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Thousands Of San Diego Students Get Lesson In History From ‘Hamilton’

A photo of "Hamilton" cast members (from left)  Ruben J. Carbajal, Michael Luwoye, Jordan Donica and Mathenee Treco.
Joan Marcus
A photo of "Hamilton" cast members (from left) Ruben J. Carbajal, Michael Luwoye, Jordan Donica and Mathenee Treco.

Getting tickets to the Broadway musical “Hamilton” isn’t an easy feat. But for thousands of San Diego high schoolers, all it took was a little learning.

More than 2,800 11th-graders will fill the San Diego Civic Theatre Thursday for a matinee performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s modern take on America’s founding. It’s the culmination of an education program brought to 46 San Diego schools by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a New York-based nonprofit that provides history curriculum to K-12 schools.

In December, U.S. history classes across the county learned about the founding fathers by doing what Miranda did — translating historical primary-source documents into songs, poetry and rap.

Thousands Of San Diego Students Get Lesson In History From ‘Hamilton’

“It was something I never thought of doing before,” said Shelly Steely, a teacher at Twain High School in the San Diego Unified School District. Her students spent two weeks on the lesson and their own artistic interpretations. “English lends itself naturally to music and poetry and performance, but we don’t often think of that with history. That’s kind of the whole idea behind ‘Hamilton’ — Lin-Manuel Miranda said, ‘This is a play. It writes itself.’”

Indeed, student Zsanae Jones said the drama and people behind the history made things more interesting for her.

“I haven’t had anything like this before,” she said. “I think it definitely helped me with knowing history and how America came to be, especially since we think it’s all perfect and things like that, but there are still scandals, everyone still is human.”

Esmy Perez said she preferred English over history, until ‘Hamilton’ brought them together.

“It was a better learning style for me than just, you know, the teacher giving a lesson and writing down notes,” she said. “I learned on my own.”

That’s music to Tim Bailey’s ears. He’s the director of education at the Gilder Lehrman Institute and crafted the curriculum.

“Teachers should be guides for students and not interpreters when it comes to American history, so teaching students academic independence when it comes to analysis of really complex texts,” he said. “When you look at something like 18th century writing, that’s not just tough for students, that can be tough for adults to understand. So teaching them skills on how to unlock that text is a big part of the success of this program.”

So far, the program has served tens of thousands of high schoolers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Funding from Qualcomm, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Toys 'R' Us Children’s Fund helped get it to San Diego, where, at least in Steely’s class, it will stay even after the show moves on. She said she plans to use the curriculum year after year.

Thousands Of San Diego Students Get Lesson In History From ‘Hamilton’
The students are being treated to a special matinee performance of “Hamilton” following classroom lessons inspired by the hit musical.