From the smartphone Annie Leibovitzes to the Instagram Ansel Adams, it seems that everybody is a photographer these days. This is a fact teachers can and should take advantage of in the classroom – and for many reasons more than to expand the student photo repertoire beyond the selfie (though that is certainly an admirable goal). While a good lesson in photography itself is a fruitful place to start, digital photography can be a launching point for lessons in writing creatively, thinking critically, expanding the student worldview and building empathy that extends far outside the classroom.
Let’s take a look at a few of the best photo sites out there today and discuss a number of ways you can make the most of them in your classroom.
It’s probably no surprise to you that we suggest National Geographic as a photo source. There’s a reason, after all, that the printed magazine has been a collector’s item since long before the web was a thing: breathtaking, strikingly original photos that make your breath catch in your throat. It’s hard to look at a National Geographic photo and not feel a sense of wonder at this big, diverse world of ours. I particularly love the Photo of the Day stream, as this kind of curation helps me narrow my focus in what would otherwise be an overabundance of choice.
If you’ve ever ridden in an airplane (or a helicopter or a hot air balloon), you know that the world looks a little different from above. It doesn’t matter how many times I fly, looking out the window always sets my pen whirring as I try to capture the beauty of the snaking rivers cast golden in the late afternoon sun; of snowbound Midwestern landscapes with little dents to indicate where a tree might be; and all of those roads and bridges and un-seeable people, scurrying about between them.
The only two things that would make this experience better? If we could stop and hover for a moment to really examine the sites below in detail, and if we could fly a little lower over more populated areas.
Enter the Daily Overview. From photos of public swimming pools to intricate city landscapes to zig zaggy roads clinging to the side of a jagged cliff, your students’ jaws will drop when they’re given the time and the pixels to examine the world as a bird would see it. Can life ever be the same once your students have a sense of where their houses sit in the wider scheme of things? This blog can only widen your students’ perspectives.
That said, if you really want to widen your students’ perspectives, you can’t pan much further out than NASA’s telescopes (unless, of course, you tap into an alien technology, in which case we have other things to discuss). The NASA feed will get your students wondering about the universe, and of course if you happen to be teaching any number of science units, they’re a great way to stimulate engagement in discussions of physical principles. And of course, photos like these make a good base for painting lessons and science fiction units.
NASA also happens to have one of the best Google+ feeds out there, with a steady stream of astronaut Hangouts and interesting science tidbits, so you may want to follow that instead for a more interactive platform.
Zooming back down to earth, Humans of New York, which has both a Tumblr and Facebook page, is an absolute can’t miss. Photographer Brandon Stanton began the blog in 2010 after leaving his job as a bond trader in Chicago and moving to New York. Since then, he has posted thousands of portraits he’s captured simply by asking people on the streets. But while Stanton clearly has a natural eye for the lens, what makes these photos so intriguing is the stories he elicits from his subjects. No matter what their socioeconomic status, age, or physical makeup, Stanton’s project proves that every person we pass on the street has a story to tell.
Sometimes it’s a funny and heartwarming story, like that of the macho looking construction worker who discusses how his wife is getting him to open up and make chit chat. Sometimes it’s sad, like when an otherwise buttoned up subject discusses the recent death of a loved one. Often it’s cute, like when a little kid announces that they just played Carnegie Hall. Whatever Stanton elicits – happy, sad, profound, or simply real – the stories are always delightful and surprising, driving home the idea that you never really know what’s happening behind the faces you pass on the street every day. And that, well, maybe we should. How’s that for a classroom-ready life lesson?
Zoe Spawton first spotted Ali Akdeniz outside of the café where she waitressed in Berlin in 2012. Ever since she has documented this now 85-year-old’s flair for fashion, which ranges from an electric blue suit to classic pinstripes. What really makes these photos, however, is Ali’s clear penchant for performance (a language barrier makes confirmation difficult, but Spawton thinks he once was a circus performer). Each photo is unique, silly, fun, endearing, and of course fabulously stylish.
For students who love fashion, another great blog to check out is the Sartorialist.
For over 55 years, the World Press Photo organization has held an annual contest to rank the year’s best news photos, with categories ranging from people to sports, nature, contemporary issues, and many more. For budding photo journalists (or, really, any human of the world), the resulting gallery of photos can evoke a wide range of emotions, from shock to awe, delight to sadness, identification to curiosity. As I’ll discuss more below, this is my go-to source for finding photos for creative writing exercises, as each photo provides ample fodder for the imagination. The galleries are also great for discussing the most pressing issues globally from the year past.
While each photo series in Au Coin de ma Rue (At the Corner of My Street) will need to be checked for appropriateness before showing it to the class, this blog has a unique and worthy hook your students will love exploring. Simply click on a given portrait and you’ll be taken back to a picture of that same person from a year ago, and so forth back through time. This is a great way to explore humanity and aging, as are any number of portrait-a-day blogs when compiled over the course of a photographer’s lifetime. And kind of like Humans of New York, it has that same sort of thesis: that you should take a moment to truly see the people around you, rather than simply scurrying on by.
If there’s one photoblog that’s destined to delight your students, it’s Brock Davis’ ingenious Tumblr or Instagram feed. Davis is famous for taking everyday items – often tiny ones – and arranging them in a way that is entirely outside of their norm. Think of this like the Brick Test in photo form. A piece of popcorn, seeds, and salt, for example, becomes a rain cloud. A cosmos is revealed in an apple’s close-up. With the addition of a few lines, even a cashew can become a game controller. This blog will yet again get your students thinking about the world around them in a new way, and is a great way to prod your kids into more creative and expansive thinking.
There are many more than just this, of course. Getty Images is chock full of professional photographs throughout many eras, as is the Library of Congress. And Larry Ferlazzo as always offers a detailed and rich breakdown of the many photo resources available on the web today, along with sites that offer numerous lesson plans suggestions. Here we’ll offer a few pointers for lesson plans of our own.
As a writing specialist, one of my all-time favorite exercises starts with images and works backwards. The goal of this exercise is to convince my students that they should never, ever lack for story ideas – that instead all they ever have to do is look around them. I start by giving them an unassuming photo like this one:
Then I have my students try to guess the story behind how that mitten got there through who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. A typical exchange might look something like this:
Question: To whom does this mitten belong?
Answer: A little girl.
Question: How old is she?
Question: Where does she live?
Answer: Next to the park.
Question: How did she lose her mitten?
Answer: Her mean sister hit her and the mitten fell off.
Question: Why did her mean sister hit her?
Answer: She was jealous because she had jelly beans.
In just five questions, we’ve developed a protagonist, we’ve started to describe a setting, and we’ve even uncovered some conflict and drama. With just a few questions more, I can then guide my students into writing the story behind the lost mitten, or another story altogether inspired by the thoughts that began here. Not only will this produce excellent fictive writing, but it will also drive home the idea that ideas are everywhere; you just have to look.
From snapshots of breakfast (#bagelsFTW) to photo streams devoted to ballet recitals, students are already used to having every corner of their lives captured on Instagram. Why not take advantage of that fact by creating a (private!) class Instagram or Twitter feed? Here students can post photos of their projects as well as those they gather from class outings or even from class treasure hunts. The feed is an excellent way to keep parents apprised of the classroom goings-on, and will also be far more interesting than a yearbook at the end of the school year to browse back through. It will be the story of your class, as only Instagram can tell it.
While this is potentially a doable exercise for any of the photo sites mentioned above, I find this exercise most effective when using National Geographic or the World Press photos as a source. Simply choose a photo that seems compelling to you or that otherwise fits with a unit you’re teaching. Then you can either present the photo to the class and launch right into a discussion of the issues presented, or you can do my favorite technique: Guess the Situation, a game that requires students to guess what the story is behind the photo as well as any complementary socio-political contributing factors.
What, for example, do students make of this photo of a man dressed in green walking through this strange looking field? How about the first one on this page, with a man and a boy walking through water at night? Or this one of a man sorting through ID cards? What are each of these people doing? Why does their environment look like that? What’s the story behind this?
Making students guess the story is another excellent exercise in noting the details and paying attention to their surroundings (and that of others). And as you slowly come to explain the reality of the situation, there is ample opportunity to discuss the current social, political, economic, or environmental realities that have created those conditions. As such, this is a great exercise not only for fiction writing (again, they can write the story behind what happened here) but also for understanding pressing world issues at a much deeper and more intuitive level.
For this exercise, take a page right out of the Humans of New York (HONY) book and have your students interview and take photos of people they wouldn’t normally interact with. Of course, you’ll need to keep this kid-safe, so limit these interactions to, say, students in a sister classroom either in your school or halfway across the world, or enlist parents to take kids around to interview their neighbors. You could keep the project to more traditional news reporting, but oftentimes the outcome is even more striking when they come through more personal conversations. As these teens who started their own HONY-like projects found, it’s all about the interaction – and then, of course, zeroing in on the most compelling quotes to pair with the photo.
This kind of exercise is perfect for getting students out of their bubble and empathizing with other students or neighbors they may not have previously seen in quite so flattering a light. And, if it reveals a little something about their background, it can also provide insight into another student’s strange behavior. In short, it humanizes the humans around us – and in that way, it may be a great method for preventing bullying, too.
The HONY-exercise goes well with this next exercise, for which you’ll need to hunt down a set of photos of people you feel might in some ways be perplexing or intimidating to your students. Perhaps it’s a grumpy elderly man, or perhaps it’s a young punk covered in tattoos. Whatever subject you settle on, they should be outside of your students’ norm.
Once you’ve shown your students this picture, ask them to imagine the stories of this person’s very worst and very best days. What happened? What was their role in it? Why was it the best or the worst? How did they feel about it? How did this day affect the rest of their life? Just like the HONY exercise, the idea here is to look beyond a person’s facade to what’s going on inside. For kids (and for adults), it’s often shocking to think that someone they’ve interpreted in one way is actually someone totally different – someone with a family, or a wild and compelling history worthy of a bestselling memoir. And if your students fall in love with their new character after writing their best and worst days, by all means let them loose to integrate that character into any creative story they can imagine. From stranger to best friend, all in one photo.
Another great way to build on the previous exercise (and many of the exercises listed here): have two of the subjects of your photos meet. This should be easy, now that your students have gotten to know them so well. All you need is a situation, like, both characters are walking down the street when one spills coffee on the other, or, they’re riding the subway together and one asks the other for their seat. Then let your kids go. What do these characters say? What do their voices sound like? What dialect to they use? This will help your students get to know the people behind the faces even more, and is also an excellent dialogue-writing exercise.
History teachers are no doubt familiar with the vast wealth of photo resources on offer at the Library of Congress. After all, nothing quite brings a lesson to life like a photo that puts a real face on big issues. You’ll drive the lesson even further home when you show color-treated versions of iconic historical photos. No longer will history feel like it’s hundreds of years away (even if it is…). Instead, in these strikingly modern looking historical photos, students will see history as something that might as well be happening in the here and now. What better way to uncover the human side of history and to drive home the idea that history repeats itself than to anchor student perspective so solidly to their historical counterparts?
Last but not least, it’s time to follow in the footsteps of Brock Davis and encourage your students to view their world from a different angle. To get your students going, show them a site like this one, which collects photos of objects that look like faces; since students are neurologically primed to see faces in everything around them, this is an easy place to start. Then give them a week to take photos of the faces they spot in the world, and compile the results on your class Flickr, Instagram or Tumblr feed.
Photo blogs and sites are an incredibly rich source for a diversity of lesson plans that extend across disciplines. For even more ideas, we again highly recommend Larry Ferlazzo’s suggestions as well as this great guide from Scholastic. Now grab your cameras, and start snapping away!