click! in the Classroom

When most people think of Lincoln, Nebraska, the images they probably conjure up are of Husker football fans dressed in red, and the endless flat expanse of Interstate 80 as it stretches westward toward the Rocky Mountains. What most people don’t know is that Nebraska has become the fifth largest refugee resettlement site per capita, compared with states of similar populations, and that over half of the state’s refugees reside in Lincoln. Portrait of Tien Nguyen in class, Photograph courtesy of Tien Nguyen. Last year I taught Language Arts at Park Middle School in inner city Lincoln, and my students were from Vietnam, Sudan, Mexico, and Tajikistan. Given their diverse cultural backgrounds and personal experiences, I thought it might make sense to use news photographs about immigration as the starting point for a discussion about elements of fiction and non-fiction. Through photography we could talk about what was both in and outside the frame, both literally and emotionally, challenging my students to think critically about what can sometimes be automatically accepted at truth. Partnering with the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, I began our Non-Fiction Reading and Writing unit by having students look at two photographs of the US-Mexico border fence, one communicating a pro-immigration stance, and the other an anti-immigration point of view. I wanted my students to think about how facts are presented, and how both photographs and non-fiction texts aren’t always objective, even if they appear in a newspaper. I asked students questions meant to trigger discussion, such as: Do you think the photograph was posed or spontaneous? What point of view does the photographer show us? Are news photographs absolutely true? At first, my questions were met with silence, since there were no obvious right or wrong, black and white answers. Through the photographs, though, the students could see that these were not standard comprehension questions meant to yield specific outcomes. Instead, I was asking them to put themselves in the shoes of both the photographer, and the person photographed. They struggled to think abstractly at first, but slowly became photography detectives, looking for the kinds of visual clues that might elude to not just the 5 w’s of non-fiction (who, what, where, when, and why) and what the photograph was purportedly about. They began to think about the complexity of “objectivity” itself. Using photography to introduce a conventionally dry non-fiction unit completely energized my classroom. After reading various texts about immigration, I asked my students to each bring in a photograph that included them and write a biographical sketch using one of the following writing prompts: -My current reality is………but in my mind, I pretend……… -I tell people………however, the unspoken truth is…………… -Today I……………Yesterday I…………


Composite: Photograph of Taylor with sister, Allison, and written story, Photography courtesy of Tay In one photograph, that has now become part of click!, two blonde girls sit on a front porch step surrounded by bright orange pumpkins. One is dressed as a butterfly, the other a giraffe. My student Taylor Lothson, dressed as the giraffe, writes ten years later that while they look like two cute kids, “ready to claim candy,” the untold reality of the photograph was that her parents weren’t getting along and were about to get a divorce. Student after student latched onto the idea that photographs, and written stories, might strive to reveal a true experience, but often an unspoken reality lurks just beneath the surface if you look and think hard enough. Click to see other stories by Sam Costello, Tatianna Hill, and Tien Nguyen. *See Kelly's complete click! lesson plans here. -Kelly Apel, Assistant Principal Clinton Elementary School, Lincoln Public Schools

Kim Kremer is an Intern at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.