March 14, 2019

'Hamilton' awakens history for Lake Placid students

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Caption: Lake Placid students on stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Photo by Brenden Gotham.

Since landing an unexpected trip to the Broadway musical “Hamilton” this semester, Lake Placid High School history students realize American history was personal, messy, turbulent and imaginative.

“They make connections in class now,” said Keith Clark, who teaches 8th grade history and 11th grade AP U.S. History. “Now, they say, ‘Hamilton started the bank!’”

As secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington, Hamilton was one of the Founding Fathers. For decades, this former soldier was involved in politics center stage, from the sidelines and behind the scenes.

Clark said the founding era is part of the 11th grade curriculum. When the news came in mid-December that they had been accepted to see the show in February, studies focused on the Hamilton Education Program. This program uses a curriculum from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which provided the Broadway tickets.

“It helped them make connections with the new nation, and Alexander’s part in it,” said Lake Placid teacher Jeanette Duggan. Milestones include the crafting of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. “It was cutthroat; it was difficult. They’re seeing it’s not cut and dried; and checks and balances need to work!”

“Sadly, divisiveness has always been part of the political realm,” said Brenden Gotham, theater teacher and co-president of the Lake Placid Educators Association. “It’s not linear…whether it’s civil rights, or gay rights, movements take steps back, but we continue to fight. Once liberties are attained, they’re not guaranteed.”

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Left to right, standing: Lake Placid Educators Association members Brenden Gotham, Jeanette Duggan, Kim Weems, and Keith Clark with students (below) Alyssa Hoffman and Anya Morgan. Photo provided.

The play showed the students that, “They need to participate and become active citizens. They need to be part of change,” Duggan said.

The trip was a collaborative effort from the community, teachers, administrators and parents who raised money to pay expenses. Gilder Lehrman has been awarding tickets to different Title I schools that apply.

Gotham believes they are the first school outside of New York City to be awarded tickets.

Clark said when he first applied two years ago, he was told the program was for students in the five boroughs.

“I just kind of kept applying,” he said.

The Lake Placid students had to put together a skit, song or creative piece about Hamilton using primary sources. They could work individually or in groups. They were assigned a dramatic advisor to check relevance and history, and to assist them with blocking and delivery.

Gotham, who directs the school’s plays, and teacher Kim Weems from the musical department collaborated with a group of high school English teachers. The student performances were recorded, and the teachers chose one performance video to send to Hamilton Education. Out of all the students attending from 15-20 schools, the best nine videos were chosen -- including one with Lake Placid’s Alyssa Hoffman and Anya Morgan. They created a scene where Hamilton’s wife confronts him regarding an affair and subsequent blackmail, and they performed it on stage on Broadway.

For the students, the trip was not only a chance to witness history as the audience for a hot-ticket Broadway show, but it was an opportunity to look around. Gotham said they were the only white students in the audience.

“Our kids got to see what it felt like to be in the minority,” he said. Diversity was not only present in the seats, but on stage. Although the characters were white in real life, the play uses a diverse set of actors.

Prior to the show, cast members came out for a question-and-answer period with the student audience. The actors and the teachers talked about race and diversity and how important it is for students to have exposure to different parts of society and culture. It can be as simple as a kid who loves sports being exposed to theater.

The Greeks considered it a duty to go to the theater, said Gotham. “Many important messages are through the art. The truth that’s contained in fiction can be more powerful than fact.”

To prepare students for the play, the Lake Placid teachers showed a clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda at the White House in 2009, performing a spoken word poem that would later become as the opening number of the Broadway show.

At the time, people laughed when he said he was doing a play about Alexander Hamilton.

Nobody’s laughing now, said Gotham.

Initially, some students said they were not into theater, Gotham said. But even those kids left the show bedazzled, saying, “That’s really amazing!”