How does your expertise function? During the past year, I posed this question to a study group comprising fifth- through eighth-grade teachers whose focus was on disciplinary literacies. We were just beginning to wrestle with the idea that there are content-specific habits of thinking that support the understanding of concepts in each discipline; in terms of literacy, this means that people read, write, listen, and speak in unique ways particular to a content area.
To put some reasonable boundaries around the study group’s work, we decided to look primarily at disciplinary ways of reading. While the teachers in this group agreed that they read poems differently from baseball statistics or a primary source document from history, they couldn’t articulate what the “content-specific habits of thinking” were for each kind of reading. I assured them that they weren’t alone; the research on disciplinary literacy is long on theory (convincing readers that different kinds of texts demand different kinds of reading) and short on illuminating lists of what these content-specific demands are.
As our initial discussion progressed, I realized that teachers’ definitions of “reading” were limited. I was confident that somewhere along the line in their teacher preparation programs, most teachers had encountered Freire’s idea of reading the word and the world, but that idea was buried deep in their philosophical archives. Understanding the depth of Freire’s idea, that in addition to reading text on a page, readers also read non-print texts such as body language, cultural norms, pieces of art—even the weather—was going to be key to our study group work. Before we could start to name discipline-specific ways of reading, we needed to recognize how often we read words and worlds around us.
I had recently read about a project called Photovoice described by Wang and Burris as “a process by which people can identify, represent, and enhance their community through a specific photographic technique.” In the original project, Photovoice participants, all of whom were people in low-income communities, were given cameras and asked to take pictures of people, places, and activities that were valued in the community. The photos were printed, and the photographers wrote captions to accompany each of their photos, explaining the content of the picture and how it revealed a significant aspect of the way their communities worked. The goals of the Photovoice project were to empower people to record and reflect on their communities’ strengths and needs, to promote conversations around community issues, and to reach policymakers whose attention might improve the opportunities in those communities.
The first two goals of the Photovoice project described exactly what I wanted teachers in the study group to do—record, reflect on, and discuss examples of literacy opportunities in their school communities. Here’s how it worked: To document our growing awareness of literacy as a tool for communicating in various media, I created a blog called LiteracyMusings. Study group teachers were then asked to take three photographs at different points throughout the fall of images that represented literacy happening in the world around them. Everyone then posted their photos on the blog, added captions, and responded to each other’s images.* You can view the current version of the blog at www.literacymusings2.blogspot.com. If you check out the blog, you’ll see photographs of grocery store sales flyers, the back end of a pickup truck with French language graffiti, and one of my favorites, a photo of a sign in historic Philadelphia alerting visitors that there is “no history” at that particular spot along the tour.
Photovoice was a hit among the teachers. For starters, the blog provided a different kind of mentoring forum for veteran teachers to work with the three newly hired teachers who also joined the study group. Typical encounters between new and veteran teachers present the experienced teacher as having all the answers—they’re the experts. Although having a knowledgeable, confident mentor is important for new teachers, it is equally valuable to see teachers engaged in authentic professional development, the kind that reveals how they identify areas of needed growth and the process they use to question and grow.
New teachers also sense that their postings to the blog are useful; everyone is working on the same pressing questions, and all contributions move the learning process forward. In one post, a teacher named Kieran was responding to two different photos posted by more experienced teachers. She wrote, “After replying to Jackie’s photos, I realize that a huge overlap exists between Nina and Jackie’s conclusions. While the subjects of their posts are very different, both discuss being overwhelmingly afraid in situations void of contextual literacy. Even with base-level content area knowledge, Jackie’s fear of ruining her film and Nina’s fear of being unable to communicate in a foreign land persisted. Can you imagine how terrified a student with no background knowledge would be in either of their situations? This reminds me of students entering math classrooms with little previous knowledge related to the content area. Typically, a lack of knowledge results in a fear of failure in learning—especially if the teacher does not make great efforts to provide the appropriate background knowledge for all students of varying abilities.” Imagine beginning your teaching career and engaging in this kind of substantive dialogue with a teacher who has been assigned as your mentor. Pretty exciting!
Expanding Possibilities for Photovoice
After participating in Photovoice, in the spirit of reflection, I asked everyone about the possibilities they saw in other contexts for using images to represent a person’s interpretation of an idea or concept, since that’s really the essence of the Photovoice approach. As a result of this discussion, the teachers realized that Photovoice is an excellent example of an alternative assessment, one that, if introduced in their classrooms, would allow students to demonstrate what they know in a nontraditional but sophisticated way. The list that follows details some ideas for using Photovoice in different contexts in K–12 classrooms.
1. In a math class, students could gather and post images of math in the world around them with the rule that the image could not include numbers. Captions would explain the math revealed in the image.
2. Students in the primary grades studying family and communities might work with older siblings or adults at home to find images of what a family is, or to document a community at work. Examples could include single-parent families, families with grandparents as head-of-household, or families with same-sex parents. Community images might capture signs around town advertising a benefit dinner, or a baseball team playing at the city’s athletic fields, or the front of the town library. Interactive writing, in which new writers share the pen with more capable peers or adults, would allow children to clearly explain the thinking behind their images.
3. In an English class, teachers could identify an essential term in a novel, short story, or poem that does not actually exist in the reading but is an important theme or element of writing at work in the text. For example, in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” irony is a featured literary device, although the word irony never appears in the story. Ask students to find images of irony for a Photovoice collection with captions describing what’s ironic in the example.
4. In a social studies class, ask students to collect examples of history repeating itself in contemporary society around the world. Captions might include naming the parallel historical event that matches the current image, with an opinion about whether the repetition is good or bad and why.
5. In a physics class, ask students to document unseen but definitely real forces at work in the world around them. The teacher who suggested this use of Photovoice pointed out that video images would be most accurate in capturing forces, because to understand a force is to recognize the change at work among objects and what’s acting on them. Using video as a Photovoice medium is an intriguing adaptation of the idea, but video cameras may be more difficult to provide. Given that limitation, the physics teacher imagined taking his students to a playground where they would get images of their peers on merry-go-rounds, swinging on swings, and sliding down slides, to name a few examples of gravitational, frictional, and normal forces. The content of students’ captions would include labeling the forces at work, and perhaps exploring the results if a force were suddenly taken away (like gravity!).
6. To support the affective curriculum, students at all grade levels could collect images of kindness, with captions detailing the context for the act. Encourage students to look for examples of kindness between people, as well as kindness to the earth, kindness to animals, kindness to their bodies, and so on. When the principal of the school heard this idea, she suggested that the whole school contribute to a Photovoice collection with images of their core community values in action: respect, responsibility, and kindness.
NOTE: Several teachers wisely pointed out that it’s not necessary to use a blog to do Photovoice. A class could devote a bulletin board or pieces of chart paper to posting images, and even notebook pages would work. In that same vein, photographs are only one way to capture an image. Students could draw, create a collage, paint, or use images cut from magazines and newspapers to represent their analogous thinking.
Text of Photovoice Handout
Begin recording evidence of literacy in the world around you through photographs. Remember that literacy is very basically defined as reading, writing, listening, and speaking. We have expanded that definition to include inquiry, language study, and meaning making. We can go even further, too, in defining literacy. Harste (2003) argues that “Literacy can be thought of as a particular set of social practices that a particular set of people value.” Friere explains that literacy is reading the word and reading the world. How are you understanding literacy, particularly as it relates to your discipline?
1. Take lots of photographs recording evidence of literacy.
2. Choose three photographs to post on our blog, Literacy Musings2: http://literacymusings2.blogspot.com/
*The photos you choose should help us think about how you view literacy in a particular discipline.
3. With each photo, include a blog entry explaining the photo (like a caption) and how it reflects an element of literacy related to your discipline.