Back in the dark ages when I was in high school history books were big worn pages of words taught in a strict cadence by one of the oldest teachers in the school. I don’t remember Alexander Hamilton’s name even coming up.
The HAMILTON Education Program Chicago invited me to the PrivateBank Theatre to witness one of the most exciting history lessons I have ever experienced. Seventeen Chicago Schools filled the theatre as twelve of the schools took to the HAMILTON stage and presented their interpretation of the history of America and one of our Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton.
Before I go into these amazing performances, allow me to share with you on how the HAMILTON Education Program came to be. During intermission I spoke with Susan Zuckerman, Director of Development Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. She explained how the program began.
The program started because Jeffrey Seller, and Lin-Manuel Miranda had the vision of an education program for students who would not have access to the show. So, they reached out to Ron Chernow who is the author of the biography Hamilton and spoke with him and he said if you want to do anything on the education front you need to speak to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. They are the premier organization in the teaching learning and love of American history.
How does the program actually work?
The in-school curriculum lasts anywhere between a week and ten days though some teachers spend more time on the curriculum with their students, it really depends on the teacher and the students. Every school that participates in the program has to become a part of our affiliate school network. Our affiliate school network has 12,000 schools both in the United States and internationally that have access to free materials, free resources, free lesson plans, free traveling exhibitions and that, they are supposed to enhance the learning and the teaching for teachers throughout the country.
How are the participating schools chosen?
We reach out to the Department of Education in each of the cities in which we are going to have this program and the school district then sends an email to their schools that they consider to be Title 1, encouraging them to sign up on our website. Based on the schools that we get applications from we share them with the departments of education and ask if these are all Title 1 schools? If they say yes then we reach out to them and accept them into the program.
How are the students chosen to perform on stage?
Every student that’s part of the curriculum has to create their own song, rap, spoken word piece, or song, based on a primary-source document about a person, place or event. Every school selects one piece to submit to our office and based on that one piece we look at all of those works and then we select a smaller group. So, there are 17 schools today, and we chose 12 to be represented on stage.
The students in the audience were surprised and excited to see two of the actual actors from the play HAMILTON, Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Jin Ha as the emcees of the event. They really got the crowd going and calmed the nerves of the performers.
The performances were amazing and ranged from rap to skits. Each one was unique, well performed, entertaining, and engaging. The energy in the theatre was full of electricity as the audience responded to presentations. While all twelve were fantastic, I only have room to speak on a few.
Walnaeja Boyd and Devinae Parker from Camelot- Chicago Excel Academy of Southwest performed a rap based on the Boston Massacre.
Devinae, before this program what was your thought process on history?
I didn’t know anything about Alexander Hamilton until it was mentioned to us. And I like
history. I mean history, it gets my attention because it’s interesting to me but it was
never like something that I would think about when I went home. It wasn’t until I wrote
this song, it was something I thought about when I was at home, I did research on it and
stuff to make sure, you know to bring factual information into our song.
Walnaeja, how important was the program to you?
It means a lot to me because doing something that I love but then educationally entwined at the same time really means a lot to me so I think that’s just me, so I feel like I’m enriched by being around all of this.
Teniya Hall from South Shore International College Prep did a spoken word piece called “I Remember” inspired by the Declaration of Independence. Assistant Principal, Paulette Grissett spoke with me on how this program enhanced the way history is taught.
So it really follows right along with the work that we do at our school. We are an international baccalaureate school and we do a lot of integration from history in that students don’t just read about it and answer questions but they have experiences around history and look at history through different viewpoints. So this was a wonderful thing to be able to come here now and experience the time period with people of color who would be in the play that wouldn’t necessarily have been a part of the experience back then but are able to represent those people and then for them to be able to see other people like themselves on stage is going to be a wonderful thing for them. They experience plays very often but this is a very different play and a very high profile play that they’ll get to see now as part of their experience as well.
After the student performances were done I have to admit, I was proud of their efforts and the professional way they expressed themselves and brought the history of the past into the present and made it relatable to, not only to their generation, but mine. But the day was not over by any means. We all stayed to see the matinee performance of HAMILTON. It was as amazing as I had heard, however, I think for me, seeing it with these awesome students and feeling their excitement made the experience even more unforgettable for me.
Participating Chicago Schools on May 31
- Aspira - Business & Finance HS
- Camelot - Chicago Excel Academy of Southwest
- Chicago Military Academy High School
- CICS - ChicagoQuest High School
- Emil G Hirsch Metropolitan High School
- Instituto - Justice and Leadership Academy
- Kelvyn Park High School
- Noble Network of Charter Schools - Butler College Prep
- Noble Network of Charter Schools - DRW College Prep
- Noble Network of Charter Schools - Hansberry College Prep
- Paul Robeson High School
- Perspectives - Rodney D. Joslin Campus
- South Shore International College Prep
- Stephen T. Mather High School
- Urban Prep Academy for Young Men - Bronzeville
- Urban Prep Academy for Young Men - Englewood
- Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men - West