Future of Learning

‘Hamilton,’ cultural relevance and the quest to personalize learning

Some teachers tap into students' cultures in class, but study finds that other ways of personalizing are more common

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When Eleni Saridis taught the founding era in her U.S. history class this year, she described the American revolution and then expanded on the lesson, making connections to historical events in Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean. The vast majority of Saridis’s students are Latino, and at the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Boston, a dual-language high school in Boston Public Schools, connecting the curriculum to their culture is a top priority.

This strategy of tapping into students’ own experiences as part of a lesson plan is an increasingly common one in U.S. schools, as teachers attempt to make a traditional, Eurocentric curriculum personally interesting to a diverse student body.

In the Colonial School District in New Castle, Delaware, educators are moving away from traditional textbooks and using open educational resources to bring more diverse perspectives into the curriculum. In Henrico County Public Schools, near Richmond, Virginia, the district is building new libraries and stocking them with books whose characters reflect the demographics of the student body.

Tapping into students’ cultures in the curriculum fits, logically, into efforts to personalize learning. But a recent study by Social Policy Research Associates for the Bush Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by 3M executive Archibald Bush and his wife, Edyth, found that when teachers think about personalized learning, very few think about the idea of cultural relevance. According to Sengsouvanh Leshnick, director of the Social Policy Research Associates’ education division, it is much more common for teachers to think about personalizing the learning experience based on students’ learning preferences or career interests than their cultural backgrounds.

The organization is working on a framework to help schools make their work with students more culturally relevant. While many schools don’t consider this a primary responsibility, at the center of the framework is supporting student identity formation and affirmation. Also, the framework includes responsive teaching styles, family engagement, student-teacher relationships and, at the foundation, a focus on and commitment to academic equity.

Related: A Spanish-English high school proves learning in two languages can boost graduation rates

Researchers presented the framework in its working form at the iNACOL Symposium in Nashville last week.

Back in Boston, Saridis wrapped up her unit on the founding era with a trip to the Boston Opera House to see a performance of the musical “Hamilton,” as part of the Hamilton Education Program. The show presented a rare opportunity for Latino and black students to see people like themselves in leadership roles at the time of the nation’s founding, as the show’s central twist is to cast people of color as the founding fathers and their contemporaries. The show also adds hip hop – a genre created in the black community – to more traditional Broadway ballads.

Jahmo Chavez, a 16-year-old at the Greater Lawrence Technical High School who saw the musical, said he loved the idea of “the history of America being told by America now.” That was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rationale for his casting. And it’s a hook that has reeled in record audiences.

The Hamilton Education Program capitalizes on that interest, teaching all the traditional stories about the nation’s founding while also introducing students to people they might not have heard of. Tim Bailey, director of education for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and developer of the “EduHam” curriculum, said the Hamilton Education Program presents people of color and women as voices from the founding era that are often overlooked.

Saridis and other Boston-area teachers said their students were more engaged in the materials this year, thanks to the Hamilton Education Program lessons and the musical’s star power.

Yanifred Galarza, a 15-year-old student of Saridis’s, was particularly struck by a black George Washington, played by Paul Oakley Stovall in the Boston performance. To her, it showed that anyone can play George Washington, and that, she said, is cool.

Jasmarie Centeno, a student at Boston’s Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, said she appreciated what Miranda had accomplished in writing the musical. Lessons in U.S. history, she said, generally go like this: “White man did this, then died.”

In “Hamilton,” students still hear the stories of the country’s all-white founding fathers, but the novel delivery makes all the difference.

“He made something boring interesting,” Jasmarie said of Miranda.

Teachers across the country are finding they don’t need a hit Broadway musical to do the same.

This story about cultural relevance in the curriculum was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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