present?
- What does it mean to be an active and critical audience?
- How would you describe Historiography in your own words?
- How can we be Historiographers in our own lives? (How can we respond critically to historical narratives in textbooks, in television shows/movies, in literature, when watching the news, etc.?)
Learning Activity 1: Meet the MacArthur Fellows: History through a New Lens (20 minutes)
- Explain that the class will view interviews with The MacArthur Fellows Program award recipients.
- Introduce the MacArthur Fellows Program Overview by distributing copies or asking for volunteers to read it aloud.
- Distribute Handout 2: Examining History and review with the class. Play the interview with historian Tiya Miles and select an additional 1-2 videos that resonate with your current curriculum and class goals. Instruct students to take notes using the prompts in the handouts.
- Tiya Miles, Public Historian
Select additional videos:
- Review the students’ responses and discuss:
- What was your response to the Fellows’ stories? What surprised you?
- What are the similarities and differences in the Fellows’ work?
- Why were they inspired to research and investigate their topics?
- According to the Fellows, why is it important to understand and value our history?
- Why are they challenging existing historical narratives? (What are some examples from their interviews?)
- As we learned, the study of historians and the way history is written is called historiography. What are some examples of historiography in the Fellows’ work?
- How does their work address some of the issues we raised in our earlier discussion?
- According to the Fellows, in what ways does our perception of the past shape our understanding of our world and ourselves today?
Learning Activity 2: Why History Matters (15 minutes)
- Explain and discuss:
In her interview, MacArthur Fellow and Historian Tiya Miles says, “I think that history matters so much to who we are as individuals, as communities, as a nation, as a global community. And I feel that it’s just so important to bring the meaningful stories of the past into the present…and to allow people to engage with them and to connect them back to their own lives…”
- What do you think Miles meant by this?
- We have talked about the ways that historical narratives are shaped, but—beyond our history classes and textbooks—what are some ways that we connect with historical narratives in our daily lives? What are some examples of how we bring “meaningful stories of the past into the present”? (Examples: museums, historical fiction, television, films, comic books, historical reenactments, music, visual arts, etc.)
- What are some ways that we can engage with historical narratives—from our community, family, world history, etc.—and connect them back to our own modern experiences?
- Explain that the class will explore an example of a contemporary artist who is connecting historical narratives to modern themes through his work. They will watch an interview with MacArthur Fellow Lin-Manuel Miranda as he talks about his creative process and the inspiration for his Broadway play Hamilton: An American Musical. Then they will listen to and analyze the lyrics from a song from the cast album: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
- Ask if anyone from the class has heard of the musical Hamilton. Where did they hear about it? Have they seen the show or heard the cast album?
- Ask for a volunteer to summarize the story of the musical for the class. Use the following summary to support and enhance the students’ description as needed:
Hamilton: An American Musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan from the Caribbean who used his intelligence and talent to write his way out of poverty and to become a Revolutionary War hero and the first Secretary of the Treasury for the United States. Hamilton is unique for its portrayal of Revolutionary era figures by a racially diverse cast and for using modern music and hip-hop to tell the story of the United States’ lesser-known founding father.
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music, lyrics, and story, for the musical, and starred in the role of Alexander Hamilton on Broadway. Miranda based the musical on the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, by historian Ron Chernow and describes his production as, “the story of America then, told by America now.” Although the musical is based on true events and Chernow’s historical research, Miranda is clear that he used “dramatic license” in his re-telling of Hamilton’s life, work, relationships, and notorious death in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr.
- Play the interview with 2015 MacArthur Fellow Lin-Manuel Miranda and discuss using the following prompts:
- How did Lin-Manuel Miranda learn about Alexander Hamilton’s life?
- Why did Miranda choose to tell Hamilton’s story?
- How do Miranda’s personal experiences, interests, and values inform his understanding of Hamilton’s life? (What parallels did he draw between Hamilton’s story and his own experiences?)
- According to Miranda how is his point-of-view reflected in the musical’s themes?
- Miranda says, “Hip-hop is uniquely suited to tell [Hamilton’s] story…” What does he mean by this? Do you agree? Why or why not?
- “This is the story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.” What strategies did Miranda use to bridge that distance? How do you feel about his artistic choices?
- How does Miranda’s personal experience influence the way he tells Hamilton’s story? According to the interview, what aspects of Hamilton’s life does he highlight? In his view, why are these themes still relevant today?
- What are the pros and cons of reinterpreting historical events and characters in artistic media? (Examples - Pro: The story can reach a broader audience, Con: Fictionalized elements of the story are mistaken for fact, etc.)
Learning Activity 3: A story about America then, told by America now (20 minutes)
- Organize students into small groups and distribute one copy of Handout 3: Hamilton: An American Musical and the lyrics for “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” to each group. (To save paper, use a multimedia projector or display the lyrics on computers/tablets.)
- Explain that students will work together to discuss and analyze the lyrics using the questions from Handout 3.
- Ask a volunteer from each group to share their responses. Each group should lead a brief discussion based on one of their own questions. The other groups should be actively listening and providing constructive feedback.
You tell the story (15 minutes + Assignment)
- Explain that the class will use the Hamilton musical and the MacArthur Fellows as inspiration to create a presentation that shines a light on an individual, event, or era from history.
(Note: In his interview, Lin-Manuel Miranda says, “I’m lucky, I get to fall in love for a living.” If possible, students should also be encouraged to develop and present their work through a medium that resonates with them. Examples can include hip-hop, visual art, poetry, music, slideshow/multimedia presentation, dance, a skit, etc.)
- Have students select their topics with a focus on subjects from their current curriculum. Students can work individually or in small groups during the research stage and can also collaborate on the presentation.
- When students have completed the project, they should write an Artist Statement—a one-page essay detailing why they chose this topic, what they learned, and what they hope the audience will take away from their presentation. Guiding questions are provided in Student Handout 4: Artist Statement.
- Today in the Future
Ask students to imagine that they are historians from the future and have them use critical reading tools to examine evidence, artifacts, documentation, correspondence, and oral histories from today to tell our story to future generations. Students should also explore how history is presented today (textbooks, artwork, museums, documentaries, etc.) and incorporate their research into a creative presentation using one or more of these media (and/or imagine what media might be available in the future).
- What will our story look like centuries from now?
- Whose stories will be told?
- How will this era be defined?
- How will our social media and mass media footprint shape how we are memorialized? What will people remember (or forget) about who we are and how we lived?
- Going Deeper - History as a Weapon
How is history used as a political tool? Have students research examples of social/political groups who have attempted to erase and or rewrite their own or another’s history. How has history be used as a political tool or as a weapon? What were/are the motivations and consequences for using historical narratives in this way? What role can historiography play in responding to biased historical narratives?
Have students select a historical event/era/individual from your current curriculum and imagine how the historical narrative surrounding their subject could be altered or rewritten to support a range of social and political biases and goals. Have students work in groups to develop their own Historiography Protocol to analyze historical narratives.
- Hamilton Past and Present
Lin-Manuel Miranda explains that he was surprised that so many of the issues debated by politicians in the 18th century are still surprisingly relevant today. Have students identify political issues from a past era that have parallels in modern day America. Using Hamilton as inspiration, have each student select and research an issue and a prominent figure from the past who was working to address that problem. Students should imagine that their subjects are alive today, and using their research, debate the modern issue by playing the role of their historical figure and using their perspectives and arguments.