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Teacher posing with her students

More Than a Page: Our Journey with Photography and Identity

Tina Zita

Last fall, as I sat with my colleagues Ariana and Samar working on our Leading Education Innovation Project proposal, it was the series of questions at left that helped guide our final submission. Leading Education Innovation Projects were initiated by our board as an opportunity to support and fund innovation grounded in equity and inclusion, connected back to our school improvement goals. As a teacher-librarian, part of my responsibility is to ensure our community sees itself reflected in our collection, that the texts in our spaces, as Rudine Sims Bishop wrote, provide learners with mirrors, windows and sliding doors. As a group, we thought, who better to capture the nuance of our individual identities then our learners themselves? With that, our project focused on having students use professional tools to collaboratively publish multimodal texts capturing our intersectional identities. If we did our job right, we would create books that could blend in with the professionally published ones on our shelves and the art we see on gallery walls.

Photography in the classroom has always been an interest of mine. From photo walks to flat lays, every time I have invited learners to communicate through photography, I have been amazed by what I learn about them and their views of the world. Students’ voices always seem to surface when they are comfortable and immersed in a text form.

During the pandemic, these visual texts were a go-to for us at our north Brampton K-8 school, allowing us to maximize learning outdoors and create together online. As I sat across the table from the awesome educators in my innovation project team, I was excited to see how we could build on our past learning and push beyond.

When we got the news that our proposal had been accepted, we were ecstatic and realized we needed to quickly start sketching out the framework for our investigation. Our project would begin with creating our own series of books before working on an interactive augmented reality portrait gallery. With our school improvement plan focused on literacy, we tapped into the Language curriculum expectations for the writing process, media literacy and elements of design from our visual arts curriculum strand. Along with language and art, we realized how much learning we could do connected to the transferable skills of communication, collaboration, innovation and creativity in each of the provincial curriculum strands.

Creating with Community – Our First Book

Is it really an innovation project if there isn’t some sort of hiccup? We wanted to dive right into our plan, but we had to wait for apps to be installed and cameras to arrive. As a team we were eager and maybe a little anxious to get creating. It just so happened that Family Literacy Day was coming up, and we decided to start with a bonus project – a schoolwide book. With Family Day coming up, our growing innovation team settled on the theme of “love.” We wanted our first book to honour the many ways we say love, show love and celebrate love in our community. We set up a backdrop by our kindergarten area and invited families to stop by before and after school. After snapping a family photo, we captured their responses to three questions on video (an important piece later used to match images and audio responses).

  1. How do you show love to each other?
  2. What do you love to do together?
  3. Do you know how to say love in another language?

After capturing our families and their responses, we started sorting through all the media and pulled our first book, Aylesbury Talks Love, together in the free Pages app for iPad. Family photos and common ideas made it to the page while family soundbites were dropped directly into the audio narration of the book. The book was published both as a digital EPUB and a physical hardcover and then added to our library collection and classroom libraries. It was cool to see the wide grins as kids recognized themselves in the book or to have families stop me in the midst of my sales pitch to say they had already downloaded the book to listen to it. Several months later the excitement hasn’t died down; we still see families reaching for the book and reading it.

Sometimes the best learning moments are the detours. I realized so many of my interactions in the past with families came back to sharing what we had learned, communicating where progress was being made or not made. Rarely did I get to just ask questions to learn about them. It was refreshing and inspiring. From our first project we could see how engaged learners were when they saw themselves and their families on the pages of books. Our hiccup project ended up shaping the direction of our designs moving forward and taught us an important lesson in valuing community voices.

Let Them Lead: Aylesbury Talks Love

With the excitement of the Aylesbury Talks Love book driving us, it was time to jump into creating. We really wanted learners to feel ownership of the books and let them lead the project. The most requested book topic by far had to be food, so after our individual class creations (Grade 6 did a book on numbers, Grade 2/3 a book on greetings) we collaborated on Aylesbury Talks Food A to Z.

As we began the writing process, brainstorming possible dishes to include, we also engaged students in deconstructing the visual elements of food photography. Understanding that you compose photographs – like any other text – was an important step for us before becoming those authors ourselves. (This also connected to our media literacy expectations in the Language curriculum.) Using simple frameworks like “notice and wonder“ or “same/different,” we analyzed photographs so we could better understand colour, composition and texture, later including this learning in our co-constructed success criteria.

Hiccups still appeared along the way. Where some teams thrived with the freedom of creating during their first photo session, others were overwhelmed by all the choice. This is where working as a team of educators really allowed us to document, reflect and adjust our instruction in the moment. We celebrated learners who were stepping out of their comfort zones to lead, allowing a smaller group to take on the responsibility of finalizing the text for the book from our long list of brainstormed food items, design the layout and manage the feedback process. Watching one learner scribble feedback on index cards as we received it from fellow classrooms and then keep us all accountable as we made our revisions will be a core memory for me. Another was when a different friend stopped by early one morning on her nutrition break with her cue card in hand as she worked on what she wanted to record for the audio narration of a favourite dish. We would see that agency grow even more as we started working on our augmented reality portrait gallery.

Shining Through – Layered Self-Portraits

 Our last project was going to allow us to further explore the connection between our identities and photography. It would also be a great opportunity to dive into those elements of design highlighted in the arts curriculum. Our goal was an augmented reality portrait gallery. Sounds fancy right? Simply put augmented reality is adding a digital layer over the physical world – a perfect medium for students to explore the layers of our identities, what is seen and unseen. Students would capture a self-portrait that they felt represented them best and then create a digital animation capturing various elements of their identities that we would later connect to create our digital overlay with augmented reality. The final art pieces would be exhibited to the community at our end-of-year event for families and learners.

We once again started by analyzing the text form, this time narrowing in on portrait photography. Throughout this process, we wanted to highlight diverse voices and make sure students knew photography was a possible career path. A curated collection of stories highlighted diverse photographers to learn from. We also were lucky to learn the basics of photography with a DSLR camera from a retired educator and photographer. As we worked on aperture, shutter speed, angles and leading lines, it was awesome to see learners engaged in the creative process. As much as we were supporting learners in understanding the tools and the technical vocabulary of photography, it was amazing to see how much they brought to the task. It seemed like poses just flowed out of many of the crew and they eagerly tried multiple shots. Suddenly we were seeing really quiet learners shining in this medium. Something about using professional tools also brought a level of sophistication and motivation to the exploration, as one Grade 7 friend pointed out. It was important as educators for us to acknowledge that not everyone found being in front of the camera comfortable, which led to some quick teachable moments exploring unique reflections and angles.

While we created, classrooms ensured a shared vocabulary and understanding of identity using Tiffany Jewell’s book The Antiracist Kid. Once learners chose the portrait they felt best represented them, we moved the images into the free Keynote app for iPad to doodle more layers, then exported the final animation as a GIF. The Grade 2/3 students levelled up even further with voice recordings of poems they had written. Then we connected the media using the EyeJack Edu augmented-reality app before our art exhibit.

It was powerful to stand back and see this varied collection of images on display, a representation of our school community created by the learners themselves. Beyond the cool factor of the extra digital AR layer, it as a perfect medium to extend our understanding of each other. What was surprising to me was hearing students mention how empowered they felt seeing themselves on the walls. It seemed so simple.

We learned so much from this inquiry project. Beyond the more obvious understanding of language-curriculum connected forms, conventions and techniques used in photography, we were able to foster agency and support student voices as they each worked through the publishing and creative process. It is cool to see this learning continue as students grab an iPad and create a book when visiting the library learning commons or come to me with new book ideas for their class or our school community (educators, too).

I think the greatest takeaway for me was the joy and engagement we experienced among learners. The large grins, the serious poses, the creativity, the new leaders, the photo shoots on weekends with families – watching students apply their learning beyond the classroom and celebrate themselves and their unique identities in each text is rewarding. Our students have moved from consumers to creators. We learned we don’t need to wait for publishers, graphic designers or even grown-ups to create texts that mirror our identities and celebrate all the parts of us. The tools we need to create those mirrors are right in our pockets. Thank you to Ariana, Justine, Nicole, Samar, each of our Grade 1, 2/3, 6 and 7 friends and leadership for being willing to jump on board for this journey of learning and innovation. Now, what questions will guide us this year?

Tina Zita is a member of the Peel Teacher Local.

Getting Started with Photography

New to using photography in the classroom? Wondering where to start? Here are two quick ideas to get you started.

Jump in with photo walks: Photo walks are the simplest way to get started. Grab a handful of devices or a class set and get up and moving. Photo walks work across the curriculum and for all grades. From shapes to angles, letters to interesting fonts, plants to stable structures, the possibilities are endless. I also find they make a great quick opportunity to teach a skill before we head out. Sometimes it’s as simple as how to focus on the tablet or introducing the rule of thirds.

Flat lays: With flat lays we move into composing an image. What is a flat lay? I guarantee you have spotted one on your social media feed. Most simply, a flat lay is a picture taken from above of items that are lying on a flat surface. I love formats that are flexible and work across the grades/curriculum. We have done everything from a found object colour wheel to identity flat lays to a colour I Spy.