From ‘Hamilton’ to Hogwarts, Teachers Are Bringing Pop-Culture Phenomena Into the Classroom

By Kristine Kim — June 27, 2016 4 min read
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More and more educators are recognizing that one way to engage students is by creatively incorporating currently popular works of literature, songs, or theatrical performances into their lessons.

U.S. history teachers, for example, recently received a goldmine of material—and inspiration—with the success of Broadway’s latest hit performance Hamilton, which tells the story of U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in rap and hip-hop songs. The musical, which won 11 Tony awards, has quickly gained an enormous fan base, including among children and teens.

According to Newsweek, Jim Cullen, a history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx of New York City, got wind of the performance’s popularity from excited exchanges among his students. He told Newsweek that his students “were singing these songs the way they might sing the latest release from Drake or Adele.”

Inspired by his students’ reactions, Cullen has created a course for the upcoming fall semester called “Hamilton: A Musical Inquiry.” Newsweek reported that Cullen’s students will actively engage in research methods as they analyze and write about famous historical speeches, as well as songs straight out of Hamilton.

Hamilton’s creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda foresaw the applicability of his work for history teachers on the hallmarks of U.S. history. According to Scholastic, the musical has joined with nonprofits, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Rockefeller Foundation, to give 20,000 11th graders in New York City the opportunity to perform their own interpretations of the founding of America. They will also be able to see the musical—which has been sold out for months and has ticket prices reaching the four figures—for $10.

The incorporation of the theater into history-education programs is not a new idea, of course. Scholastic reported that Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller created a previous educational program in collaboration with the musical Rent. Miranda plans to open up similar education programs in other cities as the musical starts to tour, starting with Chicago later this year.

Meanwhile, Saint Bonaventure’s College in Newfoundland, Canada, recently gave its 3rd grade students a truly magical school day, through the creative incorporation of another literary blockbuster. According to CBC News, the K-12 Catholic school celebrated its annual Harry Potter Day this month.

Parents and teachers came together to transform St. Bon’s into the fantastical world of Harry Potter’s own school—Hogwarts.

According to CBC, in the morning, the students were greeted with a rideable model of the Hogwarts Express. They boarded the train and soon entered the Great Hall—which, yes, included the ceiling of floating candles. Ollivander’s Wand Shop wasn’t far off—where each student became fitted with a wand fated to be rightfully theirs. One parent even created a pop-up Honeydukes Sweets Shop lined with eye-catching goodies for the new wizards.

Students were dressed in robes—based on the houses of their choosing—as they made their way through their Potions lessons and broom-flying lessons. The annual event has been around for the past 15 years for 3rd graders, CBC reported.

Teacher Heather Carroll, who was the designated Potions instructor, is an alumna of St. Bon’s and recalled her very first Harry Potter Day in 2002 as a 4th grade student in an email to Education Week Teacher:

“Back when I was a student, we played board games, watched the Harry Potter movie, and practiced spells. We wore homemade costumes and mostly used our imagination—but now our imaginations have come to life!”

To prepare for the big day, she explained, students read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the Canadian version of Sorcerer’s Stone) and completed an in-depth analysis of the story.

The Harry Potter-themed lessons go beyond the one day and extend into classroom management: “They sit in their ‘houses’ in the classroom and are rewarded for participation, respecting other, and working hard,” she said.

Carroll described the event as “a totally immersive curricular experience. It was truly spectacular! The students were so excited and really engaged with all the activities.”

Source: Image of Lin Manuel Miranda and cast of “Hamilton” performing at the Tony Awards earlier this month in New York by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP.

More on Using Pop Culture in the Classroom:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.