Featured Activity: Global Documentary Photo Exchange

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Chris Baer, this week’s Educator of the Week, has involved his students in documentary photography exchange projects with their peers from more than fifty countries for the past ten years. He works with the organization, iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), to connect with partners in other countries. Chris will be presenting alongside staff from iEARN and PenPal Schools during our October 1st Google+ Hangout on Global Collaborative Projects. Click here to sign up for this free event!

Activity: Global Documentary Photo Exchange
Grade Level: 9-12
Time Commitment: 3 weeks

As a photography teacher, one of my favorite activities to help students learn about the world is through a documentary photo exchange project. With the help of iEARN, this global collaborative project allows students to share photos of their daily lives with peers on the other side of the planet.

Chris Baer teaching his student, Jackie Deitz. Photograph by Tessa Whitaker. Jackie Trapp and Tessa Whitaker are both students currently  participating in iEARN's "One Day in the Life" project with students from Argentina,  Yemen, Vietnam, Brazil, and elsewhere. Their current assignment is photographing  pollution and the human impact on their local environment.

Chris Baer with his student, Jackie Deitz. Photograph by Tessa Whitaker. Jackie and Tessa are students currently participating in iEARN’s “One Day in the Life” project with students from Argentina, Yemen, Vietnam, Brazil, and elsewhere. Their current assignment is photographing pollution and the human impact on their local environment.

Participants first agree on simple themes, like “How I Get to School,” “Where I Live,” or “On the Streets.” iEARN has helped us find partners outside the western world; some favorite exchanges have been with high school students in Yemen, Taiwan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Students are given a week or two to make their images, and then they work together in class to identify their best photos, write captions, and post them in a private online forum or by email. Next, they view their partners’ work and respond to it—making observations, asking questions, creating connections…and when things go well, making new friends!

This project is interdisciplinary. TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) educators appreciate it just as much as photography teachers do, and it also fits well into English and Social Studies curricula. There’s writing, there’s communication, there’s photography, there’s geography, there’s culture.

It’s very exciting for students to have a personal window into a new world.

"6 Year Old Teacher, 70 Year Old Student" - photograph taken at Korangi Academy in Karachi, Pakistan, one of Chris Baer's partner schools. Photograph by Hina Iftikhar.

“6 Year Old Teacher, 70 Year Old Student” – photograph taken at Korangi Academy in Karachi, Pakistan, one of Chris Baer’s previous partner schools. Photograph by Hina Iftikhar.

How does this activity impact your students?

The level of work of my students improves because it reaches an authentic audience. Their partner students are genuinely very interested in life in the United States, just as my students are quite curious about life in different cultures.

Sometimes students will give their partners a wish list of scenes they’d like to see and learn about, and they’re often very personal—students want to see what life is like in their partners’ homes, with their families, or with their friends.

It’s also very exciting for students to have a personal window into a new world. Three quarters of the world’s population lives in Asia and Africa, but virtually none of my incoming students have a single friend living there, on Facebook or otherwise. These projects help my students appreciate just how huge and diverse our planet is.

They went on to have some of the most genuine and meaningful conversations of the semester. Many are still friends with this young man, as am I—a few years later I met him at a conference, and he presented me with a ceremonial Yemeni dagger.

“One Day in the Life” photograph of students from Escuela de Pesca Secondary School in Puerto Madryn, Argentina (in the Argentine Patagonia). The school is an alternative vocational high school whose entire curriculum revolves around fishing. Students are seen here collecting garbage on the beach to help protect the environment. Photograph by Soledad Gómez Saá.

“One Day in the Life” photograph of students from Escuela de Pesca Secondary School in Puerto Madryn, Argentina (in Argentine Patagonia). Students are seen here collecting garbage on the beach to help protect the environment. Photograph by Soledad Gómez Saá.

Have you faced challenges doing global collaborative projects?

Many! Time zone differences. Connectivity and access problems. Bureaucracy. Differences in the school calendar.

One of the biggest challenges is giving up control. As teachers, we want to protect our students, so we often feel obligated to monitor all communication. But sometimes this can really stifle the kids. When I learned that an 18-year-old boy from our partner class in Yemen had “friended” nearly all of my freshmen on Facebook from an internet cafe one night, I was alarmed. As it turned out, they went on to have some of the most genuine and meaningful conversations of the semester. Many are still friends with this young man, as am I—a few years later I met him at a conference, and he presented me with a ceremonial Yemeni dagger.

What is one simple activity to get students to think about their world?

Organizing a live text chat with partners in other countries can be a lot of fun, whether it’s by Skype, Facebook, IM, or texting. One thing I’d suggest is to turn off the camera and microphone and turn on the data projector and let the kids brainstorm as a group what to ask and how to respond.

Do you have advice for teachers who want to get more involved with geo-education?

Start small, be patient, keep your promises, stay flexible and spontaneous. Work at the edge of your students’ comfort zones—if you ask most kids in the United States which countries they’d like to work with, they tend to give very predictable answers: England, Australia, France…Instead, give them opportunities to chat with their peers in Bahrain or Uganda or Tajikistan.

What are you looking forward to this school year?

This fall I am launching a new project called “Alternate Reality,” which we are piloting with high school classes in Argentina, Vietnam, and Yemen. Students will make photographs of each other and the school, swap them, and create captioned documentary-style photo composites depicting what life might be like if their partners attended their school. (“If our students can’t physically walk in one another’s shoes, what if they Photoshopped each other in?”) Our Argentine partners attend a very interesting alternative public vocational school in Patagonia where the entire curriculum revolves around fishing. I am also very excited to be working with a Vietnamese classroom for the first time—a rural public school in Quang Nam. Click here to view the Alternate Reality project website.

Chris Baer has been teaching photography, design, and technology for the past 20 years at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. 

Do you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Geo-Educator of the Week!

green nominateThe Educator of the Week series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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