The Big Read: Shades of Poe is a month-long celebration inspiring San Diegans to read Edgar Allan Poe through visual art, performances, music, exhibits, and celebrity appearances. Here’s a full schedule.

High Tech High does project-based learning, so as the drama teacher at one of the High Tech middle schools, I’m constantly looking for exciting new projects that will fire up my students. When Write Out Loud presented the Shades of Poe project for The Big Read, the fit was perfect. We could dramatize a short story by Poe, and incorporate history and literature in our performance.

We kicked off the “Scary Story” project by gathering the class into a circle, turning off the lights and passing around a flashlight as we shared scary stories we had heard of, or experienced. We discovered how tone of voice helped build suspense and at times, the kids responded with genuine screams.

Then we read “The Tell-Tale Heart” out loud. The vocabulary required investigation. We got curious about the man who wrote this creepy story, and watched a great biography from the PBS website and speculated about the many connections between Poe’s life and the story he wrote.

We named the character from the story John, and developed a biography for him. We invented the setting, describing the neighbors, their proximity and John’s relationships to the old man and the community. We decided where John was when he told this tale, to whom he spoke, and those choices created more intrigue. One class decided that John was telling this story from a cell in an asylum — glaring at the doctors who watched him analytically. Another class chose the platform of the gallows where John told this story to the crowd who gathered to watch him hang.

We divided the story into segments, and divided the students into groups of four. Each group was to divide their segment among the group so that each student had lines and the group said some parts in unison. As one student narrated, another would act out that part of the story. So each student narrated and acted but not necessarily at the same time.

Some segments involved the whole class. The whole group would speak, followed by a phrase by one student, then adding another student and then back to the whole group. For example, one student would say, “TRUE!”; then the rest of the class joined in for “Nervous! Very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am,” then another solo, “but why will you say that I am mad?” echoed softly by three others. “mad…mad.” Movement was simple but small movements performed in unison were very effective. We used four chairs and a lantern. For costumes, we found dark-colored men’s suit coats and cut fabric into ties that everyone wore to give the feel that the 28 students were all parts of one persona.

It took about six weeks to put the performance together meeting each class 4 to 5 hours per week. By the time we performed, we added music — the London Symphony Orchestra’s version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” underscored the walk to the gallows. “Sally’s Song” from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” added the perspective of John’s forlorn former sweetheart who sensed “that tragedy’s at hand.” Parents took time from work, and older and younger classmates attended the performance. There were chills as highly focused seventh graders transformed into cold-blooded killers before our eyes. All beamed with pride.

This project gave the students an opportunity to experience Poe’s story. The connection to the NEA legitimized our work. Curious about Poe’s other writings, several students asked to borrow one of the books of collected stories by Poe. Now we have the chance to honor the students’ work with another public performance. It has been five months and as I told the classes that they have the chance to perform “The Tell-Tale Heart” again, they responded as a group, shouting out, “TRUE! — Nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am: but why will you say that I am mad?” You can read a story and take a test on it, or you can embody the story and carry its heartbeat with you forever.

Linda Libby is an award-winning actor. She teaches drama at High Tech Middle School Media Arts.

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