Creative Photography in the Classroom

From Edudemic by 

The marriage of images and words seems like a predestined love affair. Afterall, the secret wish of both writing and photography is to stop time and gain an audience. Pairing photography lessons with writing exercises only deepens a student’s aesthetic appreciation, while adding another dimension to her cognitive processing. So if the Whys for this pairing are obvious, then what exactly are the Hows?

Today we continue our tips from Part 1 in our iPhoneography series as we delve past the tip of the iceberg and further into this sea of creativity!

A boost of enhanced colors dramatically changes the feel of an image. Photo by @theshortestfuse via Instagram

Creative Photography in the Classroom

1. Let the Kids Lead by Interest: No doubt your students will eagerly offer their brilliant ideas for incorporating photography into learning. After all, it’s their digital world; we only live in it. I’ve occasionally started class with this question: Who can teach us something new today? Then I sit back and watch the wealth of knowledge pour in. Sure, my students sometimes focus too much on apps and filters, but hey, many of them are dazzling and engaging!

So, let them lead! Based on student interest, I’ve often found myself devoting a few lessons to the almighty selfie. We might, for example, begin the conversation with a debate about what constitutes an interesting expression and how to go about creating it. This then leads into a writing lesson on how to describe a character’s inner thoughts.

A beginning-of-the-year activity that works well to build community is to merge the selfie lesson with George Ella Lyon’s classic “Where I’m From” poem – which, used as a writing prompt, has spurned endless poetry lessons in schools all over the world. My students have also begged for the chance to create scavenger-hunt photo challenges (e.g., find and shoot a symbol of power), which provide a rich opportunity to study metaphors and figurative devices in the writing classroom. Listen to your customers: Ask students what they’d like to learn in photography, and it’s a sure bet that teachable moments are embedded in the skills.

2. Follow the Buzz: If there’s an exciting new photo sharing, editing, or filtering app, chances are your kids will be talking about it in class unprompted. Popular mobile apps spread like a virus, and students will come to class already acquainted with many. Thus, your job is to harness this enthusiasm and use it to bolster the more traditional curricular fare, such as:

  • Persuasive writing: As a class, read the app write-ups in iTunes or the Android market and study their persuasive language, dissecting what words are particularly effective.
  • Expository writing: Ask a student to write his own app review, perhaps focusing on the ease of the interface or the tricky bits that can trip up a new user, and then present it to the class.
  • Peer coaching: Have an “expert” teach the class the ins and outs of a favorite app, a process that is not only great for building leadership skills but those of communication as well.

A few clicks on an app can achieve a totally different mood and tone. Here I played with the vignette, clarity, and b & w settings on the ever-popular Camera+. Photo by @theshortestfuse via Instagram

3. Put a Filter on It: With a mere click, filters bestow upon the user a sense of magical ability. For that reason, filters are understandably wildly popular with students, but they also provide layer upon layer of learning opportunities in the classroom. Beyond the undisputed fact that filtering is just plain fun, you as the teacher can parlay this gee-whiz love into lessons on the mood and tone of a writing piece, as told by the look and feel of a filter.

Have students snap a still-life image using different filters, then write a paragraph that expresses the emotions emanating from each version. No doubt the nuances of language will be highlighted when comparing a playground shot in sepia to that in vivid colors, giving you a chance to focus onthe 6+1 Trait ® Writing Model of Word Choice, specifically the truism that particular words paint a particular image, or in this case, the reverse: a particular image invokes a particular description or word choice.

While professional photographers may scoff at the use of filters – on the surface they do appear more bells-and-whistles than substance – teachers can take advantage of the immediacy of image transformation and foster the analytical skill of comparing and contrasting.

4. Learn From the Experts: Social media is here to stay. Instagram, in particular, is a hotbed of teenage activity, surpassing even Facebook in popularity with the advent of the smartphone. Mirroring this layman trend, some professional photographers who once shot with a DSLR are now turning to their iPhone or Android as their artistic tool of choice, which means that lucky us, we can harness their expertise in learning to snap like a pro!

With my class, I’ve perused some online work of street photographers to analyze how they shoot from the hip and started a debate on the ethics of photographing people on the streets without their permission. Mobiography is a website chock full of mobile photography tips and interviews, from the best filter combinations in the wildly popular Hipstamatic app to the showcase of artists with a social media presence. Because the smartphone is accessible, there’s no shortage of experts, or self-perceived experts, in this rapidly evolving field.

Although smartphone cameras come with limited megapixels, harnessing natural light can do much to improve the quality and clarity of the picture. Photo by @theshortestfuse via Instagram

5. Delve Into Your School Community: I’m lucky to teach in a K-12 school, which richly affords my students copious opportunities to interact with a large thriving community. In my photo courses, I’ve sent students on a schoolwide portrait challenge of teachers, administrators, and janitors, in an attempt to execute our own mini-version of The Humans of New York.

If you have specialists in other subjects at your school, invite them into your classroom to merge photography lessons with their area of expertise. The art teacher can show how the elements of design – lines, curves, negative space – have a place in photo composition, the science teacher can show how the theory of light and optics works in constructing a makeshift peephole camera, and the math teacher can show the relationship among geometry, shapes, and ratios in the study of perspectives. Beyond artistic considerations, photography lessons have practical value in multiple disciplines.

6. Allow for Silliness: In photography, as in any creative endeavor, the potential for fun and silliness is off the charts. I’ve had lessons on jumpstagram (where you catch a person mid-jump),motion blur (where the kids race each other, and objects become just a whirrrr), forced perspective (such as the classic squeeze-a-building-between-two-fingers), color splash (where the image is black and white except for one carefully chosen colored object), and repeat panorama (where the subject appears multiple times in the frame), etc. Again, follow the lead of your students, who will not be shy in telling you what’s fun!

7. Incorporate Other Tech Tools: Some tech tool pairing in the classroom can greatly boost learning; photography lessons can likewise be a ready and willing partner in delivering content knowledge in the 21st classroom. In my class, students have used the following tried-and-true tools to further enhance their skills:

  • Snapguide is an iOS tool that allows you to create step-by-step how-to   guides using pictures you take with the iPhone. Have students create a guide to teach their classmates how to use a complicated photo-editing app.
  •  Glogster is a visual learning platform popular with classrooms. Have students create an artist’s portfolio of their images with captions “selling” their particular skills, as though they were applying for freelance photography work.
  • Tumblr is a well-known student-friendly blog that hosts images, with a low learning curve for students new to blogging. Have kids posts photos from their weekend escapades accompanied by writing.

Overly filtered images can send a strong message about the setting or character. Photo by @theshortestfuse via Instagram

In Short

Picture this: Through numerous hands-on engaging activities, your students come to school stimulated and excited to learn the craft of writing well – and in the process gain expertise in one of humanity’s most revered art forms. There’s no doubt about it: iPhoneography and writing make a winning pair.


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