Central Ohio got its first dose of "Hamilton" fever when the popular musical opened at the Ohio Theatre late last month, but for one Olentangy Local School District teacher, the show has been a classroom inspiration for years.
In Justin Emrich's class at Berkshire Middle School, the teacher has built a reputation thanks to his Hamilton-centric unit.
"I was definitely the Hamilton guy for a while," he said with a laugh.
Emrich has been using Lin-Manuel Miranda's smash hit in his eighth-grade history classroom for four years. He said he was inspired after seeing the show on Broadway in 2015.
"Hamilton" incorporates rap, among other musical styles, as it follows the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, from his roles in the Revolutionary War and the early United States government through his death at the hands of Aaron Burr.
A former Ohio History Teacher of the Year, Emrich said he's never shied from alternative teaching styles. In "Hamilton," he saw the opportunity to bring some fun to the classroom.
"There's not a lot out there that lends itself to contemporary stuff," he said. "Most of the time when you do that, it's pretty corny to students. So if I try to play a rap song some teacher made across the country, my kids going to give me a look like, 'Are you kidding?' But what 'Hamilton' does is that it's able to not seem corny at all."
Sydney Webb, now a sophomore at Olentangy Berlin High School, recalled Emrich's class as one of her favorites two years ago. She said he "always had kind of a different style of teaching" that made the nontraditional lesson plans work.
"With him, he's almost always corny and telling jokes and pretty laid-back," she said, "so it fit perfectly with his style. I think he just kind of owned it. It's kind of what he's known for."
But fun isn't the only goal, and Emrich said he wouldn't teach the unit if it didn't provide some high-quality lessons as well.
"It not only helps them learn, but it helps reinforce what they've already learned," he said. "When we do this lesson, I've already talked about the Federalist Papers or the Battle of Yorktown. You can see that they get it all over again and they see how it all ties together."
Emrich sometimes gives "extended response" assignments -- small written essays -- after one of the "Hamilton" lessons. He recalled giving a surprise assignment one year, with students responding "worth it."
He specifically remembered "100 percent" of students completing the assignment.
"I would say that's not normal for most lessons," he said with a laugh.
Webb recalled that same phenomenon and said the nature of the class made it easier to complete assignments and take tests.
"It's fun to learn in that way," she said. "People would learn the songs and recite them in their heads to know the facts. It really spoke to a lot of people, and it was a fun new way to learn things."
Beyond the specific historical information in the musical, Emrich said the representation portrayed through the diverse cast of the show can be important as well, especially because so much of American history classes are based on "dead white guys."
"When you can make that connection with your students in some way, I think that enhances the experience the kids can have in your room, and it breathes life into history," he said. "We just read about dead guys -- guys, specifically, it's true. But the one thing that Hamilton does really well is that it's diverse. ... When you look at diversity in the cast, it kind of flips the script of what American history looks like to give everyone a glimpse of being part of history."
For Webb and others who loved the class, the music and writing of "Hamilton" can help expose them to new possibilities.
"It kind of changed our high school path," Webb said of herself and others who embraced the class. "Now I'm a lot more interested, so I take a lot more history classes. I know a few people who had never really been exposed to music before and now, for me and a few of my friends, we're involved in the musicals and stuff."
So when the show comes back to central Ohio, don't be surprised if Emrich's former students are the experts in the room.
"When they go with their parents, you can see they're the ones explaining it all," he said.