Education | Stage & Screen

Putting Students in the Room Where it Happens

CPS students get primary sources and stage time through the Hamilton Education Program

Nicole Bond

Everything about the day was expertly choreographed. Dozens of large yellow school buses maneuvered their way through morning rush hour to the Private Bank Theater. Once there, Chicago Public School security staff clad in official blue jackets along with parents and teachers wearing identifiable orange vests assembled hundreds of high school students to their seats. Excitement buzzed in the air. The chatter and energy were palpable. Weeks of work and dedication culminated here at Chicago’s final Hamilton Education Program of the 2016–2017 school year.

The Hamilton Education Program, affectionately dubbed EduHam, is one of the many fruits of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changing musical Hamilton. Miranda’s father Luis is partly to credit for the heavily educational yet highly entertaining force of the show. The two knew early on there would be young history students who could benefit from learning the lessons brought to life on stage each performance. They also knew that theater tickets for most of them would be out of reach. To change that, the two followed the lead from the lyrics in Hamilton’s most popular song, and they did not throw away their shot. After discussing the idea with theater producer Jeffery Seller, they were directed to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Founded in 1994 by philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, the Gilder Lehrman Institute is a nonprofit that promotes the teaching, learning, and love of American history.

EduHam uses a robust teacher-led curriculum based on primary source documents. Each program lasts anywhere from a week to ten days. But it doesn’t stop there. According to Gilder Lehrman director of development Susan Zuckerman, every participating school is required to become part of their affiliate school network, which includes 12,000 schools across the globe. Each affiliate has access to a huge amount of free materials, resources, and  traveling exhibitions, all designed  to enhance the learning and  teaching experience for teachers and students throughout the country. The goal, Zuckerman said, is to get 250,000 inner-city students into EduHam, over the course of five years. This academic year alone, 40,000 students from New York, Chicago, and San Francisco participated. This fall EduHam will return to Chicago and New York but also expand to Los Angeles; Seattle; Tempe, Arizona; San Diego; Boston; Washington D.C.; Houston; and a number of other smaller cities as well.

A portal of information and lesson plans are used to teach students in detail about the founding era and the life and times of Alexander Hamilton. “The institute has a collection of 65,000 pieces of documents, of Constitutions, Declarations of Independence, letters from Phillip [Hamilton’s son] to Hamilton, Hamilton to Eliza [Hamilton’s wife]—huge, huge wealths of information,” Zuckerman said. “We ask students to do research and to use primary source documents as their research base.”

After the research is done, the student’s own writing and rehearsing begin. As a part of the curriculum, the young historians transform their knowledge into performance pieces based on the era. Each school then selects one piece to submit to the Gilder Lehrman Institute. From this pool, the Institute selects students who will present their work, which ranges from skits and monologues to rap music and spoken word poetry. The performances are staged on the Private Bank Theater stage for an audience of the students’ peers and teachers. After their performances, all of which are introduced by the Hamilton cast members themselves, cast members come onstage for a panel discussion to answer pre-submitted questions from the students.

This past February, the program debuted the first of ten student education matinee performances, with the final performance held on the last day of May. Seventeen high schools participated in the Chicago academic year’s final Hamilton Education Program. Twelve of the schools had their performance pieces selected to be performed on the Hamilton Private Back Theater Stage, eight of them from the South Side: Chicago Excel Academy of Southwest, Chicago Military Academy, Emil G. Hirsch Metropolitan High School, Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy, Paul Robeson High School, South Shore International College Prep, and the Bronzeville and Englewood campuses of Urban Prep Academy for Young Men.

South Shore International College Prep junior Teniyah Hall, who performed an original spoken word poem on the Private Bank Theater stage at EduHam, knew she wanted to see the Broadway musical long before she knew about EduHam. Before the program, Hall did not know very much about Alexander Hamilton.

“In elementary school and the beginning of high school we only went over it for like a day or a week, and it wasn’t enough for me to really grasp what I was learning,” Hall said. “When we found out that Hamilton was coming to Chicago we started talking to all our history teachers. And we were like, you gotta find a way to make us go! We don’t care what happens; if we have to fundraise we want to do it!”

Hall’s wish came true when, one day, teachers explained EduHam. The requirements included an out-of-class project, and ten dollars for the ticket—a much more straightforward route. Hall says she liked having to do the project because it showed that the students could express themselves and they could learn more about history in a way that let them connect to it. The way Hall sees it, no one was falling asleep at their desk because it was boring—everyone could engage with the material and even sing along in places.  Hall said, “I really liked being backstage. We were twelve different schools all rooting for each other; telling each other you’ll do fine— ‘You’ll do great.’ ‘Don’t be nervous.’ ‘You got this!’ We were pumping each other up backstage, like, ‘yeah, you can do this.’ And these were strangers telling me this!”.

Ravon Savary, a sophomore from Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville, performed a spoken word poem dedicated to Hamilton, titled Honor or Death. The piece in part recounts (spoiler alert) the fatal duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

“Being able to go up on that stage in front of all those people, it felt amazing,” Savary said. “I got so much love from every school, regardless. And I got a lot of love from my school, personally.”

Savary’s experience in the EduHam program demonstrates just how valuable and necessary the program can be—before these past couple weeks, he didn’t even know who Hamilton was. “I had never heard of him, honestly. Never heard of him at all.” But he connected to what he had learned, and said he could identify with some of the founding father’s struggles and relate them back to his own.  He says it’s why he was able to write the piece he wrote, explaining that from his perspective, laws have changed and the environments have changed from the days of dueling in the streets, but that the principles of honor and respect have not.

“Sometimes great people aren’t given great appreciation,” Savary said. “Because I had never heard of him; but for him to do so much, I feel like I should have.”

The benefits of the Hamilton Education Program are easy to see. Thousands of high school students are getting the chance to learn history in creative and relatable ways. Teachers are getting some needed refreshers too. And with the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s generosity, they will be able to continue doing so for at least the next five years.

But the incidental benefits may be the most powerful. Students across the city from different neighborhoods with different experiences did not only learn history, but connected to one another around a shared goal. Throughout the day  there was no competition or rivalry, only encouragement and support. Even at the afternoon lunch break, across the street at the Palmer House, alliances were formed that could not have been made on a typical school day in a typical classroom. For many of the students, this was their first, or one of only a few times, venturing from their neighborhoods.

A different view leads to different choices. Teniyah Hall from South Shore Prep, who said she always had an interest in theater and lighting design in particular, now plans to not only study theater in college, but to also become a master electrician, possibly working for a large-scale production like Hamilton. By having the opportunity to experience up close much of what it takes to make live theater happen, many in attendance decided they wanted to become a part of it. As the curtain closes on the past generations and the history they have made, both good and bad, today these bright new historians are learning about the past to hopefully make a better future for us all.

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Thoughts on “Putting Students in the Room Where it Happens”

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. Especially what it is doing for the students, some more dreams to come true one day .
    some.

  2. Wonderfully written article that had its own elements of poetry! I wasn’t aware that this was part of the production. Thanks!

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