Central Cabarrus High School senior Madison McKinney stood near the edge of the high school's theater stage last week as four children slowly maneuvered through their lines during a rehearsal of a scene from "Alice in Wonderland."
McKinney watched intently and suddenly stopped them.
"You look like you're having a conversation with a guy in the audience," McKinney told 10-year-old Lizzie Kunesh, who will play the role of Alice in the show.
"Hi," McKinney yelled, waving to an imaginary person in the audience as Lizzie giggled. "Let's try again."
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McKinney will direct a production of "Alice in Wonderland" with a cast of 33 local elementary and middle school students for her senior graduation project, an extensive assignment required of all Cabarrus County high school seniors.
During last summer's budget crunch, the N.C. General Assembly postponed a mandate that would require all state high school seniors to complete a graduation project, but this is the third year that Cabarrus County students have been required to complete such a project.
As a component of the county's high school senior English curriculum, the project requires a research paper, a portfolio, a presentation to a panel and a "product," which can range from volunteer work to an artistic creation or the demonstration of a new skill. Students also work with mentors who have experience in relevant fields.
McKinney's "product" is her cast's performance, 7 p.m. Jan. 22-23 at Central Cabarrus High School. Tickets are $3 in advance or $4 at the door.
She said she chose to direct a children's performance because she thinks local children need more opportunities to be involved in theater. Maybe her production will be the start of such opportunities, she said.
McKinney, who recently performed in her high school's production of "It's a Wonderful Life," has acted in several shows but has never directed one.
"It's harder than it looks," she said.
And directing a group of children ranging from kindergarteners to sixth-graders has been challenging, she said.
"Sometimes we just have to stop and laugh," she said. "It's been an adventure."
Tavia Wilson, an English teacher and graduation project coordinator at Jay M. Robinson High School, said students there have done projects on a myriad of tips ranging from wedding cakes to film. Some have completed volunteer projects in which they perform at least 15 hours of community service and document their work through photographs and journals.
"Some benefit from actually learning skills like sign language or dance," she said. "Some of them get information about careers they've been considering."
But the most important benefits of the graduation projects are the life skills students accumulate through learning how to manage their time, creating resumes and public speaking, Wilson said.
"They're learning larger skills that they'll take with them when they go to college or into the workforce," she said.
Many students across the county, including Central Cabarrus High School senior Meghan Carlough, presented their projects last week.
Carlough spent nearly 30 hours over the course of several weeks piecing together a fountain made from copper. The working fountain, which is about 2.5 feet tall and 3 feet wide, is decorated with three copper orchids and leaves.
She said she decided to create the fountain after taking a sculpture class. She also wrote a research paper about metal work, which detailed the history of the art, techniques used and famous artists.
Carlough, who plans to attend Wingate University to study biology and pharmacy, said she will give the fountain to her grandmother.
Thomas Norris, another senior at Central Cabarrus High School, recreated photographs taken by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady by traveling to several Civil War battle sites, including the locations of the battles of Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas and Fredericksburg.
"I've always been interested in photography, and my family are big history buffs," he said.
With copies of Brady's pictures in hand, Norris tried to recreate the images and angles with his camera, perhaps even standing in the same places Brady once stood. Then he wrote a research paper about the effects of photography on the Civil War.
Norris, who plans to pursue a career in the medical field, said the project taught him about writing research papers and photography.
"Now I can actually use what I've learned," he said. "So even though it took a long time to study and research, I think it'll pay off in the end."