By Katherine Lonneberg, Teacher, Dorothy Lynas Elementary
WHAT MAKES YOU COME ALIVE? This is a question that was asked of my students at the beginning of the year. For me, one answer to this question is PHOTOGRAPHY. I feel so fortunate to be able to share this passion with my intermediate students. Whenever I teach my students photography, I feel like my enthusiasm for personal growth and learning is completely transparent. Each year, I try to create a different project that engages my students, has cross-curricular links, and develops their skills as photographers and artists.
Back in the fall, I was mulling over some ideas for this year's project with my good friend, and professional photographer, Kiri Marr. Each year, Kiri has been pivotal in my photography unit, as she has shared her wisdom, skills and talents with my students while they participate in her low-key studio lighting workshop. The two of us were talking about how we first discovered photography, and the ways in which it contributes to our well-being. We share a common story - photography allows us to be keen observers of our world, to capture wonder and awe and, most importantly, to get us outside, connecting with people, places and the world around us. All of these "gifts" contribute positively to our overall health and well-being.
Not long after this conversation, I fell upon an article highlighting concerns about the growing isolation amongst teenagers in our ultra-connected world, and voila, this year's project idea was born! I encouraged students to use their devices to connect, in meaningful ways, with the world around them. It was my intention that students would learn to slow down, be keen observers of their world, capture some of the wonder and awe that surrounds them daily, and reflect upon the ways in which our connections to people, places and the world around us impacts our overall health and well-being. In a nutshell, I wanted students to grab their cameras, go outside, find a place that inspires wonderment and awe, and contributes positively to their health and well-being, and go there often - get connected!
The specific project task for students, was to use their camera to artfully and thoughtfully create a series of images that would tell the story of their special place. The cohesive set of five images (landscape, macro, creative self-portrait, a picture that connects with the senses, and a picture that showcases a creative photographic technique) was to show students' ability to apply various photographic tools and techniques, to create images that connect with their audience.
Most students selected special places to photograph that were located east of the Seymour, because students were encouraged to re-visit their special places often. Several students chose similar places, but each student had a different story to share and connected to their chosen place in their own way. During the brainstorming phase, many students shared personal stories of special places they had visited throughout their childhood - family vacation spots, various houses they have lived in, specific places that created strong family memories and connections. This sharing of personal stories and memories was one of my favourite parts of the whole project. Several students selected places near their grandparents' house, and wrote about how these places invited reflection of extended family connections and traditions. One student chose a park in his old neighbourhood and wrote in his artist statement that,
"Ever since I was REALLY little, I liked to go here. No, that's an understatement, the pond water was my life blood; the bark was my skin, the seeds were my heart, I WAS the forest. This place was an everyday stop, my number one place, all of the time, never rivalled. Then one day, I got told that we were moving, it was devastating, and the last thing we did was feed the ducks one last time. Coming back triggered an endless amount of memories to come flooding back; this place is, has always been, and always will be, the most special place on earth for me. When I am in this place, I feel connected to so much that I haven't been connected to in so long. Whether it be people I've met before, the ducks, the pond, my old school, my old house, or the forest full of memories itself, I feel connected."
One student wrote about the simple pleasures of spending time in his backyard, doing things like flipping over the walkway stones to look at the giant ant colonies underneath, watering the plants, eating from the garden, and playing with his brother on the trampoline. Another student selected a park within walking distance to our school, and wrote,
"I chose the park where my friends and I hang out after school. Under the shade of the tall trees, we talk about nonsensical things, about bugs, crushes, and homework stresses, then blow dandelion seeds into the air and watch them drift. Meaningful memories are made here, as we get to know each other better. The words that are spoken here are personal, and the laughs are the most memorable."
These stories of connection are poignant and persuasive. I am thankful that engaging in this photography project, made transparent for students the importance of connecting with the world around them.
Watch the slideshow above for images from the Get Connected Exhibit
Students' photography projects were just one of the features on display at our Get Connected Exhibit. The concept of deepening connections to people, places and the world around us was the common thread that anchored our learning across the curriculum for all of term three. In Language Arts, students explored how stories and other text help us understand ourselves and make connections to others and the world. Students shared their memoirs at our exhibit. These pieces of personal writing, highlighted the impact of their connections to important people in their lives, and the ways in which these connections have had a lasting impact on their lives.
Also on display, were circle graph projects, projects linking concepts taught in both Math and Health. Students used their data collection skills to record the duration and type of activities that they engage in during a typical school and weekend day. They also indicated how much time they spent connecting with people, places and the world around them, and whether or not these activities contributed positively to their physical, social, and/or mental health. Students then presented this data by creating circle graphs. Afterwards, students reflected on some of the changes that they could make in their day-to-day decisions about how they spent their time, that would improve their physical, mental and/or social health. Finally, in Social studies, students explored the ways in which we are connected to ancient civilizations and created advertisements promoting some of the legacies of Ancient Egypt.
In their final project reflections, students wrote about their biggest "take-aways" from this project:
- "The project helped me to be focused on one specific thing at a time and it also helped me be more aware and observant of my surroundings. It helped me be more patient about things. Taking these pictures made me realize that the world around me is so big and cool. Spending time outside made me more relaxed and remember the times I had with my cousin. I liked this project a lot."
- "Re-visiting my special place multiple times has improved my overall health. There has been less stress for me and I've spent more time relaxing recently, while still doing homework. Also, I've been spending time with my friends more often, which has improved our friendships."
- "When I walked into my special place, I actually forgot that I had to take pictures, and I just explored. I spent a lot of time there and went after school and after dinner and looked for all sorts of different things. I have never taken a macro photo before and enjoyed learning how to compose my frame. I now love taking macro pictures."
- "I really loved this project. It was way easier to take pictures then to write an essay or something about my special place because I could use the fascinating features of nature to show why I chose my special place. Photography helped me as an artist because I learned so many new techniques for photography and how to create art with artistic appeal in general. I will remember all of the techniques Mrs. Lonneberg taught us like layering, depth of field, angles, lighting, shutter speed etc. I now know how to capture the moment with intention, instead of just taking a quick snapshot. Now when I'm outside, I find myself looking around for somewhere to take a good picture."
- "The project improved my photography skills a lot because I used to just take a picture if I thought something looked good, but now I look for little details and different angles. Taking these pictures made me stop and look at things I wouldn't normally stop for."
- "The project helped me reconnect with a place I love by giving me an opportunity in my busy schedule to go there."
Throughout the term, I was most pleased with students' willingness to share their personal stories, their ability to reflect openly and honestly on the impact of their connections, and on their ability to reflect on ways in which they could take steps to improve their overall health and well-being by deepening particular connections. I was moved by their writing, captivated by their images, and amazed by their creativity and observations.