Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Academic Scrapbooking: Snapshots of Learning

A social studies teacher uses photo journals to make learning more personal and immediate for her students.

August 29, 2007

Here’s an assignment: Grab a stack of acid-free paper, some glue sticks, and a few photographs, and set your students to work on a scrapbook.

Sounds a little like arts-and-crafts time? Perhaps, but academic scrapbooking is actually being used as a powerful classroom tool to help students better connect with the subject at hand, from lessons on ancient Greece to an exploration of themes of love in literature.

Heidi Willard, a social studies teacher and enthusiastic advocate of academic scrapbooking, describes it as “personalizing the curriculum.” Students get away from the textbook -- but not the lesson -- and complete a hands-on assignment that allows organized classroom movement and results in better retention of the material. “My experience as a teacher has taught me that it is the activity in the classroom they remember,” says Willard, who has used scrapbooking with both special-needs and traditional students. “It is more of a personal adventure.”

A Flash of Inspiration

Willard discovered the benefits of scrapbooking ten years ago while teaching a group of particularly hard-to-reach middle school students. After returning from a short vacation, she showed them her travel journal and photographs. “I noticed they were actually listening to me and making eye contact with me,” she says with a laugh. “It was sort of an ‘A-ha!’ moment for me as a teacher.”

She convinced the principal of her school to let her take the students on a field trip, gave them disposable cameras, and asked them to make a group scrapbook about the experience. From then on, academic scrapbooking became a staple in her teaching.

The benefits of creating scrapbooks go beyond piquing student interest, Willard says. The projects encourage independent learning by allowing students to work at their own pace and enhance individual learning styles and strengths. This, she says, gets students personally invested in the assignments.

“I find that students take more risks in their learning and stop trying to please the teacher so much,” says Willard, who has turned her enthusiasm for scrapbooking into a small business, creating and selling kits for various grade levels and subjects on her Web site, Scrapbooks That Teach.

Still, scrapbooking can be a tough sell to administrators concerned about how such projects will help students meet curriculum and testing standards. “Many people see scrapbooking as just a lot of arts and crafts and putting stickers on a page,” says Lori Elkins Solomon, who writes a curriculum guide to scrapbooking called "Readin’, Writin’ & Scrappin’." Solomon says calling them photo journals rather than scrapbooks can help erase preconceived notions of scrapbooking. And Willard offers on her Web site a script teachers can use to convince administrators of the value of the activity.

Willard and Solomon also emphasize scrapbooking’s more tangible academic applications. In creating scrapbooks, Willard says, students must use reading, writing, research, and critical-thinking skills. Solomon, who began scrapbooking with her students in 1999, says that for writing classes, scrapbook page assignments can be used to get students to experiment with various writing styles, including narrative, descriptive, expository, and persuasive. Scrapbooking also integrates visual literacy by requiring students to combine words and images.

The Big Picture

To effectively use scrapbooking in the classroom, it’s important to think outside the Creative Memories box, even if that’s the style a teacher chooses. It can’t be scrapbooking for scrapbooking’s sake, Solomon says. Teachers must apply the same standards to the scrapbook assignment that they apply to other academic assignments and be sure that it adheres to curriculum goals. And though stickers and die-cuts may be the only way to get a student interested in, Jane Eyre, other methods, such as essays that incorporate graphics or photos, also work.

As an English teacher, Solomon says, her aim with scrapbooks was to get her students writing. For one literary-research project, students chose a theme and created a book, following certain prompts for individual pages, such as finding a poem, a work of art, and a great thinker that expressed the chosen theme. Students also wrote an introduction and designed a cover. To help them understand personal identity and character development, another assignment required students to explore their own identity through a personal photo journal that combined student-created artwork and photos with the writing.

“Literature becomes personal when they realize there are themes that can relate to their own life,” says Solomon. By making her assignments more than just essays or research papers, it helped draw out her more reluctant writers and created better writers in general, she adds.

Willard takes a different approach and uses the actual scrapbooking kits she designs. The kits include a group activity and materials, such as fiber, stickers, and stencils, to help create the scrapbook page. Using a classroom camera, she and the students document the class activity and the students as they work. The photos are included in the scrapbooks.

For a segment on ancient Rome, for example, Willard had her students build a wax slate with a stylus like ones Roman scribes likely would have used to document their Senate's activities. The students then used photos taken during the activity and the provided scrapbooking materials to create a final product that illustrated their understanding of the lesson. In addition, for each scrapbook assignment, students conduct research or complete a reading assignment and write a journal entry.

Willard says her students look forward to the scrapbooking days, and have become creative with the projects, collecting their own objects to include on the pages. The key component, she says, is that they connect to what they’re learning. The students not only get to create something that’s their own (which illustrates the way they understand the underlying lesson), they also “see” themselves through the photographs as they’re creating it. That, she says, helps them better remember the lessons.

Solomon believes scrapbooking gives students a sense of ownership over their work, not only because it’s something they’ve made but also because they’ve invested so much of themselves into the process.

“They become more confident and more connected, emotionally and intellectually,” she says. “It’s not just an academic skill. We don’t want our students to be little machines. We want them to become people who are self-motivated and who can navigate the world around them by asking questions and knowing how to connect.”

Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.

Start Scrapping

Using scrapbooking to enhance a lesson doesn’t have to take a lot of preparation or classroom time -- or even a chunk of change from a teacher’s budget -- to be effective. Here are some tips and resources for including academic scrapbooking in your classroom:

Consider the outcome. Scrapbooking can be used in grades K-12, but how you implement it depends on what you want students to get from the assignment. For instance, art teachers can have students keep a scrapbook that includes their artwork and journal entries about the pieces so students can see their progress through the year. Or, students can learn about culture and diversity by scrapbooking family histories and sharing them with the class. Other simple projects might involve enhancing a writing assignment by asking students to include appropriate photos, artwork, or graphics.

Create a rubric. Though part of scrapbooking is to encourage independence, there should be minimum requirements for the assignments. Willard uses a checklist that students can follow so they know what’s expected of them.

Think small. Full-blown scrapbooking kits are available, but teachers can also use what they have on hand, including staples, transparencies, folders, paper clips, and photocopied maps and images. You can save money by purchasing items that aren’t marked specifically for scrapbooks or by asking students to bring in random objects they find to embellish their pages. For photographs, you might consider applying for a grant to purchase a classroom digital camera and printer.

Use the Internet. In addition to Heidi Willard's and Lori Elkins Solomon’s sites, which offer scrapbooking kits and for-a-fee downloadable curriculum, respectively, you can also take an online course, such as the one offered by the Heritage Institute.

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