George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Some years ago I taught a life skills class to a group of eighth grade boys. The curriculum I offered wasn't working. They were disengaged -- they wouldn't read, write, or talk about what I wanted them to talk about -- and they were mounting a rebellion.

"What is going on with you?" I confronted them; I was losing my patience.

Credit: "My World" project by ASCEND students.

Their retort: "You know nothing about our lives. You don't know what it's like to live in the neighborhoods we live in." They were so angry, these boys, and they felt I was to blame for some piece of it.

"Fine. Then tell me," I challenged them, "Show me."

I wrote a grant for digital cameras. I sensed that these boys, at this age, would be more inclined to communicate through images than through writing. "A picture is worth a thousand words," I offered, handing each kid a digital camera. "What do you want to tell me about your lives?"

For several months, three days a week, an hour each time, we wandered through the streets around our school in Oakland, California. "What do you want me and all the others who don't live in your neighborhood to know about your world?" I asked.

Through Their Eyes

The boys captured hundreds of images of graffiti and garbage, hypodermic needles and empty bottles of booze strewn around the rundown city playground, gang insignias painted across the slides. They photographed the school crossing sign riddled with bullet holes, tire marks in the middle of the street from the midnight sideshows that kept them from sleeping well, broken glass, barbed wire, and iron bars over windows.

Credit: "My World" project by ASCEND students.

They photographed the seemingly endless array of signs on fences and gates that warned of dogs as well as the growling pit bulls and chained up Dobermans. On the commercial strip, they photographed the bars and pool halls, the prostitutes (out at 9:15 a.m.) and the liquor stores on every corner. They captured the memorials erected at the site of a death, and on one very sad morning, they photographed a massive bloodstain on the sidewalk where a Guatemalan day laborer had been stabbed to death the night before.

I only demanded (after one incident) that they not photograph anything that could put us in danger: drug deals going down, for example. Their bravado at 13 years old was something to contend with, but I got tough, issued stern warnings and they listened.

Words Inspired by Images

On the days when we didn't go out to do "fieldwork," I used their photos to entice my students into writing; they had thus far vehemently resisted the activity. It turned out they had a lot more to say and could do so, could tell the stories behind the images and their feelings behind the stories, when prompted with their own photos.

As we looked at the images, my students requested instruction in photography techniques. I delivered some lessons on lighting, composition, and strategies for photographing human subjects, and into these, I integrated academic vocabulary: angle, depiction, perspective, exposure, contrast, and so on. I was being sneaky. Their reflections -- written after each foray into the neighborhood -- grew increasingly richer in language, for example, "I crouched on the ground to get a wide-angle shot of the church because I wanted to depict the contrast between the religious place and the bullet holes in the sign on the street."

I was meeting the academic, social, and emotional objectives I had intended for this project. And I had indeed laid out objectives; there was a method to the madness, regardless of the appearance of fifteen unruly preadolescent boys and one short teacher roaming the neighborhood with cameras.

Credit: "My World" project by ASCEND students.

About two-thirds of the way through our semester, something shifted. It was Marcos who pointed it out as we viewed the photos they'd taken one week. "We're starting to look at different things," he said. "At first, we took photos of all that messed up stuff in our neighborhoods, but now we're looking at other stuff."

Seeing Beyond Pictures

That day's slide show included an image of an elderly man sweeping the sidewalk in front of his house, a woman walking a fluffy white miniature poodle, a nopal cactus growing through a fence, and two friends reclined on their front stoop playing cards.

"This is my favorite," said Reynaldo, indicating a photo of a rose in front of a trash can. "It's like there's trash in the background but in the foreground there's a beautiful rose. That's what I focused on when I took this one, not the trash."

Anthony offered his insight: "We had to get that other stuff out. We had to see it and show you before we could see the nicer stuff. Man, our world is so complicated," he said, to the murmured agreement of his classmates. "And it's not all bad." More agreement from the boys.

At the end of the semester, we compiled a book with their images and written reflections and poetry inspired by the photographs. Each student selected a number of photos to enlarge and display for visitors at our biannual "Exposition of Student Learning." Their world was seen and heard by hundreds of community members and teachers.

"I think I'd like to be a photographer," said Javier. "I felt so powerful with that camera."

"You should," said his classmate, Martin, "Your photos made me have feelings. They made me feel angry and calm and peaceful and hopeful."

"Yeah," said Javier, "that piece of metal felt good in my hands." The boys laughed. "That's the kind of power I want."

to learn about other art projects "by the young for the world."



Related Resources

Camera Obscura: A Focus on Underprivileged Kids (article)

Straight Shooting: Depicting Their World with Photography (article)

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Matt Ray's picture
Matt Ray
Elementary special educator.

I had to comment because I had such a similar experience with my own students my first year of teaching. Each class had to prepare an enrichment project of some sort, so I taught my fifth graders photography. We worked extensively to collect meaningful images that represented their culture, but the most exciting, and enduring, images are the ones they took of their community.

They meditated and formulated a once sentence description of their neighborhood - a place I personally consider to be noisy and somewhat messy. I was amazed at the pride that came out in their touching words. Then, when they created the pictures to go with the words - wow, what an experience.

A selection of photos is still displayed near the entrance to the school to this day. It's amazing the power a camera gives a child.

I, too, had students tell me they made images to show the beauty and the ugliness of the neighborhood: one girl took a photo of the playground and emphasized to me that the slide with the kids was a good place, but on the outside was a place no one should go because of the drinking and smoking. Another child blew me away with an image of people walking by graffiti and paying it no mind - so typical, he said, of his neighborhood.

I was so astounded and moved throughout the process. My kids were a ragamuffin group that had very low expectations on them. But they blew everyone away with what they accomplished.

It's so wonderful to know others are doing similar things in their rooms.

This is a link to some of my blogs about The Mosaic Project:

And here are some photos past students of mine produced:

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Coach, author and consultant from Oakland, California

Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing your students' images - they are beautiful and so powerful! I really enjoyed looking at them. Hope the photographing has continued,

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi everybody,
Thank you to both Elena and Matt for sharing the stories. They are, at once, both practical and inspirational. There are a few key things that I am going to take away from this posting.

Firstly, I think that one of the key features of projects of this nature are that they are deliberately contextual; that is, they are built on the lived experiences of the students and have direct relationships to things that they understand and now - tenets of popular or progressive education. Students become the 'experts' in this area, and 'learning' becomes a discussion based on their sharing of their findings.

Secondly, the use of video or photos allows students to express themselves in a way that they feel more comfortable with; rather than the sometime confronting academic style of writing, the pedagogy outlined above emphasises the importance of discussion and almost informal learning.

Powerful stuff, indeed. Thanks for sharing.

DrThomasHo's picture
Director of Technology Integration & Support at private K-12 school in central Indiana

I just got a DSLR so I am trying to help my daughter to learn how to use it...are your lessons available somewhere?

Lisa Gonzalez's picture
Lisa Gonzalez
Fourth Grade Teacher

I really enjoyed reading your posting. This was such a fantastic story to read, as it really shows how much our students bring to the classroom, outside of their school supplies. I thought it was such a great idea for them not just to tell you about their lives at home, but to actually show you through the use of the digital cameras. I also thought it was so interesting how one activity led to so many others. There was math, vocabulary, poetry and even photography lessons that stemmed from this activity. The students will remember this assignment for many years to come.

This has inspired me; I have just received a grant and now have three digital cameras and two camcorders for my classroom. I would like to incorporate a similar project in my classroom. I will be trying to use some of your ideas in regards to the cross-curricular aspect of the assignment. I think the more that the students are able to work with their pictures across multi-subject areas the more they will realize the impact they have on their lives and the impact their environment has on their lives. Although I teach much younger students in a rural setting, I think that there are many things that are unknown about my students' lives and what they encounter on a day to day basis.

Thank you for sharing!

Nicole's picture

This is an inspiring way to use video cameras in the classroom. Finding one's voice is a powerful activity and to be able to share that new found voice, through video, with one's classmates must have been incredibly moving--well done.

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