Teacher Turns 'Hamilton' into History Lesson

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June 8, 2018

By Kymberli Wregglesworth
Onaway High School

I can’t describe the joy I felt when I received the email from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History that our school had been accepted into the Hamilton Education Program. My students, from our tiny town in northern Michigan, were going to have the opportunity to travel to Chicago to see the award–winning show “Hamilton: An American Musical.”

My school is quite remote, and many of my students had never been out of northern Michigan, let alone out of the state. Most definitely, many of them had never been to a city the size of Chicago, and almost none of them had attended a professional stage production.

When I told the students we were going, there was a mix of reactions. Some students were big fans of the show – one of them was even in tears – and others had never heard of it and only knew Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill in their pocket. Nevertheless, they were all excited for the opportunity to make the trip and see the show. They quickly brought in their $10 for tickets, and we worked to raise the funds to charter a bus so we wouldn’t have to make the 800 mile round trip on a school bus. Our community quickly helped us meet our fundraising goal, and we even raised enough extra to treat our group to Chicago-style, deep dish pizza.

Prior to the trip, Gilder Lehrman sent us a class set of booklets and a teacher’s guide that included lessons on the life of Alexander Hamilton, other Revolutionary leaders, and the Revolutionary Era. Once we completed the lessons and I introduced my students to a number of the songs from the musical, each student – alone or in a small group – had to develop a creative project based upon a person, document or event from the time period. The Gilder Lehrman website offered a number of primary documents for students to utilize in their research, and the requirement that the assignment be a poem, song, skit, monologue or other creative project was a combination that promoted deep inquiry and artistic inspiration.

Using music, and a musical like “Hamilton” specifically, can encourage students who may not ordinarily connect with history to take interest. And in viewing the show – seeing the Founding Fathers as the rock stars I and other lovers of history know them to be – I think that my students have a new appreciation for the Founders as human beings who, although great, also had flaws. The humanity came through in the story and the music in such a better way than it ever could in a textbook or even a biography. My students left Chicago with an appreciation of theater and a better understanding of how these flawed men created a nation that is still struggling with its flaws, over 200 years later.

Interested in participating in the Hamilton Education Program? Sign up as a Gilder Lehrman affiliate school at https://www.gilderlehrman.org/ and apply. As the show tours across the U.S., a number of cities will be visited, including Detroit, and the show will be continuing in Chicago through at least the end of 2018. Gilder Lehrman affiliate schools have access to a number of free resources, as well as summer institutes for teachers, monthly distributions of books, posters and more, and student essay contests with cash prizes.
Kymberli Wregglesworth is a Michigan Teacher of the Year Regional Finalist who teaches history at Onaway High School in Onaway Area Community Schools. She's also known as the superhero Pop Quiz, a member of The Educators.
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