Celebrated photographer Wendy Ewald has spent her life teaching students in communities around the world to record their own family histories on camera. Her seminal 1985 work, Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories By Children of The Appalachians, was the result of a unique creative collaboration between Ewald and the students she taught at three elementary schools in Letcher County, Kentucky, in the 1970s. Tasked with finding authentic ways of representing the lives of these children, she gave each of them a camera and interviewed them about their childhood in the mountains. The photographs represented a rare opportunity for children living in rural Appalachia to reflect on their families, dreams, fears and release their vibrant imaginations. In the documentary Portraits and Dreams, co-directed by Ewald and Elizabeth Barret, the photographer returns to Kentucky and visits with students she taught in Appalachia whose work formed the book, who are now adults with families of their own.
This lesson acknowledges that students have insight into themselves and their communities and that such insight is worthy of deliberate self-expression. Throughout the lesson, students will learn about a rural Appalachian community, and a group of middle school students who engaged in a long term photographic project with Wendy Ewald. Clips of the young photographers discussing their work–and their lives since then– will help students explore and discuss tensions between insider and outsider perspectives of community, with a particular focus on depictions and experiences of poverty. Students will have the opportunity to learn about photographic elements and then apply these elements in their own portraits. The selected clips, and related assignments, are designed to help students slow down and interpret and make meaningful artistic decisions and to pay attention to how communities are framed in the media.
As an artist, when I first began to teach, I used my intuitive teaching skills to help my students create the photographs I sensed they were capable of making. I felt my job was to recognize the uniqueness of each child’s vision and nurture it. I could see the students gaining self-confidence as they became fluent in this new medium. They often made discoveries about themselves while examining their surroundings. And at times the students’ photographs helped their teachers understand how they saw their communities and home lives.
As a former high school English teacher and current teacher educator, my approach to teaching emerges from a strong belief in the power of storytelling and, relatedly, a commitment to pedagogies that honor student rights to self-expression. For educators, this film serves as a dual reminder: students are uniquely suited to describe their lives and we must reimagine our work as teachers to make such deliberate self-expression central to our curriculum. This lesson is designed to guide students through self-expression and also deepen their awareness of and push-back on dominant and oftentimes misanthropic portrayals of communities.
A Note to Teachers
The photographers featured in this film share significant socio-cultural and economic insight into their Appalachian communities. For many students and teachers alike, the intimate portrayals of generational poverty and some of the personal revelations about childhood physical abuse and hunger illuminated in this documentary may be triggering. Pay close attention to the learners in your care, and in particular pay attention to the ways that they interact with one another, their photographs, and the stories shared through this film.
- English Language Arts
- Art (Photography, Film Studies)
- Social Studies
- Social Emotional Learning
Grade Levels: 7-12
In this lesson, students will:
- English Language Arts (ELA): Assess and write about how point of view, framing, and symbol shapes the content and style of a photograph;
- Social Studies: Describe the connections between the physical environment of a place and the economic activities found there; examine structural factors of poverty and conflicts between representations of community and community members’ various experiences;
- Art: Understand and analyze key photographic concepts, such as point of view, framing, and symbol; make photographs and explain aesthetic choices using written text;
- Social Emotional Learning: engage diverse perspectives and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
- Student journals or writing materials
- Cameras-Many students have access to cell phones with cameras. Something to keep in mind are that these cameras vary in quality and, oftentimes, have a host of lenses/add ons. If students are asked to use their own phone as a camera, then teachers should ask students to think about the various affordances and limitations of that particular tool as they plan for and take their own portrait.
- “The War on Poverty” Life Magazine, 1964
- Reading Photographs Handout
Four 45 minute class periods, with optional homework in between