Monthly Archives: September 2017

Hamilton: The Value of Place

Why is it that when the weather gets nice, students unite in the cry, “Class outside!”  Since science classes do not lend themselves well to portability, I’ve never done the experiment before, but I was inspired by videos of the cast of Hamilton visiting Valley Forge, Mount Vernon, and Aaron Burr’s house, so on Friday, my class settled in outside on the grass under the shade of an oak tree.

From the moment we sat down, the energy of the group was different from what we experience inside the classroom.  The larger space actually made our group more intimate and facilitated stronger connections among us.  Although there were more distractions, we valued the fresh air and not being closed in by four walls.

To get at the value of being physically present in a particular place, I asked each student to share his or her favorite place and explain how he or she felt in that place.  My own mind goes directly to Delicate Arch at sundown in Arches National Park, so I rather anticipated that the first reports mentioned vacation locations for their relaxation quality.  Somewhat to my surprise, there was a transition to what I initially thought were more mundane locations, such as “anywhere with my sister and cousins,” or “my backyard with my friends,” and I realized that those students chose favorite places that represented family and friendship.  Certainly I was at Delicate Arch with my best friend, so my special place has that flavor as well.

Then three students named their high schools, or specifically the band room in one case.  For these students, a music room was associated with like-minded friends as well as a strong and compassionate female role model and was a setting where they were not judged for being a little different.  In these locations, the students were the best versions of themselves- strong, smart, funny, dedicated, caring, and accepted.  Place and environment turn out to be even stronger than I expected at shaping emotion and inspiration.

Last spring, my sister and I went to New York City to see a Broadway show.  Having never been much south of Midtown, we went in early to explore the lower tip of Manhattan and see the existing historical sites connected to Alexander Hamilton.  I do find that as I’m teaching Hamilton’s story, my mind draws images of Wall Street, Trinity Church, and Battery Park as backdrops.  Having memories to draw on rather than just photos enhances my connection to those locations, so I completely understand why the Hamilton cast would have visited every relevant historical site they could access.  My stories are richer for being grounded in a sense of place.


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Hamilton: Wait for It and Quiz Time!

One of the two best songs Lin-Manual Miranda ever wrote (so far!), Wait For It takes Aaron Burr out of the narrator role and allows him to tell his own story and his own philosophy of life. As a musician, I love the musical puns in the song; the first words start slightly after the first beat of the measure, and there is a huge rest just before the song’s climax, “Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” You have to wait for it.  
My students’ assignment for Friday is to write an essay comparing and contrasting Hamilton and Burr. I elected to throw them a bone for this one, so we brainstormed what we knew about the two characters and how they were both similar and different. I’ve been emphasizing on their short papers that their arguments need to be supported with evidence (yes, even in a non-science class!), and somehow our brainstorming devolved into quiz time with the students supplying the missing lyrics to answer my questions.
Question: What do we know about Hamilton’s parents? When they stared at me blankly, I got them started, “How does a bastard orphan…”

Answer: “Son of a whore and a Scotsman”
Question: What do we know about Burr’s parents?  

Answer: “His mother was a genius. His father commanded respect.”

   (His father was actually one of the founders of the College of New Jersey that became Princeton)
Question: If Burr’s philosophy is “Wait for it,” then what is Hamilton’s?”

Answer: “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.”
Question: Hamilton talks all the time. What is Burr’s take on that?

Answer: “Talk less. Smile more.”

Question: How do we know Hamilton talks all the time?

Answer: “Oh, am I talking too loud? Sometimes I get overexcited, shoot off at the mouth.”  

   (After the Revolution ends, Burr and Hamilton both become lawyers in New York City. One judge commented that they were both a pleasure to have in his courtroom, but what Burr could say in half an hour, it took Hamilton two hours. As he put it, “Hamilton had the most durable pair of lungs in the whole New York Bar.”)
Question. We know that Hamilton is extremely opinionated and not shy about letting people know what he thinks. What is Burr like? And the entire class chanted in rhythm:

Answer: “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against and what you’re for.”  
I’m optimistic for some good papers!

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Hamilton: Helpless and Satisfied

Helpless and Satisfied examine Alexander Hamilton’s meeting with the Schuyler sisters from two different perspectives, driving home the idea that indeed it can make a huge difference who tells your story.

Helpless, Eliza’s story, presents a young woman with little sense of agency.  Eliza feels little control over her life; it happens to her.  She sees a young man who interests her, but it takes her older sister to make contact and then make the introduction.  When I first saw the show, I thought that Eliza was the most important woman in the story since she would become Hamilton’s wife, but during this first meeting, Eliza’s helplessness and perception that she doesn’t influence events began to grate after a while.  I see this lack of development in some of my college students who don’t understand why they aren’t doing well in chemistry and when asked about it, they helplessly throw up their hands and give a label (I have test anxiety) or announce, “That’s just the way I am.”  Happily, Eliza will grow out of this phase as do my successful students.

In contrast, Satisfied details Angelica’s first encounter with Hamilton, and Angelica’s agency is so strong that she rapidly analyzes the pros and cons of going after this penniless but intellectually nobody who provides the perfect foil for her wit.  Setting aside completely that Angelica was actually married at the time of this meeting, she introduces the scrappy young Hamilton to her sister, and the young couple promptly falls in love.  Angelica is the person who actually chooses who will get married, even though it isn’t her.

My modern day students, who were virtually all female, generally agreed that a lack of money was no obstacle to getting married these days, but they were looking for someone with matching intellect, ambition, and moral compass to have as a life partner.  The romantic hearts all found it very sad that Angelica gave up her intellectual match so that her sister could be happy.  The sole male student present during this part of the discussion seemed too petrified to say anything at all.  I reminded the group that we had learned the term, “Yes man” in relation to Burr during the previous week, and our token male had adopted that role.

In each class, I like to dig into the lyrics to pull out details that the students might have overlooked.  Today we dug into the multiple meanings of satisfy, satisfied, and satisfaction.  Hamilton both shocks and intrigues Angelica by using the sexual connotation announcing, “You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied” in their first conversation.  The implications eventually shift to neither Hamilton nor Angelica ever achieving contentment and finally foreshadowing overtones of Hamilton’s duel in which he does not gain satisfaction.

As a class session, I was quite satisfied.

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Hamilton: Right Hand Man

Right Hand Man introduces and establishes the relationship between Hamilton and George Washington, which would turn out to be central to the military and political careers of both men.  The action occurs post Bunker Hill in Boston as Washington tries to prevent New York from being taken by the British, who outnumber his troops 3:1 if you include the third of his troops that were too sick to fight.

The intricate imagery in the song is typical of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s writing.  As one example:

“We put a stop to the bleeding as the British take Brooklyn

Knight takes rook, but look”

The lines first invoke warfare as a game of chess, but at a deeper level, a knight represents the military, specifically the British army.  The rook, or tower, represents Brooklyn which has just been taken.  Rooks are considered to be more valuable than knights thus indicating the severe disadvantage of the Americans in the game.  One of Washington’s gifts was his ability to hold his troops together under all sorts of terrible conditions as shown by “but look” as he tries to find some way out.  I’ll also mention that that those internal rhymes make for a challenging tongue-twister, but it’s extremely satisfying to master them.

Three times in the song, Washington elucidates the dire situation of being outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and outplanned.  On the third time, Hamilton having been persuaded to come on board as an aide de camp, fills in the empty space with rapid fire problem solving.  Although Hamilton would far rather lead troops in the field, he spends much of the war functioning as Washington’s chief of staff who can act independently of close direction while still being completely consistent with Washington’s mission and preferences.  I could only imagine Washington’s relief at having a brilliant and trusted associate to handle so many logistics of the war.

Ever since I read Madeleine Albright’s biography, I’ve been fascinated by how the quality of one’s friends and colleagues can influence a person’s opportunities and success.  Washington and Hamilton are the perfect embodiment of this influence.  Washington liked to think through a problem thoroughly and had learned to temper his innate hot-headedness into an outward demeanor of calm.  The brash Hamilton brought ideas and an intellect that was both voracious and well-fed to supplement Washington’s more meager education.  Washington had a great gift for good judgment which to some extent kept Hamilton out of trouble for the duration of Washington’s life.  Their relationship contributed substantially to the success of each man.

Back to the musical, in class today, we watched the video below, and the group erupted when Hamilton and Laurens share a brief but intimate handshake.  I’ve realized that I’m my father’s daughter since Dad has a talent for finding and sharing the most salacious details of any topic in history.

My own favorite subtle detail of Right Hand Man is that after the “outgunned, outmanned” line, the chorus yells “buck buck buck buck buck” to mimic the sound of gunshots.  Washington’s face is also on the $1 bill or the buck, so it’s a call out to him.  The line is repeated again for a total of 10 bucks, or one Hamilton.






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Hamilton: Farmer Refuted and the History of the Press

Alexander Hamilton’s launch into making a name for himself focused on an exchange of commentaries on the actions of the First Continental Congress.  Samuel Seabury, a staunch Loyalist and Presbyterian clergyman from Westchester, NY, published a series of pamphlets criticizing the First Continental Congress for endorsing a trade embargo with Britain as part of the escalation of actions after the Boston Tea Party.  Hamilton, who would always be inspired by the presence of a worthy opponent, proved adept with an elegant insult and displayed his prodigious mastery of history, politics, philosophy, economics, and law in his response published in the pamphlet, “A Farmer Refuted.”

Ron Chernow commented in his biography of Hamilton, “This slashing style of attack would make Hamilton the most feared polemicist in America, but it won him enemies as well as admirers.  Unlike Franklin or Jefferson, he never learned to subdue his opponents with a light touch or a sly, artful, understated turn of phrase.”  I was struck by how that description also describes a current U.S. politician.

Hamilton’s adept use of the media throughout his career led me to explore the history of the press and how on earth this vicious partisan nastiness could have somehow and somewhere produced the ideal of an impartial unbiased presentation of ideas in the media.

Literacy in the colonies in the 1700s, driven significantly by the prevalence of schools in the northern region, was significantly higher than in Europe at the time both before and after the American Revolution.  In England where the press was regulated and constrained by the government, books were the predominant form of written knowledge.  In contrast, printers in the colonies were much freer from supervision, and newspapers thrived due to the extensive post office system fostered by Benjamin Franklin.  In a typical load of mail, newspapers occupied 95% of the volume and 15% of the total weight.  Newspapers also enjoyed a discount on fees through the post office, and our lower fees on second class mail continue to this day.  The sheer geographical extent of the colonies- a continental scale rather than a small European country- facilitated the most robust and widespread postal system in the world, which was required to knit the region together.  Newspapers were passed from person to person and house to house and provided an initial forum for public debate about independence.

My understanding had been that the gold standard of news reporting was to be fair and unbiased, much as scientists strive to be.  That ideal wouldn’t be introduced until the late 1800s.  Following the American Revolution, newspapers owed loyalty to a specific political party or personality, and people understood that bias when they picked up a paper.  That’s certainly reminiscent of Fox News or MSNBC these days.

The issue of modern press bias brought me to the question of modern press freedom.  When I lived in Washington DC, I visited the Newseum and was struck by their exhibit analyzing the freedom of the press around the world.  I thought the First Amendment did a good job of protecting us, so I was stunned to learn that the United States does not have an unblemished record in that area, in particular because more newspapers are now owned by fewer companies.  Today I consulted with a website built by Reporters Without Borders ( and was saddened to see that the United States currently ranks #43 out of 180 countries on the list for freedom of the press.  Reporters are arrested for covering protests, and at US Borders, they and their devices are searched and delayed from entry.  Whistleblowers were prosecuted at unusually high rates under the Obama Administration, and Trump’s accusations of “Fake News” and that the press is an “enemy of America” have continued the assault on First Amendment freedoms.

Hamilton has certainly taken me down more odd rabbit holes than I ever could have expected.  Prepping this morning’s class involved four books opened on my desk and about 20 tabs on my internet browser.  I’m grateful to Hamilton, Chernow, and Lin-Manuel Miranda for stretching my brain.

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Hamilton: The Schuyler Sisters

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”  It was striking looking around the classroom this morning that in spite of the grand opening to the Declaration of Independence, not a single one of the seventeen of us would have been eligible to vote in 1776.  Some of us have a strike against us for either gender or race, while some have both strikes plus the sexual orientation strike as well.  It was a sobering indication that Jefferson’s bold words of equality approach more validity now than when they were written.

On a lighter note, I’m learning to embrace our diversity and release my compulsive control over all aspects of a class.  I threw out the question of, “What rap and hip-hop references do you see in this song?” and the students went to town on Jay-Z and Ashanti along with other references to artists I’ve only read about.  I had to nudge them a little to come up with the all-female group Destiny’s Child embodying the three Schuyler Sisters, but they saw the connection immediately and were very excited.  Hip-hop is not part of my DNA as Broadway musicals are, so I go with the flow on this part of the discussion and try to nod sagely at appropriate moments.

As has become the pattern, I started class by playing the song under discussion.  In this case I had a video of the three original Schuyler sisters singing their song at the White House.  After that, I left up an image from the original Broadway production so everyone could look at the characters who were under discussion.

The overwhelming reaction of the class was how much they liked this song by powerful women who were standing up for themselves and who were being heard.  My students’ comments about their own stories echoed the all-too-frequent experience of women who have been mocked or scolded for being smart and strong.  It was obviously liberating for them to have role models for strong women who were admired, desired, and respected.

Early on, Angelica sings, “Look around, look around,” and Eliza expands on it with, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”  One insightful student pointed out that it’s just like a younger sister to copy her older sister, which made me laugh.  Eliza, who I see as an eternal optimist, obviously sold her philosophy to the class who seemed inspired by the idea of living in a time of intense change.  That none of us could have voted at the time and wouldn’t be able to vote for more than half a century didn’t daunt them.  The opportunity to watch while “history is happening” and there are “new ideas in the air” made the students’ eyes light up with excitement.

This morning’s video:

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Hamilton: My Shot

In the first three songs of a musical, the main character usually sings an “I Want” song.  My Shot, Hamilton’s “I Want” song tells what he is reaching for and his goal of rising above his station.

Compared with the previous song that introduced Hamilton’s boon companions, Lafayette, John Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan, the tempo doubles and the rhymes acquire hip-hop complexity (“revolutionary manumission abolitionists” for example) to express just how much faster Hamilton’s mind works compared with everyone else’s.

The theme of “not throwing away my shot” resonated strongly with my first year college students, some of whom are the first in their families to attend college, and a number of whom have roots outside of the United States.  They see college as their shot to make something more of themselves, and they express a desire to take full advantage of this opportunity.  Some told stories of parents with sometimes less than a high school education who worked and sacrificed so that their children might have a shot at rising above their station.  I seem to have quite a few Hamiltons in this class.

One of the students mentioned the rumor that Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens were more than friends and how the lyrics hint at that relationship. (There was some giggling.)  One student, who matter-of-factly outed herself in the previous class, considered how Hamilton’s whole story might have been different if he had lived in current times when homosexuality was far more acceptable.  I’ve been working hard to try to connect Hamilton to the students’ own lives, and so far it’s looking promising

We also gained amusement from looking for references buried in the lyrics.  I love Broadway musicals, so I identified, “You’ve got to be carefully taught” as coming from South Pacific.  The full lyric is, “You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate,” and the context is that people are not innately racist; they are taught to be that way.  Another student pulled out a Disney reference from “I’m a diamond in the rough,” which is very plausible given Lin-Manual Miranda’s love of Disney movies.  I also mentioned that when the friends spell out Hamilton’s first name that it’s rap reference.  The quiet student next to me stirred and blurted out, “That’s Biggie” as if everyone would know that.  I loved the contrast that I only know the reference because I have read about it, but this student obviously knows the actual song it comes from.  He seemed a little surprised that he had something valuable to contribute.

We watched the first of these two videos below, which introduced the creative process that went into writing the show.  Because there are snippets from the actual production, this is the first time that some of the students saw that the cast is nearly all actors of color, which we’ll talk about more extensively later.  I also hadn’t remembered that the scene for this song is a tavern, so as Hamilton is talking about not throwing away his shot, the characters are all taking shots of alcohol.


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