POSTED ON BEHALF OF ADAM C. EVANS
Content and Context
Music is a versatile tool. In my classroom, there is almost always some sort of music, either from the radio, students singing, or as a part of the lesson plan. I often offer little explanation for why the songs are played, but more often than not, they are on topic. One of my favorite albums for such a topic is nothing but folk music campaign songs for every president. Music is best used when it is the focus of the lesson.
Many of my most effective lessons involve musical analysis. A friend of mine gave me a lesson plan where students analyze rap lyrics to determine humanist beliefs of the Renaissance in the lyrics. Apparently, Nas is a humanist. I also have a lesson where students analyze protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s before composing and performing their own.
For a resource I propose two music videos. The first is rapper T.I. singing “No Matter What.” The song discusses all that he has overcome, with the refrain, “Still I stand, no matter what.” This song is not unique in its message of perseverance and can absolutely be substituted by any other song you may know of with the same message.
The second video is “Alexander Hamilton” by Lin Manuel Miranda. Among history nerds such as myself, this is quite the video. The composer is currently composing a concept album on the life of Alexander Hamilton – someone who he sees as an 18th Century Tupac. Alexander Hamilton was born in poverty and lived quite the tumultuous life before finally being assassinated by Aaron Burr.
I would use these two sources in a high school history, English, or humanities class. Students should be mature enough to understand and appropriately discuss not only the themes and the lyrics themselves. The lesson or activity should be about 45 minutes long.
Activity, Objectives, and Goals
1) Students should watch the video for “No Matter What” and discuss the general message of the song. You may wish to do a brief bit of research on the biography of Atlanta rapper T.I. before facilitating this discussion. Some question prompts might be:
– What is the message to the chorus of the song?
– What are some issues T.I. has overcome or still struggles with today?
– How do you think he has been able to sustain a successful career as a rap artist despite his checkered past?
2) Explain to students the next video is about a similar figure, but one that might look and dress a lot differently than T.I. As they are watching, students should listen for issues Alexander Hamilton had to overcome in his lifetime. You may need to read up on Alexander Hamilton as well, but every word of the song is true. Some question prompts you may wish to use are:
– What were some of the obstacles to success that Alexander Hamilton faced?
– Do you think he had a lot of friends and admirers?
– Why is Hamilton on our $10 bill?
– Where was Hamilton born? Do you think he was viewed as an “outsider”?
– What was the key to Hamilton’s success?
– If you could ask Hamilton one question, what would it be?
– How did Hamilton die? Is that important?
Hopefully, student will want to investigate Hamilton further, or, perhaps they will want to know more about Aaron Burr. In order to get Lin Manuel Miranda’s take on Alexander Hamilton, you may wish to read this New York Times article.
3) As a concluding activity, there are any number of options. Students could complete a Venn Diagram comparing T.I. and Hamilton. They could compose a conversation between the two. They could write about what they most admire in both figures. In my school, I know there would be students who would want to write and perform their own songs. I would encourage them to do so, but after researching another historical figure. This is where student choice is essential. Let them go where their interests are, but provide enough parameters so you have something to grade.
The most important objective is to get students thinking about historical figures as real people with real issues and real stories.
So, what about peace education?
The three pillars of peace education supported by these sources are Reframing History, Nurturing Emotional Intelligence, and Engaging Multiple Learning Styles. For visual and auditory learners, the information from these songs is presented in a way that is much less dry than the typical history textbook. If you provide copies of the lyrics for both songs, prompt students to internalize the message, and allow for student performance, you have essentially hit at least five of Gardner’s 8 intelligences. There is something in this particular format for almost every learning style.
In presenting Alexander Hamilton as “the embodiment of hip-hop,” history is re-framed to be about people more like our contemporaries – and maybe in an educational context the students can understand. More importantly, though, T.I. and Alexander Hamilton are both individuals who succeeded or failed based on the power of their words and ideas. Both men have flaws, and in Hamilton’s case they were fatal, but the power of their words are undeniable.
The third pillar of peace education this activity may offer is nurturing emotional intelligence. So much of emotional acumen is recognizing emotions and their causes. If students can view historical figures as actual people, they can be encouraged to identify with these figures through common struggles. Perhaps they may even be inspired to persevere through great obstacle and become great themselves.