Students learn many wonderful things through the communicative exploration of photography. As teachers, we often marvel at the honesty level that is revealed as our students communicate with photos. Perhaps it’s that they don’t fully realize that they are communicating at all. Hand a student a camera and ask them to take a photo of a specific object. Technically, you’ve just asked that student to communicate non-verbally, without written expression. You’ve asked him/her to communicate a collection of thoughts, to translate ideas with nothing else but a photograph. However, this is not what the student hears. “Please take a picture of that tree,” is what your student actually heard.

Think of what you can learn from your students that you might otherwise miss…things you will not find in a portfolio, psycho-educational battery or parent survey. Here’s a great example.

It was the last week of October. Halloween was on the approaching Saturday. My student, James, was having difficulty hiding his excitement and thereby very distracted/distracting in class. I had an all too necessary, albeit private conversation with him. “James,” I began, I always reward effort in my classroom, but I first have to see it. Work with me here and the week will become much better for us both.”

James wasn’t the model student for the remainder of the week, but the effort was obvious. He was on his way to the bus that Friday afternoon when I asked him to stay a moment after class. “I really appreciate all your effort this week, James. Are you trick-or-treating tomorrow?” I asked. “Yep,” James began. “I’m gonna be a vampire.” I handed him my Polaroid camera and gave him some fun assignments as a reward for his week-long effort. “There are three pictures left, James. Take one and label it ‘UGLY’. The second, label it ‘SCARY’. And the third,” And I thought of all that free candy he’d pour onto the carpet by night’s end. “Label that third one ‘FREE’.”

With Monday morning came the return of my camera and the three pictures labeled accordingly. The one labeled “UGLY” was a picture of James, no costume, no smile and apparently a self-portrait, as it appeared a bit blurred because he was merely an arm’s length away. The second, labeled “SCARY,” was a photo of his new stepfather. The third, labeled “FREE,” had no candy in it…it was a picture of a pigeon on a fence.

Up until that moment, I made the assumption that James had everything in the world going for him, well-dressed, captain of his soccer team, talented piano player. I was wrong. But you see, it’s not in an eight-year-old’s nature to approach his teacher and say, “Mr. G, you probably noticed my Mom recently got remarried. I don’t think this man likes me. He’s mean to me and makes fun of me. I don’t think he likes for me to be around. But I see how happy my Mom is when she’s around him. I know that means that she doesn’t like for me to be around anymore either.”

That’s pretty heavy stuff coming from an eight-year-old. And yet, that’s exactly what he said to me, word-for-word. But he said it with three photographs. Think of what you’ll learn when your students communicate with photos.

- Timothy Gangwer

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