Friday, October 21st, 2016...5:05 pm

Truth in Photography? – Teaching with a Social Justice Lens

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When I had my own classroom, I couldn’t help but think about ways to help my students make sense of the big events happening in the world around them. Sometimes adults assume teenagers aren’t paying attention to anything outside of themselves, but my 16 years in the classroom taught me that the opposite is true. They care. They are paying attention. And they are hungry for help making sense of what they are hearing.

In our world where news is coming at us from so many different places – social media, 24 hour news stations, radio, etc. – it is even more incumbent upon educators to provide students safe places to make sense of what they are hearing. They need to understand the filter bubble effect online and think deeply about both their sources of information and the context the events occur within.

Our students need to know that talking about race is ok. Most of them know that. Students of color are talking about race all the time. Teachers need to be comfortable letting those conversations into their classrooms. They need to learn and listen and get personal with their own internal bias  and how it might affect their interactions with students. These are issues that shouldn’t be silenced. By not talking about them in schools, that is essentially what we are doing. And these lessons are even more important for our white students who have the privilege to not feel shaken and threatened by all of the very public attacks on black life over the past few years.

Even though I’m not planning lessons for a class right now, I can’t help but think about what I would be doing in my class if I had one. And maybe you are wondering how you could broach these big, hard, topics with students in a way that helps them think through them on their own and doesn’t push an agenda on them.

Over the past 8 or so years, I’ve asked my students the following question and used it to talk about issues of race and marginalization:

To what extent does photography (and video) limit or enhance our understanding of the world?

I’d put the question in answer garden and let students populate the question with their thoughts and then give them time to write their initial thoughts in a quick-write before opening it up for some small group discussions.

If I was doing it today, from there, I’d ask them what they know about what’s happened recently with Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott. Have a few articles ready to go in case they don’t know. I would use Newsela to pick a few and if you use Newsela (which you should) regularly, you can go ahead and assign some articles to the class to read. My guess is, however, that students will have more to say than we tend to give them credit for.

Next, I’d ask students how our original question about photography relates to these two killings in Tulsa and Charlotte.

I’d start helping them make connections between these events and our big question with this story from npr: After Fatal Shootings, A Stark Divide Over Whether To Release Police Videos I’d ask them to make some notes and ask some questions on paper as they listen.

Next, I’d look backwards. Context. Ashraf Rushdy’s amazing essay “Exquisite Corpse” is a thought-provoking look at photography and lynching – looking at the case of Emmit Till’s murder and the way that a photo in Jet magazine changed perceptions and motivated a movement. He compares that to the James Byrd lynching in the 90s in Texas and the choice the family made to keep all photos private. You can find a portion of the essay here, but I recommend reading the whole thing.

Lastly, I’d facilitate a Socratic seminar using a backchannel so everyone can add their voice.

Have students research photos that have impacted movements. You can leave it open for them to discover totally on their own (which is what I would do) or you can give them some guidance towards photos. Consider photos of Abu Ghraib, Eddie Adams Vietcong execution video, photos from the Black Lives Matter Movement, the Bath Riots.

My whole unit, including synthesis essay assignment, photo essay assignment and student samples, can be found here. Feel free to use it. I’d really love to hear from you and your students if you do use any/all of it! 

Want to do even more? Look at these ideas from Teaching Tolerance.


Work by student Elora H

Work by student Elora H


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