At the end of a countdown, more than 20 students eagerly unwrapped the mailed parcels they had received: a bound book including the students’ poems and essays, the end result of several weeks of work from the beginning of the school year.
The unwrapping was not done in person; the seventh-graders at Nordonia Middle School, as well as their teachers and principal, conducted the unveiling through the online video platform Google Meet.
Before the coronavirus struck last year, forcing schools to close, the middle schoolers used one of the few field trips they were able to go on to tour Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland and create a book inspired by what they learned on their trip.
Lori Jordan, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Nordonia Middle School, said the project started with a reading of Neil Gaimen’s "The Graveyard Book," a Newbery award-winning book about a young boy who lives in a graveyard and is raised by the cemetery’s ghosts. From here, the students took a tour of the 285-acre cemetery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes a memorial to President James A. Garfield, and the Wade Memorial Chapel, built in memory of Jeptha Wade, founder of The Western Union Telegraph Co. and the cemetery’s first president.
"This very special place is an anthology of Cleveland’s noteworthy citizens such as President James Garfield, Eliot Ness — The Untouchables, John D. Rockefeller and other luminaries in the worlds of business, politics, the arts and those vocations with far more humble beginnings and endings," Jordan said. "The architecture and beauty of Lake View Cemetery is noteworthy and is a travel destination to many who visit the greater Cleveland area."
After the tour, Jordan said she had her students choose a topic connected to the cemetery, and write both an informational essay and a poem connected to that subject. The result was an alphabet book the students put together.
"My sister, Rose Esson-Dawson, an artist who teaches at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, traveled to Ohio and created illustrations for each page while working with students on layout and design," Jordan said. "Through this entire project, this group of hard working students kept working. The process was sometimes tedious with many edits, but the final product is exceptional.
"Marrying education, the art and history of Lake View Cemetery and now, distance learning with technology, we have found a way to celebrate these students' accomplishments."
Esson-Dawson, who also was in the virtual gathering, said the Victorian Era cemetery was originally on the outskirts of town, after graveyards built next to churches filled up.
"Lake View wasn’t as built up as it is now," she said. "There’s a good deal of landscaping and monuments. To this day, all cemeteries are designed this way. People even now go jogging, walk their dogs in cemeteries."
Several students said that they found the assignment daunting at first.
"I am not going to lie," said Evan Schau. "I was really troubled by the poem. Poems aren’t my thing. I have a hard time of getting it in mind. I felt pretty accomplished when I was done. I was so, for the first day, I was like, what do I write? How do I get this done?"
Schau wrote his poem and essay on famed Elliot Ness, who served as Cleveland’s director of public safety for seven years and is most known for his work during Prohibition and for investigating notorious gangster Al Capone.
A few students admitted that the thought of going to a cemetery for a field trip was unusual.
"My parents were really questioning me," said Morgan Fiala. "’You are going to a graveyard? Not a museum or something? Are you sure?’"
"It was a different experience going to a graveyard," said Caeden Boeling. "When you go to a cemetery, there’s a whole bunch of individual history. Here’s a story, and there’s a story. There’s so much, too much, to take in."
Mark Pines admitted he was "kind of like on edge about going to the graveyard, because it’s a graveyard."
"But it’s fascinating," Mark said. It was a mix of a park and a cemetery. The tour was better than I anticipated."
Alexandra Elsbury said her favorite part was the Wade Memorial Chapel.
"I didn’t know anything about graveyards," she said. "I learned what an epitaph was."
Shaylee Henderson said she appreciated seeing the memorial to the victims of the Collinwood Fire. In March 1908, 172 children and two teachers died after Lakeview Elementary school in Collinwood caught fire and they could not escape. Several victims from that fire are buried at Lake View.
"It felt different," said Shaylee. "I appreciated learning about history of the cemetery." Shaylee added that her poem and essay centered on the cemetery’s famous Haserot Angel, a large statue that marks the final resting place of several members of the Haserot family.
"I embraced the angel, I was happy to tackle it," Shaylee said. "I found it inspiring."
Jordan said that the tour and writing were done in September and October.
"We not only learn about personal history but Cleveland history in that very special place," Jordan said. "This is the first time I taught this book, although I’ve read it before. People come from all over the place to tour. The day of our tour, it was a beautiful, sunny day. I don’t know how that day could have been more perfect."
Caeden Bolling said the field trip and project was "an awesome experience and the opportunity of a lifetime."
"It’s great how you entwined the book and the graveyard," Caeden said. "It made us really think and it challenged us way more. "
April Helms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.