Music videos, e-books, plays…and G.I. Joe, from expanded Classics Academy at Morristown High



By Marie Pfeifer

Classics Academy, a Morristown High School senior honors program that was on the chopping block a couple of years ago, continues to produce thought-provoking projects— specifically, projects provoked by thoughts of civilization’s distant past.

On Thursday, students presented music videos, one-man plays, e-books and other original works inspired by the complex question:

In what way or ways is my present contingent on my individual and humankind’s collective past?

Layston Badham, who was among the first class of juniors in this year’s expanded program, said the classics helped students “expand our horizons and become more creative. The students were able to entertain more than one right answer as in math. It encourages a different way of thinking.”

Senior Jessica Richardson, who edits the school’s literary magazine, the Tricorn, said Classics Academy “was the first time our teachers did not hand out instructions telling us what to do. We had to find our own project, figure out how we wanted to express it and research it.”

TIMELESS CLASSICS: Faculty and seniors from the 2014 MHS Classics Academy. From left: Teacher Mark Gutkowski, Danielle Schussel, Jessica Richardson, Michael Chase, Ariana Smith, Jordan Rabinowitz, Teacher John Madden, Teacher Dawn DiMartino. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
TIMELESS CLASSICS: Faculty and seniors from the 2014 MHS Classics Academy. From left: Teacher Mark Gutkowski, Danielle Schussel, Jessica Richardson, Michael Chase, Ariana Smith, Jordan Rabinowitz, Teacher John Madden, Teacher Dawn DiMartino. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Jessica, a photographer, began her project as a little book theme. When she put her photos together she felt something was missing. Since she believes writing is not her strong suit, she selected two gifted juniors from Classics Academy–Kelly Ganning and Katherine O’Keefe–who added lovely poetry.

The finished product, an e-book titled Evolution, depicts the evolution between childhood and adulthood.

“We are at the dawn of adolescence, standing on the edge of our lives,” Jessica said, describing the cover of her book, a photo shot at Coney Island depicting a couple walking away from the wind-blown surf. In addition to the great photography and poetry, the project taught her the mechanics and process of editing a book of photography, under the supervision of her mentor, photo teacher Brian Kievning.


Hometown, a music video created by Michael Chase, also is about evolution.

Starring fellow Classics Academy member Jordan Rabinowitz, who also collaborated on the original song, the video culminates an exploration of how music has been shared through the ages, from the bards of Antiquity to early churches to the advent of sheet music that brought music to wider audiences.

“In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph helped to propel music into a business venture. With the increase in technology more people are listening. Now I can record music in my room with a mic and a computer. Thanks to the internet I can do a lot with a little bit of money,” said Michael, who recorded the song using Apple’s Garageband software.

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Michael said he has been passionate about the business side of music since he went to a music camp in New York City as a freshman.

His mentor for the Hometown project was Joshua Johnson of Blue Note Records, who helped him devise a social media strategy. It included releasing the song for free on Soundcloud and posting the video, which took about four days to shoot and edit, on YouTube a week later.

The idea is to create a fan base, Michael explained. That requires giving away your product at first.  So far, he said, several hundred people have listened to Hometown online.  He is not worried about copyright violators at this point.

“If someone were to use my material right now, I would be flattered,” he said, getting a laugh from students, teachers and parents in the school media center.

The challenge for the music industry, according to Michael, is figuring ways to add value–and make money–in a world where technology makes it ever simpler for do-it-yourselfers like him to bypass studios and music labels.

And the challenge for Michael, as a songwriter, is to write tunes with a “bridge” (middle part), according to his brother Ethan, who also got some laughs with that helpful brotherly observation.

“I am working on a song with a bridge,” Michael shot back, with a big grin. “And it’s going to be awesome!”


His sidekick, Jordan Rabinowitz–they have a musical duo called Minno–flew solo for his presentation, an original one-man play, aptly titled The Bard.

Jordan said he had an epiphany one morning as he was thinking about his project, and at the last minute rewrote it.

In this engaging, well acted piece, Jordan depicts a father whose penchant for story-telling is passed along to his son, with the assumption that it will be passed on the son’s children. It’s a reflection upon the nature of storytelling, an intrinsic part of our humanity since ancient times.

As a nod to the bards of Greece, Jordan fashioned a working lyre from LEGO pieces, ukulele strings and wood scraps. He also composed a song and sang it, accompanying himself on guitar.

All of this would seem to bode well for Classics Academy, which was established in 2011 and has a mandatory set of courses. Teacher John Madden said he anticipates at least another two years for the program. He is assisted by faculty members Anthony Danese, Dawn DeMartino, Danielle Firavanti, Mark Gutkowski and Cynthia Laudadio.

Besides enlightening its students, Classics Academy sometimes educates adults in surprising ways.

Danielle Schussel’s presentation, Doll Play and Gender in Western Society, From Ancient Rome to 20th Century America, surprised at least one listener with the revelation that the G.I. Joe he played with as a child actually was a doll.

–Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.

NOTE: Tonight’s Morristown High School Film Festival (June 6, 2014) has been moved from the cafeteria to the media center.




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