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In the fall of 2002, ESIP first began to look more closely at photography and its possible uses in the classroom.  ESIP staffers Leesa Green and Sutton Stokes presented some ideas for creative uses of the photographs in some of Seymour Simon's books at the 2002 "Science Stories, Classroom Stories" event.  They were particularly interested in Simon's photo-essays, both for the power of the arresting photographs to attract reluctant readers, and for the unusual opportunities they offer for spicing up literacy instruction in the science content area.  Building on this initial interest, they wondered what would happen if cameras were given to elementary students who were then encouraged to produce their own photo-essays.  An opportunity came about to work with ESIP teacher Betty Lobe, her colleague Susan Katenkamp, and their third-grade students.  What follows is the process by which Sutton, Betty, and Susan familiarized the students with photography and photo-essays before having the students make their own individual photo-essay books.

What is a photo-essay?

When we use the term "photo-essay" we are referring to a specific form of children's trade book.  The word essay comes from the French term "to try."  Writers often use the essay form to try out new ideas or explore other types of new territory.  The word photo refers to the use of photographs rather than drawings or paintings to illustrate these books.

Teachers know that photographs and illustrations can support text, but in photo-essays that relationship is often reversed; the photographs lead the text.  In photo-essays, you'll likely notice the photographs first. 

Beginning activities with photo-essays

The combination of strong writing with intriguing photographs makes for a powerful teaching tool.  You might consider using the photo-essay in part, perhaps using the photographs without the text.

Making your own photo-essays

Before you can begin to have your students make their own photo-essays, they will need to be familiar with photo-essays, in general.

Once the students have had a chance to read and browse through a wide selection of photo-essays, they will likely be interested in the photographic skills that were involved in the process.  A basic understanding of photography skills will be needed to make the photo-essays.

Students will also need to be familiar with the cameras that you will be using, whether those cameras are disposable or digital. 

Once the students have learned some photography basics and have become familiar with photo-essays and their cameras, they will be ready to take the next steps toward making their own photo-essay.  These steps may proceed at different speeds for different students depending on prior knowledge, writing ability, and other factors.



Taking the Pictures:

Final Steps:

Why use photo-essays?

In these increasingly structured times, it may be hard for some educators to think of justifying the use of class time for a photo-essay/photography project.  The important thing to remember is that photo-essays are not intended as a departure from or add-on to what you are already doing in your classroom.  Rather, they are another approach to goals you already have to meet but for which you may be running short of new ideas.  Photography, and the photo-essay, can be a means of introducing some variety into science, language arts, and other content areas while helping your students gain skills that will be applicable across the curriculum and –even better-- in their lives outside of school.  No matter what shape your photography/photo-essay projects take, they can be made to support any number of media literacy and art standards.  Depending on which content area(s) your projects focus on, you can tailor your projects to fit subject-specific standards as well.

Media Literacy

We live in a media age.  Students will experience millions of media images over the course of their lives.  It is vital that they learn how to "read" these images, particularly when the majority of images are intended to change opinions, influence purchases, or otherwise get something out of the viewer.  Students who don't receive instruction in media literacy will be at a great disadvantage.

What does media literacy instruction look like?  Diverse organizations such as the Association of American Pediatrics (http://www.aap.org), the National Communication Association (http://www.natcom.org), the Look Smart Project (http://www.ithaca.edu/looksharp/) and Just Think (www.justthink.org) offer guidelines and suggestions that mesh with the photo-essay project.


The photo-essay is definitely applicable to science standards, particularly the observation and inquiry standards propagated in the National Science Education Standards (NSES). 

Examples of applicable NSES standards: (From the NSES "Science as Inquiry" standard)

How do science photo-essays support technology, the science curriculum and inquiry?  Students:

Language Arts

The photo-essay is definitely applicable to IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language.

Examples of applicable standards include:

How do science photo-essays support the language arts curriculum?  Students:

For another example of how you might use photo-essays in your classroom, click here.

For examples of students' photo-essays, click here.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9912078. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.