• TCS Parent Connect

FOCUS on history--using photography to trace our roots

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

Students explore the new camera in their classroom photo studio


With today’s distractions, busy schedules and never-ending barrage of information, it can be hard to get our kids (and ourselves!) to FOCUS, but that is precisely what one third grade class at The Conservatory School is doing--literally. Their ancestry project has led them to collect family stories, research the geography and timelines woven throughout their genealogy and, through the art of photography, document heirlooms that hold the rich traditions passed down from generation to generation. They tell their stories when we give them a chance to FOCUS.

Professional photographer Lauren Lieberman helps students set up a photo studio in class.


Along with family interviews and virtual travel to the places of their families’ origin, students in Ms. DeLaTorre and Ms. Andersen’s class are learning about photography in order to capture the fine details of their family treasures. Inspired by a project from High Tech High in California and a desire to explore the varied cultures of students in the class, they embarked on a photographic journey. Students are learning that history is not a one-dimensional, static paragraph in a textbook, it is living and being influenced by those that document it. When I asked students why they were using photography for this project, they told me that it helps them “remember important events” and “see what our relatives REALLY looked like.” One student said it helped the class “look back in history to see the dark times and the happy times.” Ms. DeLaTorre shares that they wanted students to understand that there are many ways to document history (and many perspectives from which to view it), and that photography has been used for many years to do just that. The number one reason they all agreed that photography has helped them with their project: IT’S FUN! One student summed it all up: “We do so much FUN STUFF in here, we don’t even know we’re learning!” And FUN brings everything into FOCUS.

Students work with light and composition.


Professional photographer Lauren Lieberman with LILA Photo visited the class to teach them about the technical aspects of using a camera and setting up successful shots. When I asked them what they were learning by taking pictures, almost every hand shot up (compare this to your carline conversation YOU: “What did you learn in school today” THEM: “I don’t know”) They talked about how light works (SCIENCE), shading and posing an object (SPATIAL RELATIONS/CRITICAL THINKING).

The students taught me about the “rule of thirds” (MATH.) “Go get the paper so we can show her!” They scrambled to retrieve their diagram and teach me all about it--fractions and gridlines that would have rattled around my brain were it not for the articulate and discerning explanation of a group of 8 year olds which brought it into clear FOCUS. Ms. Andersen went on to explain that along with all of the MATH, SCIENCE, and WRITING standards that this project covers, students are also learning to collaborate, be persistent, and be flexible (sometimes technology doesn’t cooperate, sometimes, the photo isn’t quite what they imagined, sometimes they have to try again and again to get the desired result.) They have learned to navigate these barriers (better than most adults), and those skills can’t be measured on a rubric. “It opens their world” and shows them that they can “send a message, and make someone feel something” through their work. They are using photography to FOCUS on objects, but they are inviting us to FOCUS on them and their perspective.

Students use photography to tell their own stories.


How do we as parents and caretakers support this learning at home? Here are some tips to try outside of school:

1. “Quiet on the set!” When these 4 words are spoken in Ms. DeLaTorre and Ms. Andersen’s class, every student knows to respect that important work is happening--no movement, no papers being shuffled, no muffled whispers in the background (they were filming a segment the day I was there). Set aside time in your day to be “quiet on the set” with your child. This may not necessarily be as soon as they get home from school.. By creating a time and space where your child knows they can be heard, you are telling them, even in a world full of distractions--I SEE YOU. You can find interesting conversation starters by finding photos on the classroom twitter feed and asking your learner the 5 W’s--who, what, when, where, and why. Let them FOCUS on the object that interests and excites THEM in those photos and you will see life through THEIR lens.

2. Ask the right questions. Kids want to have their voice heard, so then why does it seem like an insurmountable task to get them to tell us about their day? We are often greeted with grunts, shoulder shrugs, or confused looks when we ask the age old question “What did you do today?” Equally frustrated are teachers who spend hours planning for engaging days that include multiple lessons, countless media resources, and varied tactile experiences only to get emails from parents that read “My daughter said all you did today was watch a movie.” In search of the holy grail of a robust after school conversation, I asked these 3rd grade students what questions they wish parents would ask them, and they had no problem coming up with ways that we can engage them. Here is a student-compiled list of questions that they WANT to answer:

What did you do today that was FUN?

How were you brave today?

Did you meet any new people today?

What caught your eye today?

How were you kind today?

What is the thing you worked the hardest on today?

How were you helpful today?

How were you generous today?

3. Plan your own photography project at home. The next time your kid asks for your phone, don’t cringe--have a plan. You can find kid-friendly photo scavenger hunts online or create your own. Ask them to find letters and numbers on the ride to school, or encourage them to capture images of people being kind while you wait at the doctor’s office or someone being helpful at the grocery store. Challenge them to take a picture of good citizenship (woo-hoo, 7th grade civics!!) Invite them to take photos of things that make them feel happy, sad, funny, interested….and then talk about it with them. Give them a starting point and they will show you where they want to FOCUS.

Pictures tell powerful stories. These 3rd grade students are learning that their perspective and light, positioned in the right angle, help them tell their own compelling stories, through their own lens. We can share in that story, if only we choose to….


Students learn problem solving, collaboration, persistence, and flexibility working in the photo studio.

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