Teaching kids how to use a camera is only a fraction of what it takes to bring photography into the classroom. On a recent trip to a conservatory, I witnessed a little girl taking pictures of animal pictures on display. Meanwhile, while she was desperately trying to capture someone else’s photo, the animal in question, a live, adorable little baby quail was less than three feet from her in full view. I have a theory that children these days don’t see cameras as a tool for art so much as a tool for capturing information or recording that a moment even happened. This leads to a lot more photos, but of very low quality.
Students can give each other feedback on their photos.
I used to take my students outside and let them photograph whatever, hoping that quantity would lead to quality. Anyone who knows anything about the YouTube generation knows that this is a bad idea. Generally the photos would be of the class clown doing something funny and a bunch of students standing around him in a circle attempting to capture it paparazzi-style. This led to me making “rules” that all photos need to follow.
- EYE LEVEL: look your subject in the eye.
- GOOD BACKGROUND: backgrounds must be simple and non-distracting. The most distracting thing you can have in a photograph is other people, especially other photographers.
- RULE OF THIRDS: never have your subject dead center- have them a little to the right or left, otherwise it ends up looking like an ID photo. The only exception is when you are taking a photo of an experiment (like the science fair)- then have it in the middle.
- BE A BOSS!: order people around, tell them where you want them in the picture, tell them to get into better light etc… the only exception is when you are taking pictures of things like bears.
- GET UP CLOSE: make sure your subject fills the picture, again unless it’s something like a bear or a skunk.
Any rules you like your kids to follow when using cameras?
There must be something in the air right now. Perhaps it’s the warm-up that is finally hitting the Badger State after such a long and brutally cold winter. On my way to work, I have to avoid hitting robins, ducks, cranes, and red-winged blackbirds—seasonal arrivals and long missed. The snow is slowly receding and the playground has become a giant mud-puddle. Unlike many schools, we only have a small strip of sidewalk to keep kids from the thawing turf, much of which ends up being tracked into the school on tall rubber farm-boots.
It’s in the spring that I like to start teaching digital photography. It ties really well with the ongoing science fair projects and allows students to record their experiments and use the photos for their demonstration booths.
I don’t like to give the kids cameras right away. First, I train them up on the basic parts of a camera, and some of the more basic functions. My favorite cameras to use in the classroom right now are the $70 Kodak cameras. Why? The fewer the features, the less likely that the students will goof up any of the settings. And really, what kinds of photos do the kids need to take? They need a simple point and shoot where the flash is easy to turn on and off and a decent “auto” function. Too many features and you end up with a disk full of blurry photos from accidentally leaving it on “landscape,” or shot after shot of flashbulbs reflected on aquarium glass (the flash can’t be good for the fish can it?).
I give the kids a good once-over of the parts of a camera, how and when to turn the flash on, and how to operate the shutter. Then, the most important part of the lesson: How to get the photos off the thing! I don’t know how many times I have seen students plug in camera after camera looking for their lost photo. A great way to get kids to understand how files and folders work is to show them how to copy photos from their camera to their network drives. Basic copying and pasting is vital to get down, or else you end up with a lot of headaches when you start to edit the photos.
One of the more interesting features of Greenwood Elementary is our “outdoor classroom.” The outdoor classroom was devised in 1971 as a joint effort of the school administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a place to repurpose a couple of acres of land on the property for student use. The outdoor classroom contains a small orchard with pear and apple trees, a pond, and a forest with several types of trees. The pond is home to ducks, turtles, frogs, tadpoles, and bullhead catfish. We have seen herons, geese, and a kingfisher stopping by the pond for snacks. The woods are home to rabbits, a variety of birds, and for a short time, a small bear. I say “a short time” because as soon as it was spotted, the DNR was called and the bear is now happily living elsewhere.
The outdoor classroom.
The kids survey the woods for science class, identifying animals and plants. In the winter, our gym teacher heads outdoors to lead snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice skating.
My personal favorite activity, however, is during the after school-kids club: A few times a year we take grades K-6 fishing in the pond for bullhead catfish. For the teachers out there, you can probably understand the logistical undertaking of a fishing trip. Children bring in their fishing rods, which must be labeled and stored in a secure location. Barbless hooks have to be tied to the lines, minimizing the damage they can do to the fish and to the children. Hooks have to be baited with pieces of hot dog (affordable, clean, and humane bait) at the pond. Then 50 or so children whip these lines about nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with a shockingly low level of injury. If they manage to catch a fish-which happens a lot since the fish will eat anything and there seem to be a lot of them-the fish has to be removed by a teacher or older child wearing gloves because the fish can sting you badly if you are not careful.
The whole thing is a lesson to the children in following very serious directions and respecting your neighbors. They manage to do it very well, with at most a pricked finger.
One one trip, a student had forgotten his rod. I gave him the job of taking pictures with a digital camera, since the children are not allowed to keep their catch. I will talk more during the year about how I love cameras as a way to inject fun into projects and document learning. But in this case, I think they are great for just capturing memories and showing people some of the great things that these kids get to do in school. Cameras can be a great tool of self-promotion in this way. You don’t need a sheet of test data or statistical information to know that these kids had a great time and enjoy being at school. A picture always says a thousand words.