This post marks the first installment of a new blog series: the Lesson Lab. I wanted to create a space to explore the projects we complete in my 7th grade English class, warts and all. So what follows is an analysis of my most recent classroom project: photo blogs. This post tracks the project from inception to completion while providing room for commentary.
My classes had just completed a project based on responding to literature. In my mind the page response was a somewhat insular assignment. Students focused their energies on the mini-universes contained within the favorite pages of their independent reading books. So I wanted our next endeavor to face outwards, to interact with the lived experience of daily student life. I made a wish-list for our next project:
-deals with “the real world”
-local in scale
-reaches an audience greater than the classroom
-allows each student to explore an aspect of ‘belonging’ that he or she is interested in
I dropped each item into my brain and crunched on them for a day or two until a idea appeared materialized: a photo blog. I had recently read an Education Week photoblog on the resiliency of transvestite students, so the genre was sitting on my brain. My students would engage with the larger community around them, using images and words to investigate how we interacted with one another and how we exclude each other.
Finding the Materials
I spent a couple of days perusing the internet to find suitable photo blogs. The process of finding mentor texts is one of the most time-consuming portions of any unit, I think. A tiny cottage industry has sprouted up around the acquisition and curation of teacher-vetted mentor texts (see here and here, for instance). This makes sense. Finding texts that are authentic (not from a workbook), engaging (current buzzword for interesting), not too long, and appropriate in content can be an incredible time sink. Most of the blogs I found had either too many words and not enough pictures or were too image heavy and lacking on the text side.
I ended up going with Full Frame, Education Week’s online repository of interesting photo blogs and visual essays. Although the material at Full Frame deals primarily with education issues, I figured there was enough variety to interest most children: the Baltimore riots, school lunches from around the globe, the Columbine massacre, and the struggles of recent immigrant families, for instance. While not directly situated in the pop culture zone I hoped the content on the website would appeal to students’ interest in right and wrong. I also wanted to expose them to the plurality of adolescent experience across the world.
What do you notice?
The next stage of the inquiry process is immersion, the time when students surround themselves in mentor texts in order to figure out what makes the genre work. I wanted students to dive into the photo blogs and walk around inside them. What made them tick? How were they organized?
Although I LOVE making and using graphic organizers, I consciously stayed away from giving students a way to organize their noticings this time around. A big part of the inquiry approach is allowing students the freedom to come up with things on their own. Having a preordained structure or set of questions seemed to A) rob students of the ability to stumble upon their natural noticings and B) insert too much of myself into the process. In an inquiry-centered classroom, the student plays a primary role in determining the curriculum. By inserting anything he or she deems essential for understanding, the teacher contours the flow of the lesson instead of controlling it.
The noticing portion of the lesson is where things began to break down. Students didn’t seem very interested in the mentor texts. In retrospect I should have spent more time finding suitable photo blogs to study. Students weren’t keen on “walking around inside” the photo blogs, either. After reading and making observations on a series of photo blogs, I told students to document what they noticed on a Padlet I had set up for each period. Here’s a period’s Padlet.
Although the noticings on display here are somewhat limited in scope, students were able to touch on the basic elements of a photo blog: content (current and/or important events), format (exploring a topic through the combination of words), and a few text features (images, captions, title in bold). And any superficiality of observation points to nothing other than my own failure setting it up.
I called in one of my colleagues to offer some feedback on just what was going wrong. The following chunk highlights the consequences of my failure to provide more structure on the front-end.
Most of them were fine browsing the photoblogs on their own. But maybe a half sheet paper would have focused those who weren’t sure what to write (even though you have it clearly written on the screen).
The writing part was lost on them. Maybe they could have made a chart in the notebook before they moved to their groups. XXXX was the only one to get started independently. XXXX did as well. XXXX’s group then got started.
The feedback is spot on. I’m certainly not saying that a mere graphic organizer would have radically altered the trajectory of the initial days of the project. The amount of factors interacting at any one time in a classroom resist any sort of totalizing ‘one cause = one effect’ logic. But my colleague’s feedback reminded me to think through the ramifications of seemingly simple classroom decisions.
After charting our noticings, students answered three basic questions about photo blogs. First, what topics do photo blogs cover? Then what type of work do photoblogs seem to require? And lastly how do authors of photoblogs make their work compelling? Students put their answers up on large sheets of butcher paper around the room. The goal here is to saturate the analog and digital space of the classroom with information about photo blogs. Here’s one of the charts.
By this point students had spent a couple of days immersing themselves in photo blogs and coming up with a definition of exactly what this genre is, what it attempts to achieve, and how it attempts to achieve it. We knew we had to create a brief intro, a body composed of pictures and captions, and a brief conclusion.
Taking the Pictures
I wanted my students to pursue the concept of ‘belonging’ in their own way. This meant each student had to develop a central question to guide his or her work. We accomplished this by typing out potential questions into a shared Google Doc for all to see. Again one of the goals is to surround students with questions and information to remind them of all the different avenues of thought for whatever we’re working on at the time.
Students’ questions were great. Here’s a screenshot.
So, with questions firmly in head, we were ready to break out into the hallways of our middle school and take some pictures. In a rare moment of foresight, I made sure to send out an all-staff email a few days prior explaining that 7th graders would be storming through the building to take pictures. Unfortunately that’s about as detailed as my picture-taking plans were.
In my mind I saw kids slinking around the building like investigative reporters, documenting that fantastic mixture of banality and triumph that middle schools seem to produce in spades. This didn’t happen. Instead students ran through the hallways causing a ruckus, taking selfies, and busting down classroom doors to get the drop on unsuspecting classrooms. Of course that happened. 7th graders let loose in sacrosanct hallways armed with connected weapons of disruption.
I was mortified. My students were acting rambunctious and disruptive. I often feel like my command of a class is one child’s exaggerated sneeze away from total disarray. I can only imagine how distracting it would be to have a bunch of small faces popping through doorways and peeking through window blinds.
I took a few minutes at the end of the day to debrief on the experience with my students. Much to my surprise, many of them mentioned how awkward they felt. Many of the girls in particular expressed a surprising level of unease with the entire endeavor. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t considered the inherently invasive nature at the core of this project. I felt terrible. I’ve documented my difficulties with perfectionism before, so I won’t belabor the point here. Although I will admit that a part of me reveled in the “chaos.” What’s wrong with running around and having fun?
Seeing finding me perched despondently at my desk after the final bell, my team’s amazing math teacher reminded me that the best lessons aren’t always the ones where students walk away feeling happy. He said that taking risks and pushing our boundaries is, for most people, an inherently unpleasant process. Learning is in many ways a disturbance to our cognitive sense of equilibrium. For this project it was clear that both the students and I were outside of our comfort zone.
A slight change in direction
En route to work the next morning I had a minor epiphany: interviews. By requiring my students to speak with others about issues of belonging at our school I could A) minimize hallway disruption, B) increase student-to-student interaction, C) insert some structure into the process, and D) include interview segments (an important part of the photo blogs we examined).
So as soon as I got in that morning I sent out a few emails to other teachers to set up times for my class to come in and interview other students. This phase of the project was a success. Kids wrote follow-up questions to their main belonging question, interviewed one another, and got permission before taking pictures. After a couple of days of taking pictures in class, out of class, during lunch, etc., it was time to begin making our photo blogs.
The creation phase
Although the photo blogs we examined as a class were all single page documents, I knew we had to go a different route. Anyone who has used Google’s Documents app on the iPad can attest to its stupefying lack of features. We needed an alternative. Since we’d used Google Slides for our Q1 electronic portfolios, I decided to go with a Slides presentation for the photo blog. Students already knew how to create links, crop images, add captions, etc. Most students required two to three full class periods to complete their five slide (minimum) photo blog.
To help students write their conclusion, I asked them to try and figure out what story their words and images told. What did their interviews reveal about belonging at our school? How did each image contribute to the overall thrust of the presentation? The image below is a quick organizer I put together to help students work through these fairly abstract questions. The text in each box is from the photo blog I created concurrently with the kids.
To help the photo blogs reach an audience larger than the four walls of my classroom I asked students to insert a QR code into their favorite slide. I then printed out each student’s QR code slide. Students put their slide images up on display all around the building. Since my district has a QR code reader on its app catalogue, every student and faculty was able scan the code and access each child’s entire photo blog presentation. I thought this was a fantastic way to get around the understandably strict internet policies at my district. Many of the kids seemed non-plussed.
How did they turn out?
I pulled the following images from a diverse range of students.
Final thoughts, or the difference between what we see and what we get
This project fought me every step of the way. I didn’t build in time to help students edit their photo blogs, and as a result almost every project contains a handful of typos. I also didn’t push students hard enough on the analysis sections of their conclusions. I should have found a way to help them take their findings to the next level. I (and most likely you) can rattle off a list of the many pedagogical failings at work on this project. I will return to this project next year. The potential for students to interact and comment on their school’s culture is too great to ignore.
Thanks for reading the first Lesson Lab installment!