SAN DIEGO STUDENTS STUDY HISTORY AND CREATE HISTORY WITH “HAMILTON”

By Barbara Smith

Photos by ESE

In describing his runaway hit “Hamilton,” actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “It’s this incredible way to explore how history isn’t told.” For students in San Diego City Schools and surrounding areas, this thought-provoking notion took center stage with their participation in eduHam, an innovative educational program coordinated with the Tony-winning play’s run at the San Diego Civic Theatre, which provided nearly 3,000 students entrée to a special matinee performance on January 11, including a lively Q & A session with some of the cast members, and, for some, the opportunity to perform their own original creative pieces—songs, rap, poetry, scenes, monologues—before an audience of their peers.

The Hamilton Education Program, or eduHam, is a multi-week program for high school students studying American history in Title 1 schools, culminating in an all-day field trip to the theatre. Hoover High School was one of 46 schools taking part in the special event. Students earned their spot at the coveted affair by participating in class activities and/or after school and Saturday sessions during which they researched extensively, studied primary sources provided by the philanthropic Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in conjunction with the producers of “Hamilton,” and let their imaginations go full throttle to create individual projects that were informative and entertaining. Connections to current events are not lost on these thoughtful and curious students, adding dimension to their learning experience.

On a recent afternoon, three of the participating students from Hoover, Alexis Harnage, Edy Canaca, and Lilia Ruvalcaba, gathered in the classroom of ELA teacher Kristiana Riego de Dios in anticipation of the big day and shared thoughts on how the project had stimulated new learning experiences that helped them look at history in new and different ways.

“I thought it was cool that people were combining history and the arts because usually you see history as more academic, and dance and art as different,” said 11th grader Harnage. The use of contemporary music—hip hop and rap—along with the more traditional genres of R & B and jazz was a hook for the high school junior, who plays an instrument herself, part of a rigorous curriculum that includes AP US History. Harnage, at 17, is articulate and focused, a self-described overachiever who said she drew on prior knowledge of George Washington, supplemented with extensive research to create a rap about our founding father and his role as a revolutionary leader in America’s road to independence. Her hard work paid off, as her project, which she wrote and performed with fellow Hoover 11th grader Bernard Drake, was one of only 15 selected for presentation at the Thursday event. “What I learned is that every leader, every president sets a tone for how they will lead the country. George Washington was widely respected as the first president of the United States and as a leader. I constantly make the connection with our first president of the United States vs. our current president Donald Trump, because I know there is controversy as to whether he is a good president or not. What you put out and what you do for the people of the country will stick around for a really long time.”

Edy Canaca, whose AP US History teacher Ellen Towers describes as “a consummate learner, was drawn to the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The 11th grader created a poem, which he and two of his classmates acted out. Prior to his research, Canaca was not aware of the outcome of the duel, which Burr won when Hamilton chose to shoot his gun in the air. “But it still ended badly for Burr,” Canaca concluded, “and I’m pretty sure he regretted it. Destroying his enemy actually made it worse for him and he could not advance politically.”  In his research, Canaca made an important discovery as to discrepancies in how history is told. “Every source says something different. It’s not always accurate and there are people who change it up. They always tweak it, depending on their perspective.”

Lilia Ruvalcaba, who loves writing poetry, found a fascinating subject in Abigail Adams. “When we look at history, we see a lot of men, and in our history class, we learned about the politics, but we didn’t really learn her side.” Ruvalcaba’s poem, written from the perspective of Adams, who was both wife of President John Adams and later the mother of 6th president John Quincy Adams, explores the woman’s role as intellectual confidante, but one who, as a product of the times, remained largely behind the scenes. Lilia is soft-spoken but delivers a powerful message in her observations about women’s roles that is especially timely. “One of the things she said that stands out to me,” said the 16-year-old, “was ‘Remember us ladies.’ That’s a significant line and important even today.”

“This is a story about America then, told by America now,” writer/producer Miranda has said. AP History teacher Towers, who worked with de Dios as eduHAM coordinator on the Hoover campus, encouraged inquiry in her students as they drew facts from their primary sources and at the same time humanized the historical figures they read about. “My focus since I’ve gotten into history is telling the untold story or telling the story from a different perspective,” she says. “It’s nice to see people thinking about history as a multi-dimensional and multi-perspective idea. I think in the back of every history teacher’s mind is ‘who have we missed and how can we bring them forward without being dishonest.’”

This point is not lost on Harnage, who adds, “Being African American, I sit in a lot of history classes and know that it is Eurocentric. When it comes to African Americans and the struggle of our people and what we have to overcome, I don’t hear about that in school that often, and I don’t necessarily think that it’s the teacher’s fault because I think that they are just teaching the curriculum. But,” she adds, “when I think about how history is told, I think that certain types of history are overtold and other types of history or other perspectives of history or types of people are undertold or not told at all.”

Projects like eduHAM can narrow this learning gap. And by casting African Americans and Hispanics in the “Hamilton” production, Miranda highlights the diversity of people who were there and not in the shadows, Towers says, “And,” adds De Rios, “why can’t a person of color play Hamilton or Aaron Burr? Who is to say that color has to define your role?”

Who indeed?

On the big day, when 2,833 high school students—the largest eduHAM ever—filled the seats of the San Diego Civic Theatre, love, laughter, and gratitude was palpable. “This is an honor,” said Hoover 11th grader Bernard Drake after his performance with student Harnage. “It’s amazing to me how an assignment for a class can lead to you seeing a performance of ‘Hamilton.’ Working towards a goal this way is very rewarding. It pushed me to do my best and I know will lead to even greater things.”

And, as Karli Dinardo, “Hamilton” cast member advised, “No dream is too big. Learning is endless. No matter how hard, throw yourself into the deep end and surround yourself with people who are positive, who encourage and nurture your dreams.”

 

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