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Greenport students hip-hop their way to ‘Hamilton’

Greenport student Melody Silie, 16, said her heart was racing before she and her classmates entered the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City Dec. 5. One of her dreams, she said, was to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Hamilton” — and it came true.

“I made sure I sat down in the middle of the first row, I was sitting in the orchestra section,” she recalled. “As soon as the music started, I was in the zone. I cried during part of it. I had the soundtrack memorized.”

Melody is one of 70 Greenport High School students who attended the matinee performance. Through a grant from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History New York , the students paid only $10 per ticket. The funding was made available from The Rockefeller Foundation.

The institute, founded in 1994, creates programs and resources that have benefited millions of students and thousands of teachers across the country.

Melody said she found out she was seeing the musical on the first day of school. 

“We were just told we had a surprise trip going on [and] we had to do work for that in October,” she said. “We basically figured out that we were seeing ‘Hamilton,’ but we kept it on the down-low.”

The institute created a curriculum for high school juniors — the Hamilton Project — that merges English and history. The coursework, which Greenport students began in October, encouraged them to use some of the same primary source documents Mr. Miranda consulted when he wrote the musical. 

Each student enrolled in 11th-grade English and American history received a study guide for the coursework. Other courses at Greenport, including broadcast journalism and some AP courses, also followed the curriculum. 

Special education teacher K Damon, who helped Greenport apply for the grant, said the curriculum guides students through Mr. Miranda’s experiences after reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. 

“It was the process that he took, which is a lot of what we do in American history — we take a look at primary source documents and then write from there,” K said. “It takes you through all of the steps of how one can create.”

The curriculum also asked students to create art relating to the musical.

“Some students wrote letters, poems, some wrote songs, some wrote raps,” K said. “It’s interesting to see how they breathe life into this world.”

Students were encouraged to submit their songs to the Gilder Lehrman Institute, which would then select a handful of students to perform before the show. Melody said she submitted a ballad written from the perspective of Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth, expressing her heartbreak.

Through additional donations to the district, K said, a bus was made available to transport students into Manhattan for the performance.

The day of the show, students from Greenport and 17 other school districts across the state gathered at the theater and watched fellow students perform selected songs and raps. Melody said the audience felt like “a family.”

“Everyone was dancing along, we were all supporting each other,” Melody said.

No Greenport students were selected to perform in the student recital, but the district recognized their work during a Nov. 30 assembly at which some of them performed. 

Students better grasp history topics, K said, when teachers use art in the classroom.

“It’s easier for kids to remember through art,” the teacher said. “I really am a firm believer in using the arts as a teaching tool, as well as making sure young people see live theater.”

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Photo caption: Greenport students attended the Dec. 5 showing of Hamilton in New York City. (Courtesy photo)