At I.S. 289, Social Studies and a Bit of Trump Go Into 7th Grade Musical

From left: Fiona Wong, Alex Chee and Enver Desic in a scene from "Unity Summer." Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 01, 2017

With a cast of five and a crew of 85, I.S. 289’s 7th grade class staged a musical production late last month, inspired by a year’s worth of social studies learning—and a bit of Donald Trump.

From make-up artists and musicians to carpenters, electricians and set designers, all 90 kids had a role to play in “Unity Summer,” billed as an “opera” but with speaking parts, too. This is the 12th year that the school has produced a show based on themes that emerged through the school year, a concept introduced by social studies teacher Marc Todd.

“It gives the students an opportunity to work in a real world sense. It’s not just textbooks and Ditto sheets and things like that,” said literacy teacher Jennifer Rogers. “They get to encounter what it’s like to work in a different type of group and take on some real-world positions.”

“Every year it’s pretty current,” added Yelena Berdichevsky, who teaches math. “Whatever they experience that year seems to drive their writing.”

This school year, in a multi-step, collaborative process the kids winnowed down their themes of study to “unity” and “change,” which then went to the writers to turn into a story and songs around a larger theme they called unity overcomes change.

That story takes place at summer camp where rich counselor-in-training Mathew, according to the program, is a “narcissist” and “very impulsive, which doesn’t mix well with being in leadership roles.” He wants to do away with the Social Action Club and spend the money on security.

If that sounds like a certain real-life leader, it is because “he was kind of in the back of our minds as we were writing Mathew as a character,” said Judah Angert, one of the show’s five writers. “And even later in the rehearsals we were telling Julian [Conte], the actor who played Mathew, “act a little bit more Trumpian. Act more like Trump.”

Still, students say their classmates have differing opinions about the president, and Judah said the writers attempted to avoid being blatantly obvious. “We try to keep it relatively neutral, just enough so that people could recognize [Trump],” Judah said, “but not enough so that people could be mad at us for it.”