Students from Harper Woods High School joined 3,900 students from across the Detroit area for a special performance of the hit musical “Hamilton” April 11 after participating in a program where they created their own historically themed performance project.

Students from Harper Woods High School joined 3,900 students from across the Detroit area for a special performance of the hit musical “Hamilton” April 11 after participating in a program where they created their own historically themed performance project.

Photo provided by Monica Bisha

Harper Woods students learn through ‘Hamilton’

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published April 11, 2019


HARPER WOODS — A group of Harper Woods High School students are getting the chance to experience the hit musical “Hamilton” while making their own creations exploring the time period of the Revolutionary War.

The students created projects based on American history by following the same writing process as “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda, before they got to see a production of the musical at the Fisher Theatre April 11. It is part of a program created by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to promote history and cultural education.

“We’re an affiliate school for Gilder Lehrman, which is an amazing organization headquartered in New York, which has a variety of programs supporting social studies education,” said Monica Bisha, the social studies teacher leading the program at Harper Woods High School. “We’ve worked with them for six years. They give us free materials every month, and three years ago, when the play originated on Broadway, they teamed up with the cast and creators to create a program for students to create projects based on the era of the Founding Fathers.” 

Harper Woods High School joined the program last year and took 13 students to Chicago, where the musical was performed. The program expanded to 51 students after Gilder Lehrman announced it would be including Detroit on the 2019 tour of cities.

The school project is done over the course of two months. Students can choose a variety of topics to cover for their projects. They examine historical sources and find inspiration for their creations.

“To go, each student has to submit their own original work. They submitted songs, poems, rap lyrics. … None of our students were selected to perform onstage, but it is still very exciting,” Bisha said. “The kids talked about an event like the Boston Tea Party or Boston Massacre or made something from the perspective of a soldier in a battle or a slave at the time. It’s so interesting to see what they come up with.”

The performance itself highlights both the work of several participating students and “Hamilton” itself. The program also charges only $10 per student, a low price to see the hit Broadway musical.

“The program chooses several students to present their own creations prior to the play, and there’s a Q&A with the cast,” said Bisha. 

Bisha said the program takes an entirely unique approach to educating students and engaging with them to improve their understanding and knowledge of history.

“It’s the only program I’ve ever seen that’s truly cross-curricular and experiential,” she said. “They’ve done a great job to let students look at primary sources and use them as tools to learn and create something new. I was at a meeting last night and was talking with one of the Gilder Lehrman people, who said this is one of the only days you know these students will remember about their high school experience. You just don’t know what the effect on these students could be.”

Harper Woods High School Assistant Principal Mike Carrauthers said this is an outstanding experience that allows students to learn in a different manner.

“I think it’s beneficial because it speaks to history in a language the students understand,” he said. “It uses facts and content, but using that in a hip-hop and rap context they grasp. Combining that with the audio and visual of the performance, it communicates the facts about figures like Alexander Hamilton better than a book, which is very static for many students. This puts it in a real-life situation, which makes it more real for young people.”

He also believes other schools could benefit by looking at why this program is effective and how it has resonated with students.

“I think other educators can use this as an opportunity to look at how students learn,” said Carrauthers. “There are several factors going on in a classroom. We know some of the best educational experiences occur when teachers are giving a lesson in line with how students learn best. A visual learner will not learn best when listening to a lecture. This Hamilton program allows students who learn differently a better chance to explore the material.”

Bisha said the program is unlike anything else she has ever seen as an educator.

“I’m a bit of a nut about this play, and it’s so exciting that we get to take these kids,” she said. “So much of what we do is geared toward preparing for a test, and it’s great to have something that feels more real than just filling in a bubble on a test.”

Call Staff Writer Brendan Losinski at (586) 498-1068.