Matanzas students bring author's works to life via dioramas, posters, re-enactments
Perchance the unwary passerby happened upon Building Nine at Matanzas High School, they could not have failed to see the halls and classrooms of the second floor untimely bedewed with the blood of murders most foul. Oh! such horror as was unfolded — blood-red, abominable! — would quail the hearts of many a delicate soul.
The students of Gloria Barton’s criminal justice class and Shanna Graifer’s English class are no such souls. Mostly freshmen and sophomores, they spent the two weeks leading up to Halloween on a collaborative project that brought the critical reading skills honed in English together with the profiling powers of the criminal justice students. Together, multiple periods of both classes divided into groups to analyze the macabre short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and reconstruct their ghastly crime scenes in diorama form, in addition to creating posters illustrating autopsies of key characters.
Graifer said her students handled most of the close reading and analysis of vocabulary words; the challenges posed by Poe’s language, sometimes heightened and archaic even by early 19th century standards, took time to surmount.
“Once they got into it,” Graifer said, “they saw it was just a different way of writing.”
Barton said school resource officers John Landi and Nicholas Champion assisted her criminal justice students in building profiles for Poe’s assorted murderers, madmen and doomed pawns of Fate. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” presented an interesting challenge for one group, as the murderer proves to be [incoming spoilers for classic short stories published in the 19th century] an escaped “Ourang-Outang” let loose by a negligent sailor.
Can you charge an ape? One group of criminal justice students landed with difficulty on first-degree conspiracy for the sailor.
A ghastly display
The scene of the Ourang-Outang’s depredations and many others — an old man’s dismembered corpse hidden beneath floorboards in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a king and his seven ministers burnt to a crisp and dangling from the ceiling in “Hop-Frog,” an obnoxious wine connoisseur walled up within Italian catacombs in “The Cask of Amontillado” — lined desks within several classrooms in dioramas constructed from shoeboxes, snack containers, popsicle sticks and all manner of craft materials.
As students from other classes filed through Building Nine, led by guides holding aloft flickering electric candles, group members stood behind the dioramas to explain the corresponding stories and the crimes therein:
“So the king was mean, and Hop-Frog was like, ‘I don’t like you’…”
“Then he tried to stab the cat with a axe, but his wife intervened and he ended up stabbing her with the axe…”
“He thought the raven was his dead wife…”
“90 percent of the kids have really enjoyed working with the other class,” Graifer said.
The theatre department, too, got in on the act; one classroom was occupied by four black-cloaked student actors performing dramatic readings of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven,” with Dmitri Marvel reading aloud while Zachary Allen, Jonas Winter and Isabelle Bathea pantomimed and provided sound effects.
“I prefer doing ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’” Dmitri said.
The others agreed.
“It gave us more to work with,” Zackary said. What’s there in “The Raven” for four actors to do, with a single man sitting in a room, talking to a bird?
Lessons from the dark
Multiple students were selected to dress up as skeletons and dance through the classrooms. No explicit Poe connection, just for fun.
“Sorta livens up the party,” said Conner Laks, a skeleton. “No one’s bored.”
Indeed, Poe had found a dedicated new audience by the time the last round of students had passed by lockers lined with life-size crime scene outlines of characters labeled with their motivations, final thoughts, actions within the story and more.
“It was amazing,” said Olivia Altenburg, “I loved it so much!” She had been impressed by the creativity put into the dioramas; one group assigned “The Tell-Tale Heart” even had a recording of the dead-man’s heart beating its hellish tattoo beneath the floorboards.
“Even if it’s the littlest detail,” said English student Alera Jacobs of her takeaway from the project, “you should always pay attention, because it could help you figure something out.”
“School doesn’t have to be the same old thing,” Graifer said. She hopes the event, or something like it, could be done again, bigger and better. “We wanted to bring this stuff to life for them.”
“We wanted to take it beyond the textbook,” Barton said, “and it was a fun event for Halloween. The fun of being able to look at things in a different light.”