Social Issue Photo Essay Lesson

 

Ask teachers to describe the impact they hope to have on their students, and most will eventually say something along these lines: I want my students to grow into responsible citizens. I want my students to participate in society in an active, productive way.

And maybe: I want my students to change the world.

But how many of us know how to make that happen, really? Can we explicitly teach students how to change the world? If this question has been whispering in the back of your mind, the resources in this collection will help.

What is social justice, and how does it fit into the curriculum?

The National Association of Social Workers defines social justice as “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.” To study social justice is to learn about the problems that dramatically impact quality of life for certain populations, and how people have worked to solve those problems.

If you teach social studies, you’ll have no trouble finding direct curricular links to social justice. The National Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies includes Civic Ideals and Practices as one of its 10 Themes of Social Studies, and this includes an emphasis on learning how to get involved in influencing public policy. In history and social studies class, social justice teaching is a natural fit.

In other content areas, teachers disagree over whether social justice has a place. We put ourselves in a vulnerable position by exploring issues that are seen as more controversial than others (a topic I will get into in the next section), and some teachers prefer to completely steer clear of those kinds of complications. For others, social justice was a driving force in why they became teachers, and they weave it into whatever content they are teaching. If you choose to address some or all of these issues in your classroom, the next section offers some tips for doing it effectively.

Some Advice for Teaching Social Justice

As an undergraduate, I served as a student counselor for three years and a resident assistant (RA) for one. I regularly delivered workshops on social justice topics, and I learned a few important lessons along the way. Here are some things to keep in mind when studying social justice issues with your students:

  • Make getting to know students a key component of any social justice teaching. If you and your students don’t spend time examining your own backgrounds, biases, and beliefs, you will be missing an essential component of any social justice curriculum. We all view every social justice issue through the lens of our own experience, and these different lenses can block our growth and learning if we aren’t aware of them. If we fine-tune our self-awareness, our individual lenses can richly inform classroom conversations and help us understand issues on a much deeper level, directly from each other.
  • Know that not all students feel the same way about these issues. Most, if not all, of these resources have been created from a pretty liberal, progressive viewpoint. For example, one of the lessons in the Teaching Tolerance series described below is on Confronting Unjust Laws. The lesson uses California’s Proposition 8 as an example of an unjust law. But not all of your students (or their families) will see a law like Prop 8 as unjust. In fact, some may strongly oppose same-sex marriage. That doesn’t mean you can’t successfully talk about controversial issues; in fact, teaching students how to respectfully discuss an issue with people who don’t share their opinions is a lesson that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
  • Familiarize yourself with the material before teaching. Sometimes we just skim materials before we teach. With social justice topics, this would be a mistake. Not knowing exactly what’s in all of your teaching materials, including the texts or videos you and your students will be looking at, can leave you vulnerable to problems when unexpected content pops up.
  • Keep your administrator in the loop. As with any potentially controversial lesson, it is essential that you talk to your administrator about it ahead of time. Show the curricular connections between your planned lessons and the standards you’re teaching. Talk about potential problems or objections that may come up and how you both plan to address them. That way, if your administrator gets a phone call from a concerned parent, she or he won’t be blindsided.

Featured Resources

When I set out to find good resources for social justice teaching, I was looking for classroom-ready materials, lesson plans with supplementary texts or videos that would prompt students to learn about, think about, and talk about social justice issues. I also hoped to find some that would actually teach students about activism, about how a citizen zeroes in on a problem, formulates a solution, then does the grassroots work necessary to see that solution come to life.

Some of these resources fit the bill perfectly, especially the first one on the list. Others do not include lesson plans at all, but serve such an important and innovative role in social justice education, I thought they were essential to include here.

 


Anti-Defamation League: Current Events Classroom


The ADL’s Current Events Classroom is a collection of lesson plans that use current events as a springboard. For example, What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?, a lesson for high school students, has students watch the video of the South Carolina police officer who flipped a student out of her chair. The rest of the lesson has students study and discuss the impact of zero-tolerance policies in schools, statistics on the connection between school suspensions and the juvenile justice system, and their own school discipline policy. The end of the lesson offers students a choice of next steps for taking action on this issue.

Most of the lessons in the collection are written for middle and high school students on a wide range of topics including anti-Muslim bigotry, the refugee crisis, homelessness, cyberbullying, and gender stereotypes. The longer I look at this collection, the more impressed I am with it. Definitely worth a look.

Update: Since publishing this post, a few readers have pointed out that some of ADL’s other website content (separate from this curriculum) takes a strong stance on issues relating to Israel and may offend some users. I still feel that this curriculum contains incredibly valuable lessons on very recent events that you won’t find anywhere else, but this reinforces my second and third points above: Know your audience, and read through the materials carefully. For more details on this issue, please read the comments below.


Teaching Tolerance: Classroom Resources


This award-winning organization comes up most often any time social justice teaching is discussed. There’s lots to explore on their site, including the Classroom Resources section, which is loaded with lesson plans and other resources teachers can use for free in their classrooms. One of these lessons is Confronting Unjust Practices, where students learn about the anti-segregation actions taken by the Freedom Riders and the attack on one of these buses in Anniston, Alabama (pictured above).

Other lessons from this library include What is Ageism?, Unequal Unemployment, and What Makes a Family? Lessons are available for elementary, middle, and high school students.


DoSomething.org


No lesson plans here: DoSomething.org is an outstanding organization whose goal is to support the work of young people who want to make a difference in their world. Students browse through a big list of campaigns, public education and activism projects students can launch right in their own communities, and choose one or more that they’d like to participate in. Once they have finished a campaign, students submit a photo or video to prove they completed the required steps. This entry makes them eligible to win prizes, including scholarships. Currently, only U.S. students are eligible for these scholarships, but DoSomething.org is expanding into other countries as well.

Although this site will not help you do any direct instruction about social justice, it provides incredible opportunities for students to actively participate in social justice projects. Most campaigns are just right for high school students, and some would be appropriate for middle schoolers as well. Some topics may be considered risque, so review the content before introducing it to students.

On a related note, DoSomething.org is the organization where Katia Gomez, the college student who started her own school in Honduras (featured in the first Cult of Pedagogy documentary last year), got her start. One more bit of trivia that totally doesn’t matter but might if you are a Melrose Place fan: DoSomething.org was co-founded by 90’s heartthrob Andrew Shue. Squeee!!


The Global Oneness Project


The Global Oneness Project offers a beautiful collection of multicultural films, photo essays, and articles that “explore cultural, social, and environmental issues with a humanistic lens.” Many of the featured stories are paired with a lesson plan for high school or college classrooms, aligned with Common Core and national standards.

One such pairing starts with the film Amar, which follows a young Indian boy living in a high-poverty neighborhood through a typical day that includes rising before dawn to do one of his two jobs and attending school. The accompanying lesson plan is called A Day in the Life, which has students examine the film and other resources related to the economic situation in India.

The films are truly stunning. This collection doesn’t include explicit teachings in any kind of civics or grassroots activism, but it will provide students with a deep understanding of lives completely unlike their own. And that kind of empathy is one of the most important building blocks for any kind of social justice action.


Pushing the Edge: Social Justice Resources Collection


Educator Greg Curran’s podcast covers a range of educational topics, but quite a few episodes circle around issues of social justice. Recently, he curated these resources into a Social Justice Resources Collection. These episodes will be mainly useful for teachers to educate themselves about social justice education: what complications and questions come up, helpful do’s and don’ts, and why it’s worth it. He interviews practicing teachers and administrators who are walking the walk with social justice teaching. Listening to them will give you a template from which to build your own practice.

Here’s an example of one episode, where Curran interviews Nakisha Hobbs, principal of the Village Leadership Academy, a k-8 social justice school in Chicago.

 

 


GLSEN: Educator Resources


For teachers who want to include consideration of LGBT issues in their study of social justice, a great source for materials is GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. offers a nice collection of educator guides and lesson plans.

Here are a few examples: The ThinkB4YouSpeak Guide for Educators includes lesson plans, resources, and tips for teachers for addressing anti-LGBT language in the 6-12 classroom. Unheard Voices is a collection of audio interviews with “individuals who bore witness to or helped shape LGBT history in some way.” And the Day of Silence Guide shows educators how to run a Day of Silence awareness campaign in their schools.


Educational Video Center


I love this idea: The Educational Video Center teaches students the skills of documentary filmmaking, telling important stories in the name of social justice. Although the EVC holds after-school workshops only for students in New York City, they do offer professional development for teachers anywhere who want to learn how to teach these skills to their own students.

Alumni of the EVC have created documentaries on everything from criminal justice to domestic violence to mental health. You can view a collection of trailers for student-created documentaries here.


The Two Dollar Challenge


The Two Dollar Challenge is a challenge issued to people who want to make an impact on poverty. The challenge is simple: For 5 days, live on just $2 per day, publicizing the complexities of global poverty and helping to raise funds for a partner organization.

What’s most striking about this organization is their emphasis on cultivating a deep respect for people affected by poverty and raising participants’ awareness of their own privilege. One look at the project’s code of conduct shows just how serious they are about that mission: “At all times participants must respect those nearby who are truly in need. If at any time those taking the Challenge are using resources which are valuable for indigent residents in the area this action must be re-evaluated.”


Further Reading

Stirring Up Justice
Laurel Schmidt, Education Leadership, May 2009
Explores the value and process of teaching students about activism. Offers a template for how to engage students in authentic conversations about difficult issues, ask themselves what they can do about social justice issues, consider ways they have already acted in the past, study how other kids and young adults have successfully solved problems, and participate in their own social justice projects.

Turning Current Events Into Social Justice Teaching
Jinnie Spiegler, Edutopia, January 6, 2016
Spiegler, the curriculum director for the Anti-Defamation League (the first resource in this post) offers advice on teaching social justice topics in a way that’s both sensitive and productive.

Educolor Resources
Educolor, an organization dedicated to an equitable, just education for everyone, maintains this list of books, movies, articles, and websites that will educate teachers and students on issues of social justice, especially as it pertains to educational equity.

The Best Teacher Resources Sites for Social Justice
Larry Ferlazzo, Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day, July 1, 2008
A big list of resources related to social justice education.


What Are Your Favorite Social Justice Resources?

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you have a resource you like to use for teaching about social justice, please share it in the comments below. ♦


 

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Your students, if they’re anything like mine, love to communicate through images—photos on Instagram, GIFs shared in a text, photo stories on Snapchat. And yet, so much of our conversation in school revolves around words. Understanding text is critical to students’ success now and in the future. But do we also help students identify, read and understand images in order to become literate in the visual language that is all around us? The photo essay can be a great middle or high school assignment that will have strong appeal and grow your students’ writing skills.

What Is a Photo Essay?

For those who aren’t familiar with the term “photo essay,” have no fear. A photo essay, in its simplest form, is a series of pictures that evokes an emotion, presents an idea or helps tell a story. You’ve been exposed to photo essays for your entire life—possibly without even knowing it. For example, you may have seen Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother:

An iconic image of the Great Depression, this picture, along with Lange’s other gripping photos, helped Americans better understand the effects of poverty in California as well as across the nation. Migrant Mother is one of countless photographs that helped persuade, influence or engage viewers in ways that text alone could not.

Photo essays can feature text through articles and descriptions, or they can stand alone with simple captions to give context. The versatility of photo essays has helped the medium become a part of our culture for centuries, from the American Civil War to modern environmental disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. This versatility is also what makes the photo essay a great educational asset in classrooms today; teachers can use them in any content area. Math students can use them to show a geometric concept in real life. Science students can document a chemistry process at home. Auto students can photograph the technique—and joys and frustrations—of learning a new procedure.

So, where does a teacher begin? Read further for tips and ideas for making photo essays a part of your teaching toolbox.

Start With Photos

Introducing photo essays as a means of changing lives and changing society can hook student interest in the medium. Begin by simply showing pictures and letting students discuss their reactions. Consider this famous photo of the field at Antietam during the Civil War. Share some of the photos from this collection from CNN of 25 of the Most Iconic Photographs or this list of 50 Influential Photographs That Changed Our World.

Each of these photographs stirs emotion and sends our minds searching for answers. As a warm-up assignment or series of assignments, have students choose (or assign randomly) a photograph to write about. What’s the story? Why did this happen? Who was involved?

DIY Photographs

Before giving a formal photo essay assignment, give students an opportunity to practice and receive feedback. Consider presenting students with several open-ended, ungraded challenges like “For class tomorrow, take a photo that depicts ‘Struggle.’” Other possible photo topics: chaos, frustration, friendship, school. Have students email you their photo homework and share it as a slideshow. Talk about the images. Do they convey the theme?

You can give examples or suggestions; however, giving too many examples and requirements can narrow students’ creativity. The purpose of this trial run is to generate conversation and introduce students to thinking like photographers, so don’t worry if the photos aren’t what you had in mind; it’s about getting feedback on what the student had in mind.

Technique 101

Even though the goal of a photo essay is to influence and create discussion, there is still benefit in giving students a crash course on simple photography concepts. Don’t feel like you have to teach a master-level course on dark-room development. Even a simple overview on the “Rule of Thirds” and the importance of perspective can be enough to help students create intentional, visually stirring photographs.

You can teach these ideas directly or have students do the work by researching on their own. They have most likely seen hundreds of movies, advertisements and photos, so these lessons are simply labeling what they’ve already experienced. Having some knowledge of composition will not only help students improve their visual literacy, it will also help empower them to take photos of their own.

Choose Your Purpose

Are students telling their own stories of their neighborhoods or their families? Are they addressing a social issue or making an argument through their images and text? A photo essay could be a great assignment in science to document a process or focus on nature.

If you are just getting started, start out small: Have students create a short photo essay (two to five images) to present a topic, process or idea you have been focusing on in class. Here’s a Photo Essay Planning Guide to share with your students.

With pictures becoming a dominant medium in our image-filled world, it’s not a question of if we should give students practice and feedback with visual literacy, it’s a question of how. Photo essays are a simple, engaging way to start. So, what’s your plan?

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