A Catalog of Beauty

“I am not against critique, but the world’s need to nick pic everything is a dis-ease. What I crave is holiness. We are so far away from the heart, when only the head leads with only what is wrong. How about the million beauties you walked by today and did not see? Name them. The world needs/ I need your catalog of beauty. What is your catalog of beauty?”

- Glenis Redmond

I was excited to start the year with some photography projects. So were my fifth grade students.  They buzzed with questions and anticipation when they saw the kit of digital cameras arrive to our classroom from our district resource lending center, asking what I was planning for their use.  "I am so glad you are curious, " I responded happily and vaguely, much to their frustration. "I'm not telling yet. You'll find out soon".  I didn't make them wait too long. I was eager too.

Digital photography is a flexible medium that allows for a multitude of project options and opportunities for curricular integration. Photography is a great way to learn about elements of visual and graphic design, an amazing storytelling medium, and an incredible format for capturing thinking and learning in a visible way.  It's a great ladder into videography - another terrific format for developing creative muscles, and an excellent launchpad for discussion on digital citizenship and information privacy when talking about sharing work and peoples' likenesses online. Unlike my own early experiences with film-based cameras, the digital format is easy and inexpensive, there is no wait time to see what the photos turn out like, and you are not limited to 24 exposures on a single roll of film. It is easily accessible technology that almost anyone can learn to use successfully.

We started with a short lesson on some basics.  My friend, Nicole Dalesio, a talented educator and photographer from Los Altos, California, uses a great acronym that I shared with my students: SCARE. 

S - Simplify

C - Closer

A - Angle

R - Rule of Thirds

E - Even Lighting

I won't go into too much detail about what each of these terms mean in this post, but if you are interested, Stephen Davis gives a great description (and some nice project ideas) in this post from the CUE blog. We had some discussion around each of the above items, watched a few short, related YouTube videos to help with more in-depth understanding of the concepts, and then I let them loose on the school grounds to start snapping images. It was amazing to see what only 30 minutes of instruction around a few basic elements did to improve the quality of the photos they were taking. There was a high creativity factor, and everyone was excited and engaged. The students were proud of their work, and many expressed a wish to spend more time taking photos, or to at least plan another photo-taking activity for the future, when time constraints forced us to conclude our activity.

One valuable, and not often overtly recognized, gift of photography is that it can be an incredibly powerful way to be present and mindful, and to see things from a different perspective. My students were absolutely "in the moment" as they looked for beautiful and interesting things to take pictures of. They were willing to get on their backs or bellies and stand on top of objects to change their vantage point, and to see potential and art in the mundane things that we normally just walk past and take for granted. They were utterly and completely in the "now".  We had a good discussion about this upon returning to the classroom. I told them about how I have gone on photo walks during times when I am feeling stressed or worried - just me, my phone/camera, and my dog - in order to clear my head,  and stop lamenting about things that have happened in the past (which can lead to depression) or worrying about things that might happen in the future (which can lead to anxiety). Spending a small amount of time simply looking for beautiful moments to capture can be a very calming and effective mindfulness and gratitude practice. It always helps me feel better.  I encouraged them to try the same outside of school if they have the opportunity. 

As I was thinking about photography and the way it encourages us to be present in the moment, I was reminded of a passage from the talented poet, Glenis Redmond, that I have included at the beginning of this post.  I came across this quote on Rachel Macy Stafford's blog (which is a MUST read - so many beautiful stories that make you think and touch your heart) awhile back, and remembered it as I was thinking about writing this post. When I first read the verse, my breath caught - there was so much truth in these words. I felt happy when I recognized that my students and I were creating a catalog of beauty as we took our photos. We were noticing the "beauties" we normally walk by, and appreciating them fully, even if it was just for a small period of time. We were seeing with our hearts.  

I hope that we find more moments like this regularly throughout the year. Luckily there are other ways that we can continue this practice, even after we send the camera kit back to the lending library. We can use tablets, or webcams, or iPods, or phones. If I have even one camera that I can keep in the classroom, it can be requested for use by anyone who becomes aware of a moment of beauty that is just waiting to be noticed and captured into our shared catalog. We can use the same strategies without any technology simply by going on a walk and shaping our fingers into a rectangular "frame" and working hard to "develop" the image in our brains for future recall. This is a valuable practice to continue. The world needs more "beauties" to be collected and shared. We'll try to do our part.

I did not ask permission to use my students' photos in this post, so I have none that I am able to share, but I have been gleaning a lot of inspiration from amazing educator, Trevor Mattea, and his Twitter feed. He has been doing some great photography work with his students in the San Francisco area and posting them for others' enjoyment. Trevor has also shared some amazing and useful resources, such as his "Classroom Camera" slide deck, and a terrific playlist of helpful YouTube videos on photographic principles. Thank you, Trevor, for "showing your work" and sharing with others! It is such great stuff! 

Have you considered using photography as a way of appreciating the present moment?

Have you used photography projects in other creative ways in your classrooms?

Please share in the comments below, or join our Facebook group and tell us your stories there!

Adobe Spark.jpg