Gorham Middle School seventh-grader Gavin Lavoie performs a rap song that he wrote as part of a social studies lesson that used the hit Broadway show “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Staff photo by Gregory Rec

GORHAM — Joleen Gima is not throwing away her shot.

In a soft but steady voice, the Gorham Middle School seventh-grader raps “Orphan Soldier” as her classmates freeze to listen.

They’ve all been given the same social studies assignment: Playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, overwhelmed by the success of his Broadway hit “Hamilton: An American Musical,” needs another song for his show. Go.

“The battle of Monmouth Burr suffered a heat stroke,” Gima reads, finding the rhythm in her song about Aaron Burr’s life. “He was so disappointed his heart nearly broke // Burr decided times were getting rough // In 1779 he resigned, he had enough! //1784 Burr got into politics // He wanted to help resolve some conflicts.”

Applause bursts out as she finishes, her classmates smiling and laughing as they muster their courage to read their own works aloud.

“They were phenomenal,” said teaching intern Pamela Marshall, who created the “Hamilton” lesson for the social studies class. “The best thing is they surprised themselves.”

“They were phenomenal,” said Pamela Marshall, a teaching intern, about the Gorham Middle School seventh-graders who created their own songs inspired by the Broadway rap musical “Hamilton.” “The best thing is they surprised themselves,” Marshall said. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Marshall’s decision to use the songs and storyline of the wildly popular Broadway musical to teach history is part of a nationwide movement. The rap musical about the life of Founding Father and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton has won 11 Tony awards and the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

But the real sign of its popularity has been the sky-high prices – the best seats on Broadway sell for at least $849 – and sold-out runs, both in New York and on tour. Miranda and the cast performed selections in the Obama White House and its multiethnic cast and message about immigrants tapped into a cultural conversation about race and what it means to be American.

The play’s educational potential was realized almost immediately, with the 2015 creation of the Hamilton Education Program (#EduHam), funded by a $1.5 million grant by The Rockefeller Foundation to the Gilder Lehrman Institute. The program includes online resources such as Hamilton-related lesson plans, videos, essays and links to historical documents – and $10 tickets to see the play for some low-income students.

In an interview with Newsweek, Miranda said he initially only counted on school groups being enthusiastic about the play.

“I was quietly confident that we’d get lots of school groups,” Miranda said. “History teachers have been using the White House clip since it went up in 2009, so I knew they’d come see the finished product and hopefully bring their students. Everyone else has been a revelation,” he told Newsweek, adding that the dedicated student matinees arranged through the Hamilton Education Program have been the most gratifying recognition for the show, “no question.”

Joleen Gima, seventh-grade songwriter, said she’d never heard of “Hamilton” before it came up in class. Now, she listens to it nonstop.

“At these matinees, before the show starts, they perform their own history-inspired works for their peers and our company. And they are the most rollicking, spirited, inspiring audiences I’ve had the privilege to perform for in my life,” Miranda said. “My only regret about leaving the role is the energy from those student matinees. They have changed my life.”

For students and teachers farther away from Broadway, they are largely on their own.

Small organic efforts like Marshall’s tend to come from passionate fans, like Addie Matteson, an Indiana elementary school librarian who created a series of “Hami-lessons” and posted them online at the School Library Journal website.

“I’ve been floored by the growing impact of this show on my students,” Matteson wrote online. “Many have listened to the whole cast recording. They refer to it in their history lessons, and they rap in the halls.”

At Yarmouth High School, Marc Halsted had a similar epiphany after a student gave him the soundtrack as a thank you present for writing a college recommendation letter.

“I listened to it for a month, and came up with all these ideas for how to use it,” said Halsted, who teaches five sections of Advanced Placement U.S. History.

“Hamilton: An American Musical,” a hip-hop Broadway show about the life of Founding Father and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, has won 11 Tony awards, the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Photo by Joan Marcus

“I was stunned at how well it went over with my students,” Halsted said. He used the material to “totally revamp” his standard George Washington lecture, and even better, spice up his talk on the Assumption Bill.

“It is one of the single most boring moments. It is nauseatingly boring to teach,” he said of the Assumption Bill, put forward by Hamilton to allow the federal government to assume debts accumulated by the states during the American Revolutionary War.

But “The Room Where It Happened,” the song from “Hamilton” about the meeting that broke the legislative impasse, isn’t boring at all.

“All of a sudden I’m playing the song, then watching the scene from (Public Broadcasting Service’s) ‘Hamilton’s America,’ and the kids are totally into it,” he said. “And they don’t forget the importance of the Assumption Bill.”

Gima, 12, said that’s what’s happened to her.

She’d never heard of “Hamilton” before it came up in class, and now she plugs in her earbuds and listens to it nonstop at home and while she’s doing homework.

“I fell in love with it,” Gima said.

‘Orphan Soldier’ by Joleen Gima and Tessa Dol
The text of “Orphan Soldier,” a rap by Gorham Middle School students Joleen Gima and Tessa Dol

Hey let’s talk about the American Revolution,

About a guy who changed the course of evolution

Against the British he fought to find a solution

Aaron Burr, durr

Let’s talk in case your memory’s quite a blur.

He was born in New Jersey, 1765

This point Burr’s life didn’t quite thrive

Just a year later his parents didn’t survive

Burr and his sister lived with their uncle for the rest of their lives

Burr was no fool,

At just the age of the 13 he finished high school,

He then studied theology at Princeton University

But then he experienced a diversity

Burr decided theology wasn’t cool and then went on with his cousin to law school

1775 Lexington and Con-cord

Burr knew the colonists would lose which they couldn’t af-ford

Burr then enlisted into the Continental Army

Which was actually kinda pretty gnarly.

Burr went on the expedition to Quebec

Where he saved more than just one neck

Burr then was declared captaincy

And a place in Washington’s staff casually

Later Burr quit Washington’s staff

Which gave everyone a questionable laugh

Burr wanted to be on the battlefield

So he picked up his sword and grabbed his shield

It was 1776 the British landed

Washington wanted to leave the barricade stranded

But Burr rescued the barricade

And said Washington don’t rain on my parade.

The battle of Monmouth Burr suffered a heat stroke

He was so disappointed his heart nearly broke

Burr decided times were getting rough

In 1779 he resigned, he had enough!

1784 Burr got into politics

He wanted to help resolve some conflicts

He became a senator in 1791

But that was just the start of his political run.

In the year of 1800 Burr ran for president

But the votes for Burr weren’t quite evident

Thomas Jefferson won and was pretty nice

So Burr then decided to become the vice.

July 11th 1804,

Burr shot Hamilton to the floor

Arrested in Louisiana 1804

Looks like colonists’ memory needed a fix

Cause Burr lived freely and died in 1836.

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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Twitter: noelinmaine