Middle School Through A Teacher’s Phone
I’m a documentary photographer who spends most of my workdays taking pictures, writing pitches, or hustling for assignments to the hum of my laptop. Exciting, meaningful, a little lonely. But once a week, my mornings all depend on the whims of 20 seventh-grade kids in a basement classroom in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. This is part of my yearlong residency as a teaching artist: I go into public schools in low-income neighborhoods and teach photography.
I’ve been doing this kind of work in schools across the city since 2002. I teach students how to decode and encode meaning in pictures, create photo books, and avoid dropping cameras (put the strap around your neck, and don’t run). School experiences for at-risk students can be grim. Over the past few years I started to take pictures with my phone whenever I found myself in schools.
Each student in the Sunset Park group has chosen a theme they want to photograph for their art project.
Another kid is photographing handball courts and handball players. He was initially resistant, but we’ve built up trust, and now he seems excited about his project. Other popular themes are pets and relationships.
Our best day so far was when the students had to photograph strangers. The assignment was for the students to approach people they didn’t know and ask them to pose for a portrait. We went into the streets of Sunset Park. Their teachers came along, but still, the students thought it was crazy and intimidating. But in the process of doing it they became more confident and discovered how photography can really foster a connection.
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Recently, it feels like there have been too many dramatic stories about out-of-control students, along with pleas for more classroom management training.
It isn’t fair that individual teachers are expected to compensate for systemic poverty, racism, and dysfunctional structures with so little support. While I was never subjected to the daily high-stakes pressure that classroom teachers face, I have been cursed out by a nine-year-old and watched classrooms slip into total chaos and yelling.
I realize how lucky I am to have benefited from so many great teachers . I want to share some of what I’ve learned from them about how to create a fertile learning environment.
Set firm boundaries. The strongest teachers I’ve known do this to show respect for themselves, their students, and the importance of learning. They demonstrate a belief in students’ inherent curiosity and desire to learn. This doesn’t mean humiliating students. It means having empathy for people who break the rules without being overly permissive and giving specific, motivating, and direct feedback in response to individual actions. This book has helped me put this into practice.
Know your students. What are your students’ backgrounds? Teaching and learning are intimate work, and we all bring culture, class, experiences, passions, talents, and worries into the classroom. What common developmental traits are associated with your students’ ages? Are they quick to call hard things “boring,” obsessed with perfection, upset about injustice? Developmental age affects students socially, physically, emotionally, and academically. This is a helpful guide to understanding their needs and priorities.
Listen. Try to imagine the experience of a teenager who sees yet another well-intentioned but unprepared adult come into the classroom. Why would this student trust another teacher? Educators need to earn students’ trust, to be empathic in a way that is not passive nor condescending.
Ask a lot of questions. This book helps me understand why it’s important to approach learning as a joint exercise in examination. Visual thinking strategies show me how to do it. Asking open-ended questions invites students to make observations so they can unlock meaning. This has been a crucial classroom management strategy for me because people are always much more engaged when they’re part of a focused process of discovery in which their experiences, insights, and opinions are valued.
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Middle school students have a reputation for being dramatic, smelly, and rude, but they’re also funny, thoughtful, and newly passionate about justice and their place in the world. Teaching in challenging environments isn’t easy, and good intentions aren’t enough. We owe it to our students to spend the time learning how to do it.
Alice Proujansky is a documentary photographer covering women and labor.
Co-published with Medium.