Tracy McMartin

A Photograph Is Worth A Thousand Vocabulary Words

When first grade students at MacGregor Elementary School walk into a classroom and instantly ask, “Are we writing in our portfolios today?” it is one indication that high expectations can create surprising results. It also provides a clue about why their reading scores are on the rise. Their teacher, Tracy McMartin, a NEA Foundation Student Achievement grantee admits, “In 21 years of teaching, I have never seen kids so motivated to write.”

The inspiration for the innovative classroom project that initiated these impressive results was McMartin’s fascination with photography. An amateur enthusiast with no formal training, she was able to convey her love for taking pictures and create much more than a passing interest among her students.

Their curiosity about her camera made her wonder how her students would respond if they were given hands-on experience with cameras of their own. Upon receiving the NEA Foundation grant that enabled her to purchase cameras, McMartin and her students were rewarded with an all-encompassing learning experience. Students embraced the exercise like ducklings to water, laying to rest any initial concerns about putting technology into young hands. “Not only did the 15 cameras survive,” she said, “the best thing is that the durable Canon cameras can be used for the rest of my teaching career.”

The Project
Digital cameras make it possible for anyone to point, shoot and produce great pictures. But there’s more to photography than just clicking away with a digital camera, and these are things that are learned only when you take the time and make the effort to learn photography fundamentals.

First graders were challenged with assignments in science that included seasonal change and buoyancy, math that included shapes and perspectives, and self-discovery that included friendships, community, and personal observations. The formal name of the program, Photography as a Focused and Reflective Learning Tool, is much more than a label. Developed by McMartin with assistance from Kathy Pounders, the program jump started the creative instincts of first grade students who used photography to document their experiences.  

From the moment the NEA Foundation grant check arrived, the teachers and students celebrated by involving students in the decision-making process on equipment and by ramping up the curriculum. The first class of 29 students had the unique opportunity to use the cameras to document their learning by producing an end-of-year photographic portfolio. Coincidentally, most of McMartin’s students are from disadvantaged families. McMartin describes the arrival of the cameras in simple terms, “suddenly the students felt validated and important.”  McMartin adds, “Children used photographs in authentic ways, to construct meaning and to learn to trust themselves and their learning.”

Part of the project asked the children to document their every day realities. Each was assigned a “photography buddy,” captured images of their peers, and created a narrative component to fully express their experiences with words to compliment the documentary-style photography. By the end of the year, each student had accumulated a library of 600-700 photographs that were saved to a DVD and shared via a digital photography web account on SmugMug.

The Results
The most significant by-product of the school year was the increase in writing proficiency. Motivation was high as students produced detailed stories and wanted to document their findings via personal portfolios.In the process they learned the value of decision making and being self-critical. During a critique one student might exclaim, “Oh my, that is a terrible picture” or “what do I need to do to make it better?” The students’ primary concern was to put their best effort on display.

After viewing the creative output of the first graders, teachers from MacGregor Elementary had to be corrected that the work was not that of adults. The same teachers who expressed concerns about camera safety were suddenly interested. “The whole school knew and wanted to apply the program school wide,” McMartin said. "The original 15 cameras are still in use and they are used all the time. Our children wanted cameras for Christmas. They just want to know that someone cares.”

The most important benefit of the program, McMartin concluded, was self-awareness and knowledge that the project provided and that will help students for the rest of their lives. “As students embrace their own experiences they are also building self-esteem.”