SALT LAKE CITY — On May 4, approximately 2,300 high school students throughout Utah will watch the “10-dollar Founding Father without a father’s” life unfold onstage at the Eccles Theater. But their shot to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” came with a catch: extra schoolwork.
Many of these students met outside regular school hours to take part in the Hamilton Education Program, also known as EduHam, which pairs a special U.S. history curriculum centered on Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers with the opportunity to see the musical and experience a Q&A with the cast.
“We didn’t have to beg them (to do this). They were on it,” said Lani Baker, a teacher at Richfield High School in Sevier County. “ … The incentive to be able to participate in seeing ‘Hamilton’ drove (students) in a way I’ve never seen — ever — as a teacher.”
EduHam — A teacher's 'fairy godmother'
In total, 39 Utah schools took part in the Hamilton Education Program. At its heart, the program’s curriculum has students examining and analyzing primary source documents — including documents that influenced Miranda as he created “Hamilton.” Exploring documents from 1757-1804 — Hamilton’s life span — students then had to follow in Miranda’s footsteps, transforming their analyses into a short song, monologue or poem.
Baker’s 55 students completed this curriculum in five days, meeting before school at 7:15 a.m. to study primary source documents and create their projects. One of Baker’s students, Trey Cunningham, created a short film about George Washington, which he shot, edited and submitted in just one day.
“We decided that we wanted to do something special," Cunningham, 17, said of his winning project, "because it is really such a big honor and a big deal to be able to … have this opportunity.”
For Baker, having her students participate in EduHam and attend “Hamilton” is a dream — or a fairy tale, to hear her tell it — come true, especially since the state is covering expenses for the nearly three-hour drive from Richfield to Salt Lake City, in addition to covering expenses for seven other high schools.
“Facilitating rural schools to be able to come from really far away, stay overnight (and) pay for our buses — it’s like a dream,” she said. “This never happens — it’s like Cinderella. I had this fairy godmother at the state. We’re just blessed.”
Because the curriculum was fast-paced and academically challenging, GPA played a large role in determining participants, Baker said. With 55 tickets allotted to Richfield High, the school then faced the challenging process of narrowing the hundreds of student applications down to the allotted number. Although the coursework was rigorous, Baker fought to have a handful of students with F averages included.
“There were students that I knew needed to see (‘Hamilton’) whose GPA wouldn't speak for them,” Baker said, who chose a diverse group of students that ranged from a migrant worker to some with behavioral issues. “(One student had a) GPA in the basement … because that’s not the priority of his cultural history. So (for) him to be able to participate in our program, I had to get him to at least a 2.0 (GPA). … And (he) did it. These children who can hardly function in school did this project, and that is moving.
“I think part of what makes us reach as human beings to higher levels is a light of hope that there is something more in us, and I think it’s drawn from us when we see great things,” she continued. “Change comes when you can see that there’s a possibility. I think ‘Hamilton’s’ about that.”
Drinking from the source
When Janalee Watkins told her 11th graders they were going to see “Hamilton,” some of them began to cry — happy tears.
“They were so excited to be a part of something that’s so big,” said Watkins, a U.S. history teacher at Uintah High School in Vernal, Uintah County.
Watkins worked with 60 students, about half of them enrolled in AP courses. From a teaching perspective, Watkins appreciates the EduHam curriculum for engaging her students in the process of reading primary source documents — an activity that doesn’t typically bring a smile to students’ faces.
“Sometimes kids are intimidated by historical research,” she said. “But when they saw that it’s just really easy to break down … they saw that they could do it. If anything, (the program) has taught (the students) that historical research doesn't need to be intimidating, that it can be fun.”
Bethany McCumber, a student at Walden School of Liberal Arts in Provo, appreciated the hands-on approach of the EduHam program, which provided websites and other resources for students to explore primary source documents.
“It was really nice that we were able to have easy access to them because a lot of times (when) doing research, primary source documents are a lot harder to find,” McCumber, 17, said. “It was really helpful to just have them right there and handy.”
In the course of her research, Watkins' student Lily Parris, 17, discovered that at her very age, Hamilton had written documents tackling issues on colonization, equality and many others.
“It showed that even kids our age have an influence on people and can be leaders,” she said.
As a winner of the New Nation Project, a program run by the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, Parris saw “Hamilton” on April 21. The contest allotted nearly 250 “Hamilton” tickets to high school students who wrote letters to state representatives discussing an issue and proposing a solution. Parris chose to write to her local representative in the Utah Legislature, Sen. Kevin T. VanTassel, about bullying and violence in schools.
Although Parris attended “Hamilton” with the senator, she’s still looking forward to attending the musical once again — this time with her EduHam peers.
“I think it’s great that so many students are getting involved in history,” she said. “When I went to see ‘Hamilton’, we had one other student from Uintah actually there … and I just thought it was really cool that our kids are getting involved.”
For Watkins, it’s been a joy to watch the excitement surrounding “Hamilton” permeate the halls of Uintah High School.
“People all over the country are reading Ron Chernow’s book and having a greater appreciation for this single individual, and that’s what the kids pull away from it is this one person made a huge difference in our history, and (that) they themselves … can make a mark on history,” she said.
While history teacher Mike Morrell was thrilled to see his students at Provo's Walden School “nerding out” over events such as the Boston Massacre — one created a rap about the March 5, 1770, street fight — he’s also been impressed with how the EduHam curriculum has influenced his 38 students beyond the historical lessons.
“After ‘Hamilton’ came out … , there was a weird interest in the Founding Era whereas before, you could not get students interested to save your life,” he said. “But after doing (the EduHam) program, I’ve noticed kids are questioning history a lot — questioning what they know, diving into primary sources and using that information. … But beyond history, it gets them thinking about … going directly to the source, (which is) especially (valuable) in an age of social media where information gets passed on and changes as it goes on.”
Like Watkins, Morrell has also seen his students develop greater awareness about the power of one person to create a lasting legacy. One of his students, Starly Donahue, wrote a poem about Abigail Adams to illustrate that very point.
“With nothing more expected of me than to marry and raise a family,
I was denied formal education,
but my father gave me the gift of literacy.
While corsets were forced on me,
I read books on history and policy
that became my second oxygen.”
“I love John Adams, but
that will not be my legacy.
I have a head of my own and I want it to be shown
boldly through the letters I write
to help guide this country's people to their freedom.”
For instructors such as Baker and Watkins, who teach in some of Utah’s more rural areas, the EduHam program has given many of their students meaningful and life-changing experiences that otherwise might never have happened.
“I'm always looking for opportunities for my students because we live out in the middle of Utah and we’re so rural that oftentimes … we don’t have the opportunities unless we really reach out,” Baker said. “When people far away who don’t even know who we are will reach out to us and give to us opportunities, we can create incredible moments in learning.
“If these kids never had … any other experience than this, in some ways — and it’s a large statement I’m making — it would be enough. They will never be the same because of what happened to them in this process.”