“I wrote a paper on Hamilton in the eleventh grade and got a B- on it,” Lin-Manuel Miranda admits, laughing. He laughs a lot during our conversation — and rightfully so. Miranda has an extensive list of reasons to smile these days, and most have something to do with “Hamilton,” a hip-hop musical about a founding father that he wrote and starred in. The play has been deemed the “most unlikely cultural phenomenon of our generation.”
After reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Miranda was inspired to rewrite and remix the narrative. “I was reading the book and at the end of the second chapter, I said to my wife, ‘I feel like I know this guy.’”
For Miranda, the creative process begins with empathy. “It starts with understanding a character, or thinking about a character that won’t leave you alone.”
Before making it big on Broadway, however, Miranda pursued the arts in college and worked as an English teacher at Hunter College High School in Manhattan — an influential stage of his life.
“It was one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had,” he explains. “It wasn’t about getting up in front of the class and having all eyes on you — that’s not how great teaching happens.”
Mind the gap
In a recent New York Times essay, writer Motoko Rich called attention to the sharp declines in enrollment in teacher training programs. From mandated curriculum to intimidating administrators, this shortage finds the country’s future in limbo.
The problem is multifaceted. At a time when public school enrollment is surging, large numbers of teachers are approaching retirement or leaving the industry because of dissatisfaction with working conditions. However, Miranda recalls a different experience.
“The finest moments of teaching are when you’re not saying much at all; when you’re lifting the discussion up and keeping the ball in the air for the kids to draw from each other,” he explains. “Like great actors, great teachers know how to listen. It’s not about being in the center, it’s about being part of the moment and being present.”
Meditating on language
More than most, Miranda knows the weight of the written word.
“Writing makes you a better reader and reading makes you a better writer. These things feed each other,” he says. For children, writing provides a vessel for self-expression. No matter the grade level, diligent writing practice boosts comfort with language and emotion.
“I ended every class with five minutes of free writing,” he recalls. “I’d play some music and the kids would write. My only rule was that you couldn’t stop writing. For many of them, it was the only relaxing moment of their day.”
Miranda believes that the lessons he learned as a teacher continue to help him on and off the stage.
“Any nerves that I had about being in front of a crowd were gone by the first week of teaching,” he shares. “It’s the old anxiety dream of being in front of an audience and not knowing what you’re supposed to do.”
In a survey of educators by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, 80 percent of respondents said they had decided to teach because they enjoyed working with young people. This was followed by 75 percent who said they hoped to make a difference.
“It’s not about making a bunch of artists out of high school students,” Miranda says. “Art is the gateway to so many other professions: It’s doing the school play and learning you like to boss people around so you become a manager, or that you really liked being on a tech crew so you go into whatever that leads to. It widens the aperture of your very small high school universe.”
Despite a proven track record, art programs are often the first to be cut, if budget cuts are necessary. Miranda’s advice for teachers? Mobilize.
“Parents will give what little they have if it’s something that their kids feel passionate about,” he urges. “In high school, we didn’t have a huge budget from the school. The money came from us soliciting parents and writing letters. We ran it like a telethon — it’s about mobilizing your community to make up for shortfalls your school may have.”
Today Miranda continues to give back as an outspoken advocate for arts education. In 2015, he partnered with “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gilder Lehrman Institute to provide 20,000 public school students with the opportunity to see “Hamilton” and integrate it into their classroom studies.
Art education develops creativity and problem-solving skills, improves judgment and encourages inventiveness, helping promote innovative thinkers.
“It’s not writing a novel, it’s not making a sculpture. You are bringing a puzzle piece to the table, but it doesn’t get completed unless you learn how to work with people from various different disciplines: with actors, with choreographers, with lighting designers, with costume designers,” he says. “What makes theater special is that you cannot do it alone.”
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