Purposefully connecting students to their school communities not only cultivates a sense of belonging; it also enhances academic learning.
Place-based education (PBE) aims to do just that—immerse students in their local communities and environments to leverage authentic experiences, deeper learning, and connection to community. And by merging PBE with innovative multimedia to facilitate dynamic learning, we can drive student motivation even more.
Pairing Place-Based Education with Photovoice
When PBE is paired with Photovoice—a research method that involves attaching language/writing to images to describe places and spaces—students gain a platform for expressing their school and community experiences.
There is a synergistic relationship between PBE and Photovoice: Both approaches engage participants with their environment, foster connections that extend beyond the classroom, and facilitate experiential learning. Both approaches also evoke learning across content areas, bringing forth students’ unique perspectives and strengthening digital literacy.
The ‘Sharing Our Place’ Project
In a Virginia Beach elementary school, I put this approach into action by developing the “Sharing Our Place” photography and book-making project, which has now spanned three years. It has become an interdisciplinary process that has led students to explore their own place and voice within their learning community.
I applied for and was awarded a scholarship and two grants through my local higher education institution, Old Dominion University, and my school district, Virginia Beach City Public Schools, to accumulate materials that made this project possible: point-and-shoot cameras fitted with rechargeable batteries and 16 GB SD cards, a bookbinding machine, a subscription to the Book Creator application, and a color printer. We also used Google Drive and Chromebook photo editing apps and had one-to-one Chromebook access.
I was a classroom teacher at the start of the project and launched it in my room; however, once I moved into an instructional technology specialist role, I recruited classes from across my school. Because the project aligns with our social studies, social and emotional learning (SEL), literacy, and International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards, I was able to integrate the project across the instructional day. In 2022–23, this comprised two fifth-grade classes and one first-grade class and lasted for a semester.
Place-Based Education Activities and Digital Literacy
I began the project by providing students with cameras and demonstrating the basic functionalities of the devices. After some play-practice, the students identified, as a group, important places around their school community—the places that we then traversed and photographed.
Once students’ photo shoots were complete, I guided them through the process of moving their photos from the camera SD cards into folders in their Google Drives. From there, they edited their photos and pulled them into their Book Creator digital books, which synced with Google Drive. Book Creator has a plethora of content design features, and educators who set up an account can get 40 free books.
Photovoice Deepens Digital Literacy Skills
With photos situated in the digital book templates, it was time for Photovoice. Students created captions or, for older students, more detailed descriptions of the photographed places around their school community. For younger students who were not fluent writers or typists, we used Book Creator’s speech-to-text feature and provided one-on-one writing conferences for writing and editing instruction. Fifth-grade students wrote their own text and also received writing conferences.
When it was time to print and bind the books, we included students in the process. I used the Vevor Wireless Glue Book Binding Machine. And to conclude and celebrate the project, we formed book buddy partnerships, with students involved in the project visiting K–5 classrooms to read their books about the shared community.
Curriculum Alignment for PBE and Photovoice Implementation
As noted above, this project aligns with social studies, SEL, literacy, and ISTE’s digital literacy and computer science standards (for additional info on standards alignment, please see this PDF).
Its framework is flexible enough that facilitators can also address community needs and interests, upholding the goals and philosophies of PBE and Photovoice. Are there areas of the school that need upkeep or enhancement? Are there spaces that evoke powerful memories of learning and inclusivity? How can students become stewards of their school, inspired by their photo shoot, and then disseminate those ideas to promote positive change for their community?
Challenges and Considerations
Implementation challenges do exist related to material and technology access. If you’re not able to attain funds to purchase materials, how else can students document their community? Does your school media center have tablets that take photos? Drawing, writing, and mapping are nondigital ways to implement the project. And binding can become as simple as stapling. Partnering with your school’s technology specialist can support and enhance teaching and learning using technology and building digital literacy.
It’s also important to consider the ethical elements of representing communities and children. Make sure to obtain parent or guardian permission to take photographs of children. Teach children about privacy and respect by asking subjects if they want to be photographed. Be aware of children who show sensitivity to any part of the process, and allow choices and alternatives for children to participate.
Centering Digital Literacy
A main purpose of PBE is to enhance students’ connections to their communities through engaging learning experiences in the context of local environments. Student agency and voice, citizenship, and the celebration of diversity and inclusivity have been core components of this ongoing project.
The approach has empowered students to engage with their community in ways that concurrently build digital literacy skills. In the future, I hope to focus even more deeply on ways students can create change to improve their school communities, demonstrating digital literacy and Photovoice documentation as tools for advocacy and action.