Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Make Reading A Part of Every Day

VLH get caught photo“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” ~Groucho Marx

There is nothing better in life than reading books with my dog, Woody! Reading in the Hagan house is a special time. My husband and I read for at least 20 minutes a day. No matter how busy we think we are, we always take the time to read a good book. (A family that reads together, stays together.) Give me a book, my dog, and a small corner of the world!

Do you remember SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) and/or DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time? Teachers give students an opportunity to independently read in class. This is sacred time. I remember this being my favorite part of the school day. I carefully selected books. I forgot about my to-do list. I escaped into the pages. Most importantly, I relished in being a member of a community of readers.

In the name of test preparation and/or “instructional minutes,” sometimes teachers have had to sacrifice this reading time. I’d like to reiterate the importance of providing our students time to read, with us. If we are to develop lifelong readers, we need to make sure students see adults and peers reading. Students need time to practice their reading skills. They need to build a love for reading.

To encourage students and their families to read, I suggest creating a “Get Caught Reading” calendar with your class. May is “Get Caught Reading” month, but really any month is a good month to read. According to the “Get Caught Reading” website, this initiative is a “national campaign to remind people of all ages how much fun it is to read.” During the month of May (or June, or whenever), take pictures of your students reading during SSR or DEAR time. Have students take pictures of their family members reading. Encourage a community around reading – and document it!

I recently got caught reading The Tale of Genji. Watch Invitation to World Literature‘s program on “The Tale of Genji,” and be inspired to read this great book as well.

Remember – When you get caught reading, make sure you are reading something you want to get caught reading. P.J. O’Rourke said, “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” Just something to think about. :)

What are you reading with your students?

Preparing Students to Read

Written by WGBH Education for Annenberg Learner, Part 3 of 3 (Go to Part 1 and Part 2)

LIT 7

Check out the new Reading & Writing in the Disciplines professional development course.

Accessing Prior Knowledge

When students read, their prior knowledge greatly impacts how they comprehend a text and learn new information from it. This prior knowledge includes both school-based and personal experiences, including previous instruction, academic and out-of-school texts, personal experiences, videos and movies, and discussions with teachers and peers. It is critical that readers are able to connect this prior knowledge to new learning for the most effective understanding of text ideas.

But prior knowledge isn’t just what students know about the topic itself; it’s also what they know about how to read a particular type of text, such as understanding the text structure, text features, language structures, and strategies for learning new information.

For example, students may come to a history unit about abolition knowing something about the slave trade, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. But they may also have an understanding of how to identify organizational text structures often found in history texts (e.g., cause and effect, problem/solution), how to use different text features that support informational text (e.g., headings, captions, timelines), and/or how to analyze, synthesize, and corroborate ideas by comparing and contrasting sources on the same topic.

Given that students will have a range of prior knowledge as they begin a particular reading, teachers need to assess the text (what prior knowledge is necessary for effective comprehension of new content) and the students (what they already know). Based on this assessment, teachers decide what content knowledge students need to develop, how to access it using a variety of resources, and how to help students connect what they know to new learning. It’s important to note that even when students possess prior knowledge, they often need reminders to activate and connect it to specific reading situations.

Setting a Purpose for Reading

Many students, especially struggling readers, have difficulty determining important information during and after reading, particularly as the disciplinary texts become more complex. Having a specific purpose for reading will support students’ comprehension of important text ideas, focus their attention on the text and accompanying text features, and provide motivation for learning new content. However, too often, students are given a generic purpose, such as reading a chapter to answer concluding questions. In this case, the purpose is simply to complete a task after reading.

In contrast, a specific purpose should address the text content—important information, key concepts, and author’s purpose or point of view. For example, in science, students may read to compare and contrast features of sustainable and non-sustainable energy. In math, they may read real world earthquake measurement data and use that information to create and interpret a graph.

In the earlier grades, teachers usually set a purpose for students before they read. However, the goal of this important component of reading is for students to learn how to set their own purpose as independent readers. As students become more proficient readers in each discipline, teachers may continue to model setting a purpose while still encouraging students to determine their own purpose, build upon their knowledge, and think more critically about text ideas. Setting a purpose often occurs before reading; however, as students read, they may revise their purposes and set new goals for learning. For example, a student may set an initial reading purpose of identifying the causes of the Civil War. During reading, the student may refine this purpose to focus on specific causes related to different geographical regions of the United States. In science, students may set a purpose for reading an article on climate change to understand the factors related to this issue. As they read, they may revise this purpose to discover specific human behavior that affects climate change. Again, this sophistication develops as a student gains an expanding view of the topic.

Using Prior Knowledge to Set a Purpose

Not surprisingly, students’ ability to set their own purpose for reading is closely tied to their prior knowledge. In other words, students must have a general understanding related to the topic in order to set a purpose for reading about it. A familiar strategy for connecting prior knowledge with purposes for reading is the KWL (Know-Want to Know-Learn) strategy (Ogle, D., 1986). With this practice, students determine what they already know about a topic, what information they want to know related to the topic, and finally, what they learned after reading and discussion. This process promotes connecting prior knowledge to new information, which leads to effective learning. Charting these understandings helps students to engage in the process of reading to learn. Also, teachers must have a clear understanding of what needs to be learned about a topic, because in many instances students have difficulty identifying what they want to learn due to limited understanding of the topic. These student and teacher understandings before reading influence the teaching that will occur.

Ogle, D. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. The Reading Teacher, 39 (6), 564-570.

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading and Writing in the Disciplines. – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/how-does-discipline-literacy-differ-from-content-area-literacy/?preview=true&preview_id=3168&preview_nonce=8d8bf65a26#sthash.6JEXI13f.dpuf

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” and part 2: “Literacy in the 21st Century.”

Caught Reading: Measuring Penny

Engaging students in measuring objects and space around us is active and fun! Remember, measuring is always doing – and we all measure, all the time. Consider how often you hear questions that start like this:

Lauradaughterreading

My daughter and I recently got caught reading Measuring Penny. While reading, we talked about how we measure qualities of the world every day, including length, volume, and time.

How much…

When will it be time to…

How big…

Will this fit…

Do I have enough…

How old…

Is this too much…

How do these compare…

We ask these kinds of questions every day at home, at school, at work, at the store, on the bus, and at the park. Be sure to tell your students how answering these kinds of questions involves mathematical thinking and increases our reasoning and analytical skills. Use examples and point out the connections between investigation, measurement, and number.

While measurement is often viewed as a matter of procedure, there’s really more to it. Think about what features of certain objects and spaces are measurable, and why we even care about size and scale. Think about comparisons. Think about magnitude. Think about precision and estimation; whole units and parts. All of these ideas are fundamentally related to measurement, and contribute in important ways to our awareness of and actions in the world.

Determining the amount, size, or degree of something is necessary and useful. This is clearly illustrated in Loreen Leedy’s Measuring Penny. In this story, Lisa learns a lot about her dog, Penny, by measuring. Lisa measures Penny’s height, compares Penny’s weight to other dogs’ weight, considers how much food and water Penny needs every day, and calculates how fast Penny runs. Lisa is identifying many different measurable attributes of Penny and being her care-taker. She uses different tools and both standard and non-standard units to measure and explore. She is deepening her understanding of quantities and number and enriching her perspectives on her special pal, Penny, and what it means to take care of a pet. Illustrations in the book show us how to measure and why measuring can be so powerful!

Consider using books like this in your classroom. Be sure to highlight these big ideas related to measurement that help us bring conceptual understanding and procedural understanding together.

Big Idea #1: Identifying, describing, and comparing measurable attributes of objects around us helps us make sense of everyday life.

Big Idea #2: Specific techniques, tools, and formulas are used to determine measurements.

Measure and explore with your students, and share your thoughts and reactions in the comment section below. Tell us how you develop understanding of measurement in your work with children.

For additional ideas and materials on this topic, check out

Annenberg Learner’s Learning Math: Measurement for K-8 teachers

Eames Powers of Ten

Literacy in the 21st Century

Written by WGBH Education for Annenberg Learner, Part 2 of 3 (Go to Part 1 and Part 3)

LIT 16“Literacy is no longer a static construct from the standpoint of its defining technology for the past 500 years; it has now come to mean a rapid and continuous process of change in the ways in which we read, write, view, listen, compose, and communicate information.” (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2014. Handbook of research on new literacies.)

Traditional views of literacy learning and development are changing to reflect a more global view of understanding and communicating in today’s increasingly complex world. It will come as no surprise that students spend a lot of time using technology outside of school. But what teachers are beginning to think more about is how this explosion of technology impacts the ways students read, write, think, and communicate about their world. Whether engaged in social media, texting, making videos, sharing images, reading e-books, or navigating the Internet, students are using a variety of literacy practices and tools. Combining these practices with other outside-of-school activities in which literacy plays a part—such as independent reading, writing, performance, and even sport—it becomes evident that many students engage in substantial literacy-based activities beyond their schoolwork. There is a high degree of motivation when students select their literacy practices and venues. Given this, it is important for teachers to understand the out-of-school literacy practices students bring to school and to relate them to school-based learning. This connection will expand and enhance their use of multiple literacies.

“Students engage in literacy practices and learning outside of school, learning they consider powerful and important. Typical approaches to secondary school content learning often overlook the learning and literacy practices that youth engage in apart from their school-based, content learning (Moje, 2008).”

Given the knowledge and expertise students have in using technology outside of school, digital literacy can play a significant role in school as a way to maximize productive learning. This requires instruction in new literacies, including how to determine where to find relevant information, analyze and evaluate websites, summarize and synthesize important information, incorporate videos, music, and other media of students’ choice into performance assessments, and produce projects that illustrate understanding. For example, when students are taught to evaluate the authenticity and reliability of websites, they are using the social studies strategies of sourcing and contextualization. When students create or locate images, or incorporate music into a project, they are making connections and demonstrating their interpretation and synthesis of key ideas. When done effectively, technology can provide a critical connection between home and school literacy and change the often-held view by students that reading and writing are things you only “do” in school.

For examples of how to blend these practices, check out the following:

Lapp, Fisher, Frey and Gonzalez (2014). Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58(3) November 2014 doi: 10.1002/jaal.353 © 2014 International Reading Association (pp. 182–188).

Lapp, Thayre, Wolsey, Fisher, 2014. June 2014 doi:10.1598/e-ssentials.8056 © 2014 International Reading Association.

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” and part 3: “Preparing Students to Read

How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy? – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/how-does-discipline-literacy-differ-from-content-area-literacy/?preview=true&preview_id=3168&preview_nonce=8d8bf65a26#sthash.6JEXI13f.dpuf
How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy? – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/how-does-discipline-literacy-differ-from-content-area-literacy/?preview=true&preview_id=3168&preview_nonce=8d8bf65a26#sthash.6JEXI13f.dpuf

Caught Reading: The Soul of an Octopus

Jenny Get Caught photoThree years ago on a family car trip I started reading a magazine article about octopuses out loud to my husband and daughters, who then were 14 and 10 years old. It held everyone’s attention for more than 20 miles. In the article Sy Montgomery, an award-winning science and nature writer, described meeting a sweet-tempered octopus named Athena at the New England Aquarium and learning about how amazingly intelligent these creatures are. My girls shrieked with laughter as Montgomery described octopuses escaping from laboratory tanks and evading college students who tried to catch them.

Now Montgomery has expanded her encounter with octopuses into a book that’s packed with amazing facts about these alien but engaging creatures. Did you know that octopuses can taste with their skin? That they’re deft and curious enough to take apart a Mr. Potato Head toy for fun? That they’re extremely social with people, and will hold onto a trusted person’s hands and arms for hours? Or that these shape-shifters can squeeze through tiny holes and transform their bodies, changing their skin’s color, pattern, and texture in less than a second?

The Soul of an Octopus is also full of behind-the-scenes stories about the New England Aquarium, where Montgomery spent many hours getting to know cephalopods (the class of marine mollusks that includes octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish). She recounts how keepers tackle challenges like luring reclusive electric eels out from hiding so visitors can see them, and describes the many practical roles that slime plays in the ocean. Her writing is deceptively clear and simple. Here’s how she explains that octopuses clearly have “theory of mind” – the ability to perceive what another creature is thinking:

“An octopus must convince many species of predators and prey that it is really something else. Look! I’m a blob of ink. No, I’m a coral. No, I’m a rock! The octopus must assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different.”

May 2015 is Get Caught Reading Month. If you want to engage middle or high school science students, pick this book up, crack it open to any chapter, and start reading aloud.

Caught Reading: The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649

Lori_GetCRead15What must it be like to go to a place you have never seen, or even heard reliable reports of, and rebuild your whole world from scratch? That’s the challenge the first Puritan settlers in today’s Massachusetts faced in 1630. As you can imagine, the amount of trial and error in their project to build a Godly commonwealth in America was huge. Without the leadership of John Winthrop, I’d say it would have failed—a dozen times.

Winthrop’s Journal is his day-to-day account of events huge, large, medium, small, and tiny. No member of the company was too small or insignificant for him to notice and have concern for. In December 1630, the first winter, he noted not only that the frozen rivers made it impossible for the people of Charleston to sail across to attend church in Boston, but that “many of our sheep and goats were forced to be still abroad for want of houses”.

Winthrop was not above a little moralizing (during the tough days of that first winter, he claims that “those that fell into discontent” and homesickness for England died while others who did not survived), but overall the man who comes through to us in his Journal is one who put justice, peace, and love above all else, humbly accepting criticism when it came to him, and gently refusing high honors that would single him out from the rest of his company. His passionate devotion to the little commonwealth created in Massachusetts was strong enough to lead him to prepare the colony for war with England if King Charles I tried to impose a royally appointed governor (instead of an elected governor). Winthrop recounts how, at an emergency meeting in January 1635, he led the government and ministers in deciding “what we ought to do if a General Governor should be sent out of England… they all agreed that if a General Governor were sent we ought not to accept him but defend our lawful possessions (if we were able); otherwise to avoid or protract.” This is a striking declaration of independence that is never taught in high school American history classrooms.

Winthrop wrote in the third-person because he planned on publishing his Journal as an official history of the colony’s founding. It stands today as a wonderful glimpse into the life and energy of early Massachusetts, and as a tribute to its governor.

Learn more about Winthrop in the video and on his biography page for American Passages, unit 3, “Utopian Promise.”

How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?

Written by WGBH Education for Annenberg Learner, Part 1 of 3 (Go to Part 2 and Part 3)

LIT 15

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

When students enter middle and high school, their teachers expect them to have mastered the basic skills and strategies necessary for reading and comprehending texts across disciplines and genres. Is this always the reality? Do the skills and strategies they’ve developed serve them equally well when they read a scientific journal article, mathematical proof, historical primary source document, Shakespearean sonnet, and technical paper?

The answer is, no. While basic strategies such as making connections, asking questions, inferring, summarizing, and monitoring understanding are important when reading across subjects, they are not sufficient unless they can be adapted to each discipline. Even if students have mastered these basic skills, they may still struggle to understand, analyze, interpret, and evaluate important ideas in discipline-specific texts because they do not have the topical language and specialized reading practices that are used by scientists, mathematicians, historians, literary analysts, and technical specialists. To understand how each discipline produces and communicates key ideas, students need to know what is specifically involved when reading across these disciplines. So how exactly is this discipline literacy different from content-area literacy?

Content-area Literacy

Content-area literacy strategies are traditionally defined as the basic set of strategies students use when reading and responding to texts, with little differentiation being made across the content-area subjects. For example, students may learn techniques for determining important information, making inferences, asking questions, and summarizing. They would then apply these strategies when reading science, history, and math.

Discipline Literacy

Discipline literacy skills support students in moving beyond the general reading strategies as they develop specialized practices for making sense of discipline-based texts through reading, writing, and oral language. These practices include understanding how information is presented in each discipline: organization of important information; specialized vocabulary and syntactic nuances; use of text features; and interpretation and evaluation of evidence. The focus is on teaching students different ways of thinking as they encounter texts by developing reader identities within each discipline—to become expert readers and communicators in a discipline by reading, writing, and talking like a historian, a scientist, a mathematician, etc.

Essentially, “[t]he difference is that content literacy emphasizes techniques that a novice might use to make sense of a discipline text (such as how to study a history book for an examination) while discipline literacy emphasizes the unique tools that the experts in a discipline use to engage in the work of that discipline” (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2012, p. 8).

What Does This Mean for Instruction?

It has been an unspoken expectation that elementary teachers would help students have content-area literacy skills in place by middle school. In contrast, the expectation around discipline literacy is that it’s the job of discipline teachers to build these skills. But in reality, these are not isolated tasks.

The Common Core State Standards have placed an emphasis on the need for ELA and discipline teachers to share the responsibility for teaching and assessing mastery of the ELA Standards. While this call for shared responsibility is certainly a change from what has occurred in schools for decades, it’s important because it has now been documented that discipline experts approach the reading of texts differently (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008).

This does not mean that discipline teachers must also add “reading teacher” to the many hats they already wear. Rather, it means that they should model and share their own strategies for how to approach a text, how to determine and synthesize key ideas, how to critically evaluate the content, and how to engineer new possibilities. After all, who else is better able to support the reading of texts within a discipline than a discipline expert who knows the language and understands how students acquire text-based information?

They are, after all, the experts.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

Read part 2 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “Literacy in the 21st Century” and part 3: “Preparing Students to Read

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading and Writing in the Disciplines. – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/how-does-discipline-literacy-differ-from-content-area-literacy/?preview=true&preview_id=3168&preview_nonce=8bf5a75fad#sthash.YEQZS0jD.dpuf
Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/literacy-in-the-21st-century/#sthash.aM3Bw6Qw.dpuf
Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/literacy-in-the-21st-century/#sthash.aM3Bw6Qw.dpuf

Teach About the Human Condition With Poetry

TCWL_mazzino“Ferguson’s ugly, racist, emails released.” (CNN)

“OU shuts down fraternity after racist chant.” (CBS News)

“U.N. reveals ‘alarmingly high’ levels of violence against women.” (The New York Times)

These are news headlines from March 2015. There is still much to be done in improving the human condition. Maya Angelou stated, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” How can teachers help young people celebrate, value, and advocate for diversity? We need to go beyond the tolerance and appreciation rhetoric.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a great American poet. Her work challenged the status quo and improved the human condition of all people. She fought for equality and for humanity. In her body of work, we see the plights and triumphs of a marginalized people. Angelou, like many other poets, used words to tell her story of struggle.

In engaging in a “poet study” of poets like Maya Angelou, students will gain powerful insights into the human condition. The following are suggested steps to implement a “poet study” in your classroom:

  • Step One – Choose a poet to study. Other examples of poets who have examined the human condition include: Cathy Song, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Sandra Cisneros, Willie Perdomo, Rita Dove, native Garrett Hongo, Joy Harjo, etc.
  • Step Two – Have students learn about the historical, political, and social contexts of the poet’s life. (This can be completed in conjunction with a social studies lesson.)
  • Step Three – Have students read several poems by the poet. Ask students: What does the poem literally mean? (This may require students to carefully annotate each line via close reading.)
  • Step Four: – Have students consider the contexts when answering the following questions: What are some interpretations of the poem’s meanings? Why did the poet feel this way? What inspired the writing of the poem? What is the poet saying about the human condition and how do you know?
  • Step Five – Have students present their information via report, presentation, poster, etc.

Poems tend to be short texts. In this way, they are accessible and appealing to young readers. However, poems offer textual challenges in other ways. Poems are puzzles – their meanings are often not explicit. Students may need support via modeling and scaffolding.

The following resources will help classroom teachers and their students celebrate National Poetry Month and poetry any month of the year. These particular resources focus on marginalized voices and help further our understanding of the human condition:

  • High school teacher, Chris Mazzino uses poetry to teach students to explore the human condition. Specifically, the students examine what it feels like to be an outsider. In Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’Gaining Insight Through Poetry,” students reflect on why people are marked as “different.”
  • Students can compare how poets use images of a city to describe the human condition. In American Passages, students examine several poems in “Rhythms in Poetry:” Students consider how Eliot’s London, Sandburg’s Chicago, and Hughes’s Harlem all represent particular interpretations of the city and the modern condition.

Poetry is powerful. Robert Frost wrote, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

How have you used poetry to help further students’ understanding of the human condition?

The Value of Playground Poetry

EngagewLit_3_children“I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” This was one of my favorite comebacks as a child. In addition to reciting the poem, I stuck out my tongue and then ran far away. In a way, I added choreography.

Young children have used this poem across time as a means of combatting hurtful comments. I learned this poem on the playground via oral tradition. I heard someone else say it and someone heard me say it. And, so it goes.

Young children are natural poets. They enjoy playing with language. They enjoy rhyming and creating rhythms. They do this without any adult prompting or instructing.

Listen to our young students on the playground:

“Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack. All dressed in black black black….”EngageWLit_3_playground

“Ms. Suzie had a steamboat. The steamboat had a bell…”

“Roses are red. Violets are blue…”

“Down, down baby…”

“Woody and Dotty sitting in a tree…”

“Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, turn around…”

“We need a pitcher, not a belly itcher…”

Young children use poetry in the spirit of play. They use it to set time for games like hopscotch, jump-rope, and hand-clapping. They use it to tease peers. They use it to cheer and/or taunt sports players.

Playground poetry offers a rich source of instructional material. I encourage teachers to capitalize on our students’ natural propensity toward poetry and to also sanction their forms of literacy. Teachers can guide students in examining the content, composition, and context of the playground poems. The following chart offers some suggested prompts to studying poetry in this way:

Content What does the poem literally mean? What are some interpretations of the poem’s meaning? What is the tone/mood of the poem?
Composition How is the poem presented? What is the structure of the poem? Why is the poem structured in this way?
Context What are the historical, social, or political contexts of the poem? In which contexts or situations would this poem be applied? How so and why?

 

Teacher Jonathan Holden in  “Starting Out: Getting Started with Poetry,” from Engaging With Literature Library, Grades 3-5, introduces his students to the pleasure of poetry. “His primary goal is to help them develop a love of reading and poetry in particular while developing the comprehension and critical-thinking skills they need to remain engaged readers.”

Following Mr. Holden’s example, by valuing playground poetry, teachers can maintain students’ love of poetry while also teaching them comprehension skills. Students are natural users of poetry and language. Teachers can help them be more analytical thinkers of poetry and language.

What are some ways that you have encouraged your students to play with language?

Selfie: Bringing Personal Meaning to Photos

EssentialLens_MakedaBestWhen students see a photograph in a classroom, a textbook, or a school project, they often treat it just like a poem or short story: they try to clearly state what the photo “means.” They believe that a photo has a unique, incontestable meaning that is clear to the perceptive viewer. A photographer wouldn’t take a photo without having a message in mind, the reasoning goes, so that message must be clear in the photo s/he took, and if I can’t find it, there’s something wrong with me.

It’s hard to convince students that this is not true (for photos or for poems and short stories, but we’ll stick with photos here). Photos cross a line between art and reportage. They can have a clear message when they are reportage. When they are art, they are open to almost endless personal interpretation. When they are a mix of both, photos can challenge the most perceptive viewer. The student looking at the photo is not just a data analysis machine taking in information and processing it. The power of photos is in their immediacy: they are shots of real people in real situations that the viewer takes in through the lens of her or his own life experience. In short, the viewer makes the meaning. As historian of photography Makeda Best puts it, instead of stopping at asking ourselves and our students what we see in a photo, we have to “look more closely and ask questions of why we see what we see.” This is a big shift. It gives the student authority over the photo instead of the other way around.

To teach students to use their own experiences to analyze a photo, practice on the photo mentioned below using the Focus In activity from Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum. (Watch Makeda Best demonstrate the Focus In activity in the “A Closer Look” video.):

Start with Dorothea Lange’s masterpiece “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936. Students may have seen it before. It is one of the most famous photos in the world. Too often, students move past their initial emotional reaction to this photo to try to discern its objective meaning. Following the steps in the Focus In Method for Analyzing Photographs, try to get your students back inside their own heads and hearts and experiences as they analyze “Migrant Mother.” Click on the link for a detailed description of each Focus In step. This step-by-step process can take the burden of finding meaning off students by encouraging them to make meaning.

Focus In Steps

Step 1: Observe

Step 2: Build on Your Observations

Step 3: Make Inferences

Step 4: Formulate Further Questions

Note: Here is a link to information about the photograph “Migrant Mother.”

 

How are you using photographs in your classes? Share in the comment section below.