Last fall I spent a school day working with Kristen Hyde and her second-graders at Gold Rush Elementary School in Parker, Colorado. Our self-portrait photography project connected to another class project in which Kristen’s students were writing their own ‘expert’ stories. This is a writing workshop project that Kristen often uses at the beginning of the year. The project introduces students to the format of writing workshop and does so by drawing on a topic kids are familiar with. Students can focus on their strengths while getting to know each other. Kristen tells her students that once they’ve written their expert stories, there will be 25 resident experts in the room that they can go to if they have a question about a certain topic someone else has written about.
The week before I came Kristen read aloud Aliki’s Painted Words/Spoken Memories. This is the story of a young girl, Marianthe, who paints scenes from her life to share her thoughts and feelings with new friends and classmates when her family arrives in a new country. This story introduced Kristen’s students to the idea of using both words and pictures to tell about oneself.
On the day of my visit, Kristen began the day with Monday morning’s usual activity—community circle. Her students gathered on the carpet and took turns telling each other something about how they were feeling, and telling me something unique about themselves, as a way of introducing themselves to me. Students mentioned feeling happy because they’d spent the weekend playing with a friend. They talked about how they loved to read or play football. When one student hesitated over the question of what made him special, his classmates encouraged and reminded him about his special magic tricks.
Our first activity involved teaching the second-graders how to read photographs. I projected six images onto a screen from my computer, and for about 45 minutes the students sat looking at the screen and discussing the photographs in great detail. We started by looking at a historical image, a 1930’s Harlem street scene by Helen Levitt. One by one, each student named a concrete detail in the image, and then, as a group, they began to infer and imagine stories associated with the photograph’s details. We then moved on to a series of photographic portraits, most of them made by students involved with the Durham LTP program. In the various portraits, we looked at facial expression and body language. We noticed the camera angle and considered action and background and timing. We talked about what each photo told us about the person we could see. The final photograph was a self-portrait featuring a 5th grader sitting alone in front of a bookcase with her nose buried in a book. Students noticed and interpreted the details and thought about what might be important to her and who she is. We also talked about the fact that the picture was a self-portrait, one that required her to work with a partner in order to make a picture that featured her. I explained that the student had directed the shot, and asked someone else to press the camera’s shutter button. We summarized one last time the kinds of choices that photographers make (about point of view, timing, gesture, expression, actions/props and background) in order to communicate stories and explained to the students that later they’d be making their own self-portraits.
To help students brainstorm about their self-portraits Kristen and I handed out paper and pencils and asked students to draw themselves from head to toes using the entire piece of paper. Knowing that this was the kind of thing her students would want to spend a lot of time on, Kristen asked them to make a quick drawing (we gave them about five minutes) and said they could continue with their drawing later in choice time, if they wanted to. Kristen made a simple drawing of herself to model the instructions. Once students had drawn themselves, we asked them to look at their drawings and think of all the things they like to do and all the parts of themselves that are important. We asked them to draw arrows and jot down a few words to describe themselves and their favorite things to do with their hands, head, legs, and so on. Kristen modeled this by drawing an arrow to her hands with the words “write and rock climb.” One student drew an arrow to his mouth and labeled this part of his drawing with “breathe,” “talk,” “scream,” and “say how I’m feeling.” Another student drew several arrows pointing to his head, labeled with the words “to grow.”
Students’ drawings and written thoughts provided them with plenty of possibilities for their self-portraits. Kristen prepared a worksheet to help students decide on one main idea for their portrait. The worksheet asked students to identify their focus, write a few sentences about their focus, and plan how and where to take a picture that would capture an action, personality trait and/or feeling. One student’s focus was “My Nose. I like my nose because I can smell what my mom or dad are cooking. And I am a really really good smeller.” His photograph corresponds exactly to his plan—the background is the playground; the expression “I am happy; the action “I am going to smell;” the angle of the camera is at eye level. Another student wrote that her focus is “God: I chose God because he is in my heart. I have done the thing that gets God in your heart. I pray 2x a day.”
Kristen and I walked around the room to help any students that were having trouble deciding on a focus point or needed help visualizing how to make a picture without the props they wanted to showcase. (One student wanted to take a picture of her family’s suitcases to show that they were going on a vacation together; another wanted to show how he liked to ride his bike).
While Kristen carried on with the day’s normal routine, I worked with small groups of two to four students. I spent about 20 minutes with each group of students. Students first used paper cameras (construction paper with a small rectangle cut out of the middle) to practice looking through the frame and noticing how perspective and distance mattered. We shot students’ portraits one at a time, working with a single digital camera—a Kodak Easy Share C-813. We looked at a student’s plan as described on his/her worksheet. Students thought about where we’d need to go to shoot—the classroom, media center, playground, hallway, etc. I asked the students to work as a team, with each student having a chance to direct his or her own photo. A classmate would stand in for the person whose portrait was being taken so that he/she could set up the scene, considering what should be in the background, whether anyone else would be in the picture, and the right camera angle. Once a student had positioned the camera exactly as wanted, the students switched places as I kept the camera in place. While I held the camera steady, we listened for the “Ok” and a classmate pressed the shutter button. The featured student assessed the digital portrait, with classmates chiming in, and decided what changes to make if any. Each student made about three self-portraits, and decided on their favorite.
Writing about self-portraits—
At the end of the school day I printed the one picture each student had selected. Kristen continued with the project the next day. Students discussed their photographs with each other before writing about them. Working in pairs, they looked at a classmate’s photograph and described one or more stories they could see in the picture. Students responded with their own version of their self-portrait story, and finally wrote down this story to accompany their picture. The process of “speaking their writing” helped them transfer their ideas to paper. Kristen asked her students to write a title for their photograph, along with the short description or story of the picture. The process culminated with sharing, revision and editing. Kristen typed the final version of students’ writings.
Kristen Hyde’s contact information: email@example.com