Student Lead Projects and the Hamilton Mix-Tape

Author’s Note: I did this project back in 2016 and I cannot believe I haven’t shared it. It is, by far, the most incredible thing students have ever done in my classes, which is a big thing because my students have always been incredible and the outcomes of their projects have always exceeded my expectations. This post is vague because it should be adaptable to your classroom and your students.


In 2016, my whole life changed. We had a class in our school called Creative Musicianship, and the teacher was a like-minded educator who loved to take risks and was on board with anything that allowed students to express themselves. The Hamilton Mix-Tape had just come out and we thought, how cool would it be to allow students the space to create something similar? I hope you all find someone like Dr. Nathan Johnston. He’s legit. He cares about kids and is all for any collaboration that elevates our subjects.

I have to tell you. When they presented those final songs, I cried and Dr. Johnston had a huge smile across his face. I think our principal at the time was just gobsmacked.

Sometimes, you just have to give the students goals and guide them without saying no. It’s scary, but this was SO worth it. Trust me, as a Type A teacher, I struggle with this. But after this project? Not anymore.

I know what you’re thinking, but what if this gets too political?

Answer: It’s a student-led project. Ask them, “why did you phrase it like that?” “What have you noticed in your research that led you to create that line?” Please be aware to not do this in an accusatory way, but in a curious way. Art is personal. Be aware and respectful as you facilitate.


Title of Lesson Plan: 

Great Presidential Debates in History

Unit Overview:

With the smashing success of Hamilton and the ability to display political divides with music, we are embarking on a journey to illustrate some major political divides in American Political History. Students are charged with creating lyrics that portray the rivalry. This is a way to look at history through another lens. In allowing student the freedom to research and create their project, teacher can assess students in a variety of ways such as: determining the reliability of websites, analyzing primary and secondary sources for meaning, determining overall themes in history, etc. History is evaluated and interpreted differently, even amongst historians. This project is a way for students to evaluate and interpret history for themselves. This project is a summative assessment for a government class.

Unit Objective(s): 

Students will be able to (“SWBAT”):  Students will be able to identify and discuss the major political differences within campaigns throughout history while using historical research skills. 

Number of Class Periods:

Multiple Class periods for research and writing. In this lesson, you can pair with a music class to put the students words to music. Examples seen below. This project has flexibility on time. 

Grade Level: 

Can be adapted for middle school

Grades 9-12

We used it for AP Government

Procedures: (The amount of time spent on this project is flexible. Students can work on it as time allows and this project can be extended throughout a quarter.)

  1. Have students listen to Cabinet Battle #2 from the musical Hamilton. Annotated lyrics can be found at Genius. This can be put on a projector or copies can be made for students. Discuss the differences between Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) and Hamilton (Federalist) Although they were not running for President, this song shows the deep political divide that would guide the election of 1800 as well as subsequent elections thereafter. 
  2. Divide students into groups:
  3. Suggested groups (this can be modified to fit any lesson. Below is suggestions)
    Group 1: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (2016)
    Group 2: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (1858)
    Group 3: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (1800)
    Group 4: Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy (1960)
    Group 5: Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams (1824)
  4. Give students directions below (5 and 6)and the creative space to research to be able to find a theme for their candidates. Check themes prior to continuing with research to appropriately guide students. 
  5. Have students create lyrics based on their politicians. The research should be directed to the theme the students chose as to narrowly tailor the research. Within the lyrics should be annotations for the reader to really understand the topics, such as the ones listed on the Genius site. Students should look at debate videos (if available) and primary sources (letter, text of the debate, diary entries)
  6. This project has flexibility on length and time allotted. 
  7. Extension: pair with a music class and have them create music to fit the time. See examples.
    • Music should relate to one of the following:
      1. The overall atmosphere of the debates (for example, a rap battle for Trump vs. Clinton because of the perceived name calling nature of the campaign) 
      2. The decade and related music trends

 Student examples: 

Andrew Johnson v John Quincy Adams– writing with annotations

Clinton vs. Trump– writing with annotations 

Clinton vs. Trump- with music (Theme was immigration)

Twitter: #presrivals16 (hashtag for the project in conjunction with Creative Musicianship for reference)

About Elizabeth Evans, NBCT

AP Government and Politics teacher making the world better one person at a time by supporting other educators.

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