Sometimes a photograph is a provocation.
It can be an image that elicits a conversation. That tells a story, yes. But also, one that asks a question. That asks the viewer to respond, to bring to it what he or she knows. To synthesize existing information with new.
Showing a class a photo of something in their local environment, allows the students to show and tell you what they know. To share it with the other kids. To be the experts. To be the teachers and the storytellers.
Years ago, I realized that I couldn’t teach very much of the Grade One Social Studies curriculum through text books or other ready-made media, because so many of the objectives are specific to the community my students live in. And there’s no text book for that. I would have to create my own resources; letting the lived experience of being in Peace River, Alberta, Canada — a very specific place, at a very specific time — be my source material. The natural and constructed environments would be the “third teacher” in my students’ lives. (After their parents and myself.) (That’s a tenet of the Reggio Emilia approach to primary education.)
So I started taking photos that could provoke conversations around the curriculum objectives.
1. Local Landmarks
One fall, I went out and took pictures of local landmarks in my small town of Peace River, Alberta. Places the kids would know, like the school, the swimming pool, the gymnastics gym and the hockey arena. Places like the movie theatre, the fast food restaurants, and stores. Places they should know, like the library and the museum and the town hall. I compiled these into a slide show, and we spent about a week discussing all of the landmarks; one or two slides at a time.
|A river runs through it. These photos opened up discussions about rivers, islands, hills, valleys, |
and bridges. The top photo was taken by my husband, Tom Tarpey. The other two are mine.
The kids had lots to say. I added bits of information to fill in the gaps. I added context for some of the landmarks using Google Maps, to show where they were. We used the satellite view to look at our local landscape; the map view to identify streets and bridges, and the street view to “walk” down the main street of town. I asked the kids to give me directions (verbally) from one place to another. “If I am looking at the Town Hall, which way do I have to turn to go to A&W?” “If I walked across this bridge, where would I end up?” And so on.
|The old train station.|
|Wooden sculpture of "Twelve Foot Davis" -- a gold miner,|
and the stuff of local legends.
|The Peace River town hall. Note the Town of Peace River logo on the|
I printed some of the landmark photos we had looked at on card stock, and cut them into the shapes of postcards. The kids dictated a sentence or two about the landmark on their postcard to myself or a teacher aide, and we wrote them on the reverse sides of the cards as letters to their moms and dads. Then we addressed them and mailed them. Along the way the kids practiced reciting their addresses. (Not because this is curriculum, but just because it's important for them to know.)
|Top: The MacKenzie Museum and Archives.|
Middle: An artifact that lives outside the museum. It's the axle from the old paddle-wheeled
boat that used to be the main way in or out of Peace River.
Bottom: local mural of the paddle wheeler.
To extend the concept of local landmarks (because the landscape is a landmark), I taped a map of our town to a tray, and put out blue and green plasticine. I asked the kids to cover the water with blue, and the land with green. If we hadn’t run out of time, I would have added Lego blocks and centimetre cubes for the kids to make houses and restaurants and bridges, etc.
And finally — on a slight tangent — we looked at the logo of the Town of Peace River. It is a symbol the kids come across in their movements about town, and knowing about it contributes to their visual literacy and sense of place. Signs and symbols are also a part of the Social Studies curriculum. Our logo, happily, is a simplified image of the river that runs through our town and the hills on either side of it, which form our beautiful valley. So the logo is closely connected to the landmarks in our region.
|Miriam Gair. Peace River Valley. Watercolour. 2004|
We took some time to look at a watercolour painting by once-local artist, Miriam Gair, which depicts the same landscape as the town logo — layered hills, receding waters, the sun as the focal point — talking about what is the same between the two images, and what is different.
Then we recreated the town logo on paper plates, using plasticine. I cut out “stencils” from sturdy dessert-sized paper plates, and placed each one on top of a whole plate. We squished plasticine into the holes of the stencils, using blue and yellow mashed together to make green (which tied in with our Science work on mixing colours). Then we lifted the “stencil” plates off, and — voilà — we had created images of the town logo, and by extension the local landscape.
|Town of Peace River logo project: plasticine landscapes on paper plates.|
Finished piece above and lower left. Stencil, lower right.
2. Long Ago
The history of Peace River — at least in terms of European settlement* — is a short story. Our landscapes are still dotted with the remains of the homesteaders’ cabins who first cleared and farmed the land in this area. We drive by them every time we leave town. So this seemed like a good place to start the discussion about the “long ago” past of this area.
I took a photo of a fallen-down homestead. (I have since taken more.) We looked at it and talked about its size and configuration (one room), what it was made out of (wood), and where the people would have gotten their materials. Who lived in the house? How many people? How did they keep warm? What did they eat? Where would they have gotten their food? Their clothing?
We talked about gardens and barns and outhouses. (Oh, my!) We talked about roads and churches and schools and, eventually, stores; all of this “development” organized around the central concepts of basic human needs. (A topic which is relevant to the Social Studies, Science and the Health curricula.)
The kids drew pictures of what it might have looked like here “100 years ago.”
All of this became the jumping-off point for other activities about our first farmers.
* We had been discussing the Aboriginal peoples in our region (long, LONG ago and now) since much earlier in the year.