All the researchers wanted to know what kinds of reflections children would exhibit when making photo journals.

The study was conducted in a kindergarten/first grade classroom in a Midwestern town. There was one head teacher, two teaching assistants, and 25 students. Twenty-one students created a photo journal.

Using a digital camera, students were asked to document their daily school activities and created digital photo journals to represent their experiences. Downloading pictures to the computer and creating a photo journal was done with help from an adult who not only provided technical help, but encouraged children’s reflections about their photos by asking them to describe their photos and what the photos meant to them.

With the aid of an adult, students took turns on a daily basis to get their photos. No more than two days later, students created their journals on the computer–a single iMac equipped with iPhoto. At the end of the project, students displayed their journals to their families and peers at an open-house night.

Researchers took note of how students were using the camera to gain access to the classroom community in different ways. For example, during story time, one student with the camera went around and shot pictures of the book from over the teacher’s shoulder–something students without a camera were not allowed to do.

Also, although students at first focused on their friends and their teachers, they later began to shift to peripheral items and spaces, such as books, calendars, and empty areas of the classroom.

Students also took an active part in role playing. For example, the student with the camera would go to another student to take a photo. Without exchanging any instructions, the student in the photo would objectively explain what he or she was working on. Even if the two students were friends, the student in the photo treated the student with the camera as an objective photographer.

The researchers also noticed that even children who typically avoided the computers during choice time were drawn to seeing a friend working on the journal. Just like the computer in the first study, students would play near the computer during a student’s journal time, or around the computer offering comments on the photos.

During the journal-making process, students began to describe their photos in four different ways:
– Descriptive approach: Children would simply say what was on the screen
– Explanatory approach: Children articulated their own reasons behind taking or choosing pictures
– Situative approach: Children would relay the physical, temporal, or social context of the picture
– Interpretive approach: Children would either fill in details about the talk, thoughts, or feelings of the people in their photos, or refer to particular elements of their pictures to explain what was on screen.

The researchers reported that “the act of taking pictures served not only the purposes of documentation, visual literacy, and reflection, but also child empowerment. The students were able to use digital photography as a means to shift from their usual roles as restricted participants, and engage in sophisticated negotiations with their fellow students as photographic subjects and within the norms of classroom behavior.”

During this project, students became empowered, became more aware of the community around them, learned social roles, and became interested in their own personal goals as well as the goals of others.

Wang and Ching said both studies can offer educators insights: Teachers can use students’ interest in technology to help establish rules and norms. For example, because students helped to enforce and create rules around computer use, teachers might ask students which rules they think are good and why, as well as what other rules they think should apply. Engaging students in discussion will let students further consider complex social issues and share ownership of classroom behavior, the researchers said.

In both studies, Wang and Ching reported that technology can help educators by allowing them to see the classroom from a student perspective. By engaging students in discussion about computer usage, the teacher can collect feedback; by observing student journals, teachers can see what is most important to their students and how they view their environment.

“Because students’ use of digital cameras allows teachers to see the classroom world through children’s eyes,” explained Wang and Ching, “this activity may enable teachers to examine their own beliefs about children as learners and fellow participants in the learning environment–a necessary and often difficult step in the process of realizing student-centered technology integration.”

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X. Christine Wang

Cynthia Carter Ching