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Musical Theater Brings History to Life

Musical Theater Brings History to Life

Studying a play during English class is part of the educational standards for tenth graders throughout Ohio. When making this year’s lesson plans, Lakota East’s Courtney Jacobs wanted to find a play that her students would be excited to study - something that would grab their attention. 

Studying a play can be challenging for any tenth-grade student, but Jacobs’ students also have an additional barrier: the English language. There are 56 different languages spoken by Lakota students. With more than 1,300 students receiving services through the district’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program, teachers like Jacobs are not only teaching lessons, but doing so in a way that will engage students and help break through this barrier.

Jacobs teamed up with Innovation Specialist Michelle Wilkerson to brainstorm new ideas to do just that and came up with Hamilton. While the critically acclaimed Broadway musical might not be set in modern times, the music and popularity certainly are. 

As with any class throughout Lakota, incorporating personalized learning is important to Jacobs. “My students work at different levels so we are using playlists to differentiate their learning,” she explained. Students can pick and choose activities to complete from their playlists as they study the play. The options might include an article about Hamiliton or a quiz on vocabulary, the characters or plot. The students are grouped into teams (Hamilton, Burr, Washington and Jefferson, of course) and can earn points for completing different activities.

As an innovation specialist, Wilkerson helps teachers think outside the box about how they present a lesson, tailoring the material to meet each student’s unique learning needs. As they worked together to reimagine the unit, Jacobs and Wilkerson discovered that Hamilton was coming to Dayton in January and their plans took a dramatic turn when they asked, “what if.”

Through private donations, the East PTSO and Eastside Angels fund, Wilkerson secured tickets to a weekday matinee, transportation and lunch. Then, the lesson plans pivoted again.

“For most of our students, this would be the first time they ever experienced live theatre,” said Wilkerson. To prepare the students, they learned about what to wear, theatre etiquette and the inner workings of putting on a live performance. Wilkerson and Jacobs enlisted the help of East’s choir and theatre classes so that the students could learn about different aspects of a performance. “When we visited the choir class, we talked about rhythms and multiple people singing at one time,” explained Wilkerson. Jacobs’ students also shared with the choir class about singing in their cultures and how it is different than in America. 

“I liked how they explained how different people sing different parts,” said Leena Omar, one of Jacobs’ students. She put that new knowledge to use when listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. “When you listen to the songs now, you can hear it.”

When the students headed to the theatre class, they learned about set design, costumes and what it’s like to be backstage. They also learned that students make the sets at East, which amazed Charlie Mateo. “When the sets are made, everything has a purpose.”

They were also able to get a glimpse of what it might be like to be an actor by looking out over the seats from center stage. “I don’t know how actors do it!” Omar exclaimed.

Before attending the performance, students were asked to share their thoughts and expectations about the show: What are they excited about and what do they hope will happen. The general consensus? Everyone was excited, a little nervous and extremely grateful.

Although the timing of the performance didn’t quite align with lesson plans - they’re only about a quarter of the way through studying the play - the students were happy to adjust. To prepare for the field trip, they listened to the soundtrack and watched videos of the musical. 

As the unit continues, Jacobs would like to continue teaming up with other classes to enhance her students’ learning. “Sometimes there is not as much retention because of the language barrier,” she explained, noting that expanding on the content in different ways can help overcome this. “As we get to Act II and when it gets more political, I want to partner with a government teacher.” For now, Jacobs breaks down each scene for her students. They summarize what has happened, and she often sprinkles in fun facts about the original Broadway production.

While seeing Hamilton live on stage is certainly the highlight of the unit, the students are also excited to learn about American history - especially through music. “We’re learning a lot about history through the songs,” said Omar. “I’d love to learn history this way.”

“The songs make you pay attention,” said Zulekha Osman. Classmate Shafia Ahmad is looking forward to learning more about Alexander Hamilton and his life.

For Omar, she’s also looking forward to in-class learning to help clarify a few things. “I hope when we read more we’ll understand better. The actors speak really fast.”

So what did they think of the show? “This was the best field trip ever” was a statement that Jacobs and Wilkerson both heard over and over - and agreed with. “I was crying and laughing at the same time,” said Omar. “I wasn’t expecting to have these emotions.”

Louis Gerracio may have summed it up best. “It was a beautiful show and the actors had beautiful voices.”

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