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
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
- The photos are chosen with the same care and precision
with which the writer chooses the words.
- The photos are high quality and are featured prominently
in the page layout.
- Each photograph contains a wealth of information and may
generate an equivalent wealth of questions and wonderings before the reader
even approaches the text.
- Rather than merely providing a caption to the
photographs, writers of photo-essays are often responding in depth to what the
photographs make them feel or wonder.
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.
- Have your students write captions for the photographs.
- Use the photographs as story starters. Ask the
students-- what would you title this picture? What happened just before this
picture was taken? What will probably happen next?
- Have your students look at the photographs. What do
they need/want to know to understand the photograph better? What questions
are raised by the photograph? What questions does it answer?
Making your own
Before you can begin to have your students make their own
photo-essays, they will need to be familiar with photo-essays, in general.
- Gather together a wide variety of photo-essays.
Introduce them to your students. Draw attention to the photographs. Look at
and discuss how the different books are formatted. (Click here for a
bibliography of science photo-essays.)
- Discuss relevant author's craft issues-- Does the author
pick the pictures first and then write, or the other way around? How does a
book illustrated with photographs differ from one that is illustrated with
- Ask the students why photographs might be used rather
than illustrations. Keep a chart paper list of their responses.
- Ask the students to compile lists of what they might
like to make a photo-essay of.
- Have the students compare different photo-essays on the
same topic. How are they different? How are they similar?
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.
- Have photography "how-to" books on hand for your
students to look at. (Click here for a list of photography "how-to" books.)
- Discuss the difference between candid and posed pictures
and the advantages of each.
- Show examples of common photo mistakes-- heads cut off,
backlighting, flash on windows. Ask the students-- Is everything in the
picture? Where's the light? Was the photographer standing too close or to
far from his/her subject? (Click here for some examples of photos showing
Students will also need to be familiar with the cameras
that you will be using, whether those cameras are disposable or digital.
- Explain and demonstrate how the cameras work
- Figure out the limitations of the camera.
- Give the students practice working with the camera,
perhaps by having them work in groups to take pictures.
- Give the students particular assignments-- Each student
must take one picture of a plant, one picture of a person, one picture of a
- After students have taken their pictures, have them
self-critique. What stories do the pictures tell? Is that the story that
really happened? Is it the story they wanted to tell? Is everything in the
picture? Is the lighting right? Did the photographer stand the correct
distance from the subject?
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.
- Students plan their topic as they would any piece of
writing. What is their topic? What is their purpose? Who is their audience?
- Ask the students what pictures they plan on taking?
(It's a good idea to set minimum and maximum number of pages for the books,
although students should be encouraged to take a few extra or backup
- Introduce students to storyboards. Explain that a
storyboard is how artists and authors get a sense of what a book will look
like. Emphasize that it is a very rough draft. Have the students complete
storyboards for their intended photo-essay.
- The storyboards are critiqued with the teacher and with
fellow students. An "Acceptance" means that students are ready to move on.
Taking the Pictures:
- Students then receive their cameras. Give a refresher
on how to use them. Have students revisit their storyboards to refocus on
- Firm dates should be established for film to be returned
to class. Advise students that they might be disappointed in their
photographs…it is a learning process.
- After photos have been developed, return them to the
students. Students then select which photos are to be included in their
- Once photos have been selected, students work on the
accompanying text…on scratch paper.
- Once the text is completed and the final photograph
selection has taken place, have students use Powerpoint (or other preferred
program) to type their text and lay out their pages.
- Completed pages may be laminated, bound, or put online,
- Completed photo-essays are shared with classmates,
perhaps a few at a time or at a special celebration of this large publishing
event, complete with invited guests.
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.
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
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)
- "Fundamental abilities and concepts that underlie this
standard include…employ[ing] simple equipment and tools to…extend the senses."
- "Fundamental abilities and concepts that underlie this
standard include…communicate investigations and explanations." (NSES, 1996, p.
How do science photo-essays support technology, the science
curriculum and inquiry? Students:
- develop questions about a particular topic or area of
interest, conduct research, gather information, and explain their findings in
their science photo-essay
- examine various photo-essays on the same topic and learn
that there are many different approaches to a scientific subject
- are introduced to worlds outside of their own and
examine connections between science and scientists and how their work is
presented in the photo-essays.
- develop technological and scientific skills in the use
of cameras, scanners, computers, and book binding machines
- consider the properties of light and motion and their
role and effect in the photographic process
The photo-essay is definitely applicable to IRA/NCTE
Standards for the English Language.
Examples of applicable standards include:
- "Students apply a wide range of strategies to
comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their
prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their
knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification
strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter
correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics."
- "Students employ a wide range of strategies as they
write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate
with different audiences for a variety of purposes."
How do science photo-essays support the language arts
- gain experience analyzing the structures, conventions,
visual features, and text features of the photo-essay and exhibit their
knowledge and understanding of this particular literary genre by creating
their own photo-essays
- use critical thinking skills to compare, contrast,
explore, interpret, and critique their own writing and that of others
- draw upon what they have read, discussed, and
experienced to plan, write, revise, and publish their own photo-essays with
the aid of technology
- examine author's and illustrator's craft and reflect
upon and discuss the many possible approaches and styles taken by authors and
illustrators of photo-essays, including their own and that of classmates
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.