Motivation, Part 1: It's all in the packaging

Remember that old trick to quiet kids down? Let’s see who can be quiet for the longest time! It worked as long as the kids thought it was a game. Something special. Different. Fun. The same trick can be applied to schooling. When you reach the point when the kids roll their eyes at the sight of a notebook (and even the best of us have those days), it’s time to turn learning into a game, a challenge. It ain’t school if you’re having fun, right?

A photo essay is a great way to accomplish this. Photo essay – sounds good, doesn’t it? The ears perk up, the tails start wagging. The student gets a camera, a subject, a notepad, an area in which to roam, and presto – the motivation is back. It’s a gimmick, but it works. A photo essay (in my definition) is really just an illustrated essay. The student still needs to collect, organize, and present information. He or she will still be tasked with writing sections of text. But the photo part of the assignment infuses the enterprise with new life. Think of it as a costume party for learning.

I learned this in our time in Panama, where so many wonderful subjects presented themselves to us that even field trips began to feel ordinary. So we tried a photo essay and hit a gold mine. Why? One reason is the chance to get out and about. Another is the student’s excitement about being entrusted with the camera. Usually, it’s the parents carrying it around; now the kids get their turn.

A camera literally encourages the photographer to look at things from multiple angles. Maybe that’s why photo essays are especially well suited to tackling subjects with strong interdisciplinary potential, because one shot can capture several issues at once. Take, for example, the Panama Canal. A single photo of a modern freighter passing through the locks can be a starting point for history (early trade routes, building of the canal), technology (engineering of the canal), science / environment (impact of canal on surrounding rainforest), or current events (geopolitics, world shipping routes). The only danger is trying to tackle too much at once, so remember to keep things focused. A photo essay can cover any subject: Our Home Renovation Project. How to Catch a Fish. My Trip to the National Park / Public Art Display / Mexico.

The photo shoot is only one part of the process, one that gives the project momentum. Afterwards, the student still has to organize their work and write blocks of text to go with the pictures. The beauty of this is that text takes on the form of captions, which can be as brief or detailed as you wish. These are essentially the paragraphs of a multi-paragraph essay. But unlike a regular essay, the writing is automatically broken up into easily managed sections. Thus the writing part of the assignment is much less intimidating.

And photo essays can do much more than just develop writing skills. Photography is an art form that encourages students to consider things like composition, color, and light. There’s also the IT side: using software to drop photos into text or a newsletter / pamphlet format. You can also aim for a movie or power point presentation. Just be careful – the technology side can be addictive for some kids, overly time-consuming for others. I personally prefer the simple photo / text format, at least when the main goal is to achieve an understanding of a new subject rather than the presentation side of things.

Like any written essay, a photo essay needs to find an audience. Post it on your family’s travel blog, share it with friends, or present it to Grandma on your next visit. It doesn’t have to reach the world, just a few appreciative parties. Finally, a photo essay can also become a keepsake of special times in special places. So why not give it a try?

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