How Hip-Hop & "Hamilton" Are Transforming An 8th Grade History Class
In Lois MacMillan's 8th grade classroom, history comes alive … with a hip-hop beat.
MacMillan has been an educator for 28 years, and she has taught every grade from kindergarten through 12th grade. For the last 18 years, she's been at South Middle School in Grants Pass, Ore., where she designs her hip-hop-influenced American history curriculum.
Confrontations between historical figures not normally known for their rhyme skills are embodied in the form of epic rap battles: George Washington vs. King George III; Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas; or a face-off between Civil War regiments from the North and South. And Miss MacMillan's units on America's founding fathers and the Revolutionary War get their OG groove from a deep dive into "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda's GRAMMY-winning hip-hop musical.
"I like to borrow a line from Lin-Manuel and say that 'American history is like one long hip-hop song,'" says MacMillan. "I was bringing rap into the classroom before 'Hamilton' became such a big hit because it seemed like such a powerful, modern form of storytelling and it was a way for me to connect with the kids through their music.
"But the show has really broken things open. Mixing history lessons and rap may have seemed a little crazy at first, but the kids coming into my classes now are hip-hop history ready."
In recognition of her ingenuity, MacMillan has been named the 2018 recipient of the GRAMMY Museum's Jane Ortner Education Award, which celebrates K-12 teachers who integrate music into nonmusical subject areas — for example, English, science, math, and history. As this year's winner, MacMillan received a $3,000 honorarium, a $1,000 grant for her school, two all-expenses-paid tickets to the 60th GRAMMY Awards in New York this past January, and an invitation to come to Los Angeles this fall for a special Museum event.
MacMillan's winning submission for the Ortner Award was a unit titled Rappin' History: Composing Historical Raps In The Classroom (With Lessons Integrating Historical Raps From Hamilton). However, her semi-obsession with Alexander Hamilton began well before the founding father made his way to Broadway.
"I've considered Hamilton to be my 'historical boyfriend' for a long time," says MacMillan, a former Oregon Teacher of the Year who is also a master teacher with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. "We've got a cut-out of him in the classroom and the kids know he's my guy. I think I was probably reading the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton right around the same time that Lin-Manuel was, and that book got me excited to put the spotlight back on Hamilton's importance.
"I developed a part of my course called 'Who's Your Daddy,' in which groups of kids studied each one of the founding fathers. It used to be that they never remembered Hamilton, but since the musical's become so big that's not as much of a problem anymore."
Some might assume that bringing music into the history classroom means that teacher and students can take a fun break from the harder work of mastering subject matter. That's not how it works in Miss MacMillan's class. Before any beats start dropping, students are expected to be familiar with both the larger contours of the history being studied as well as contemporaneous personal perspectives made available through such primary documents as letters and diaries.
"I'm a pretty wild person. I like to have fun and I'm willing to dance in front of the class if that will help get a point across," MacMillan explains. "But the moment it's time to work, I want the class to really work, and the kids know that. I make it clear that a rapper is a writer — if you're going to write a powerful rap you have to put just as much skill and effort into that as any other form of writing.
"I give them a structure and demand excellence and then step out of the way — they know they have to bring it. And they do. It's really rewarding to see that when the kids are debating lyrics, they're not arguing over what would be a cooler rhyme — they're arguing about historical accuracy and which details from the primary documents to include."
"You know going into [Miss MacMillan's] class that you're going to work hard and learn a lot and have a really good time." — Student Allison Robinson
While MacMillan enlivens history with music, she also teaches students to turn a historical ear toward the music itself. She's used such songs as the GRAMMY-winning "Empire State Of Mind" by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys and the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame cut "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang to acquaint students with the historical evolution of hip-hop and to give them guidance in the mechanics of beats, rhymes, and lyrical hooks.
"Whether it's 'Rule Brittania' or 'Smokin' In The Boys Room,' there's always history in music that's worth examining," says MacMillan.
Speaking with Miss MacMillan's students, it's clear that the teacher's enthusiasm for her subject is contagious, and many cite her classroom as a particularly safe, nurturing and stimulating space.
"It's sort of amazing how much we learned while having fun," says Allison Robinson. "But that's Miss Mac's way. You know going into her class that you're going to work hard and learn a lot and have a really good time."
Other students point out that the musical component of MacMillan's class, rather than being diversion, is actually a crucial key to a deeper understanding of classroom lessons.
"Miss Mac always teaches us the historical importance of music," says Madeline Durrant. "She tells us how music can really tell a story and we can look to music to find different points of view no matter what the lesson is. And I think we learn the lessons better with music than if we just learned them through lectures or a textbook."
The positive impact on Miss MacMillan's students is recognized by her colleagues as well. Janna Reid is an English teacher who has been teamed with MacMillan since Reid began at South Middle School 13 years ago.
"Being a middle school teacher, you see that there's so much going on for these kids and it's such a hard, confusing time for a lot of them," says Reid. "The magic of what Lois does is to pull them in and share her excitement and curiosity. It's so rewarding to see how the kids respond to that. The way she gets her students involved and engaged is just incredible, and you can see that her kids are just so excited to learn."
MacMillan says she's only doing what comes naturally, both personally and professionally.
"I don't know how you can make American history boring, but I guess some teachers do. Our history is just full of so many interesting stories, and those stories are about real people who lived and breathed just like we do. When that clicks for kids, history gets exciting.
"I've got the best job in the world," she adds. "I can't think of anyone that's got a better job than me. I hear people talking about how hard teaching can be and I really just don't get that. My biggest problem most days is how to fit in 90 hugs before 9 o'clock."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis: My Best Man, and Running With The Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship With Muhammad Ali.)