Ali Jarekji/Reuters; Neal Boenzi/The New York Times; Andrew Biraj/ReutersThree of the photos we’ve used for our Monday “What’s Going On in This Picture?” feature. See all »
Last October we introduced a new feature in which, each Monday morning this school year, we posted a New York Times photograph without a caption, then invited students to answer three deceptively simple questions about it:
- What’s going on in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can you find?
As student answers poured in to the blog each week — this shows someone learning a back-flip; I think he’s in the military because of his camouflage shirt; The background makes it look like a movie set — our collaborators for the feature, Visual Thinking Strategies, acted as live moderators, linking thoughts and posting further questions intended to help them go deeper and see more. Most weeks that created a lively debate in our comments section, as students of all ages, backgrounds and places pushed each other to find detail and defend interpretations.
Then, 24 hours later, we published the back story for each week’s photo at the bottom of the post. There you could find the original Times caption, links to related Times reporting, and, often, an interview with the photographer about the moment he or she took the picture.
That way students could discover that, for example, our first image, which they speculated was of everything from a war zone to a zombie attack, actually depicted a child jumping on waste products at a tannery in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2012 — in the same area where, a year and a half later, Rana Plaza would collapse in what is now widely thought to be the deadliest disaster in garment industry history.
This process, teachers have told us, was an easy way to raise student curiosity about news and cultures around the world, as well as an opportunity for students to practice some of the skills the Common Core demands.
By looking closely at an image, forming their own interpretations and sharing their ideas, students practiced skills such as making an argument, finding and citing evidence, analyzing various accounts of a subject told in different mediums, making strategic use of digital media and participating in collaborative discussions.
According to Jennifer Bradley, a science teacher at Bentonville High Schoolin Arkansas, her students–both native English speakers and English-language learners– loved participating in the online discussions every week. She told us how the practice of finding details to defend their interpretations of each photo improved their academic skills in general, and their science skills in particular:
After practicing with “What’s Going On in This Picture?’ weekly, I started to see my students get much better at using evidence in their writing. For example, in their lab reports, they started to be much more detailed and to explain the context clues that led them to a conclusion.
Other teachers told us that the feature helped their struggling readers and E.L.L. students, especially because the V.T.S. moderators act as “teachers” on the blog, gently pushing those learners to say more. Laurence Brown in New York, who teaches special education at Northport High School on Long Island, writes:
I have had much success using the pictures put up on the Learning Network blog. They tend to evoke strong emotional responses from my students. I teach two resource rooms and use these for prediction, as well as creating a thesis statement and using evidence to back up the statement. Our favorite of the year was the fellow who was submerged in the side of the road. I heard all kinds possibilities as to what that picture was, from a thief hiding to pipe repairing.
If you used the feature this year, we invite you to post your thoughts below. Which photos were especially compelling? How did your students react to the feature in general? What could we do better next year?
If you didn’t use it, we hope you’ll consider trying when the feature resumes in September. Even if your class can’t participate in the online conversations on Mondays, the photos remain online without their captions, so you can reproduce the exercise at any time.
We leave you with some comments from the fifth graders in Sean Federbusch’s class in Santa Barbara, Calif.:
- I liked doing this because it was fun and mysterious. This Monday our teacher said that it was our last “What’s Happening in This Picture.” I was so mad because the pictures were so funny and awesome.
- We have been doing “What’s Happening” for about two months now and think it has been very productive on our skill of predicting what things support our claim.
- It was fun because we had crazy thoughts.
- We have used the pictures that you have picked to help my class to get better at predicting and make observations. Most of the time they are really funny. Keep up the good work.
- The one I liked was when the guy was in the middle of the road fixing the pipes. I though he stole something and went through a passage way. Well, I was wrong. I learned that you do not always have to be right.
- I liked doing it because we had to support our evidence, like “I predict the man is dying because of his hands’ motion.”