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Students rap, rhyme their way through U.S. history, ‘Hamilton’-style

Heading to Chicago to see hit musical

Lee High School sophomore Tavien Bradley knows a good beat and flow when he hears them, but could he do justice through a freestyle rap to describe the legendary duel between Founding Era politicians Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr?

Turns out all it took was some research on the fatal event, an old-school flow and enough confidence to drop this verse: “Two politicians on a mission, Hamilton and Burr just dissin,’ everybody pistol-whippin.’” So begins his 1 minute, 40 second rap.

“I just started writing the lyrics down and they kept coming out of my brain,” said Tavien, who learned to rap from his dad, Tramaine Bradley.

Sophomores and juniors are learning American history and weaving it into raps, poetry and dramatic skits about events and people tied to the American Revolution. All is in preparation for a trip to see “Hamilton,” the Tony Award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago May 23.

Tavien’s rap caught the attention of teachers, who submitted it for consideration to be presented on stage at The CIBC Theatre the day of the matinee. He will find out if he was selected before the date of the performance, which will also include a question-and-answer period with the cast.

Lee High School sophomore Tavien Bradley created a rap about the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

Old Documents Become New Expression

The district applied for the trip through the Hamilton Education Program, which gives students from Title 1 high schools the chance to attend the musical for just $10 each. The program is a collaboration of Hamilton producers and the Miranda family, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. A requirement is for students to make their own creative pieces tied to events that took place during the founding of the U.S.

“The idea behind this unit is to understand how the writer of ‘Hamilton’ took primary-source documents and turned them into creative expression,” said English teacher Lisa Britten. “It’s just the idea of digging into history in a different way and having it culminate in an experience that is something they normally wouldn’t get to have.

“It’s a pretty rare opportunity to see this show as it is because it is so popular,” she added. “I’m really excited to take our kids to experience something like this because it will just broaden their horizons.”

Brian Cahoon, department chair of social studies, is helping organize the trip. He said it’s impressive looking over students’ creative pieces and seeing all the events, people and concepts present in each piece. “It kind of makes the history come alive, but it ultimately makes them understand it better,” he said.

Juniors Gabrielle Sainz and Yuribizay Damian presented a rap they wrote together that begins, “I, Benjamin Franklin, born in Boston. … I ran away to Philly with some caution.”

They said they can’t wait to see “Hamilton.”

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Gabrielle said. “The prices are high and I would have never been able to afford that. With this little project that we put together giving us the opportunity to go there, I’m thankful for that. Putting it together was pretty easy; we just let it flow.”

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Hamilton Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda: The Rolling Stone Interview

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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