So our president was at it again. This time, he was tweeting terrible things about a beautiful place, Baltimore. And as I sat reading his words and the words that came in response, I could not help but think about our students and how our classrooms might not be places where we can stop them from hearing inaccurate statements from those who are in positions of power, but they CERTAINLY can be places where we teach our students processes that they can use to push back against those inaccurate, incomplete and racist statements so that they can see the beauty that lives in a place like Baltimore.
And this made me think about some of the work that we have done in our classroom that I shared recently when I was presenting at the Scholastic Reading Summit in Greenwich, CT. (For those who are interested, you can CLICK HERE to see the entire presentation that I shared.) But for this post, I want to focus specifically on some work we did critically reading the beautiful photographs in Devin Allen’s book A Beautiful Ghetto, which is Allen’s love letter to the city he grew up in and continues to live in.
Our students see so many images as they move through this world. Everywhere they look, they are bombarded by images. These images play a large role in shaping how our students see and understand the world. Unfortunately, many of the images that they see carry strongly biased messages. And far too often, our students consume these images without much thought at all and certainly with little critical analysis. As I often say, we cannot protect our students from seeing these images, but we can arm them with tools to help them to be more aware of the biased messages these images spread so that they can recognize the inaccurate, incomplete and harmful messages being spread and push beyond them in a way that allows them to better understand the world they are living in.
Images provide a perfect entry point into the critical reading process because they are so accessible for so many students. But we have to help our students to view these images in a way that allows them to gain a more complete understanding of a person, group of people or a place.
I was able to introduce my students to such a process using the images found within Devin Allen’s book. Allen’s book is a collection of his photographs of Baltimore. Allen became well-known across the country during the uprising in Baltimore that took place after Freddy Grey’s murder. Allen became frustrated with the way that outside reporters were representing his city and so he took his camera into the streets of Baltimore and began photographing the event of the uprising. One of his photographs ended up on the cover of TIME magazine. He then collected his own photographs and put them together into this book in order to show the world the Baltimore that he knew. These photographs provide an opportunity to rich analysis and critical reading.
I began by gathering my students close to me so that we could examine some of Allen’s photographs together. I gave them a bit of the background of Baltimore, of Allen himself and of the uprisings that took place. Since my school is located outside of Chicago, I shared the comparison between Baltimore and the South Side of Chicago. My students are only miles away from the South Side of Chicago, but our upper-middle class, mostly white community is also an entire world away. So I knew that many of the misconceptions that our country has of Baltimore would be similar to many of the misconceptions that my own students have to the South Side of Chicago. And this was what I wanted to help them push beyond.
I began by sharing some of the photographs of Baltimore in Allen’s book that I knew would match the images that my students held of areas that would be considered, “bad parts of town.” I wanted to help them to highlight their own misconceptions, by looking at images that reinforced the “single story” that they carried with them already. By this point, we had already listened to Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful TED talk titled, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and we had started to explore the meaning of that term through the texts that we were reading. (To read more about that work, you can read THIS BLOG POST).
So I showed my students the following three pictures and asked them to look at them closely:
We then used THIS FORM in order to document our thinking as we walked through this process. Once we had walked through this process together, my students would then use this same form in order to explore images that told stories of other places, people or groups of people.
While looking at these first three images, I asked my student to fill out the top box of the form. I asked them to simply list what they were seeing in these pictures. We were starting with observations, the first step in the critical reading process that I teach my students throughout the year, across of variety of types of texts. After giving them time to write, I asked students to list what they wrote down. Many students wrote about the boarded up buildings, the empty streets, the dying plants, the garbage, etc.
Then, I asked my students to interpret what messages these images might send about the place being shown. This is a really safe way to help my students to think about bias. I am not asking them to share the biases that they personally hold (though so many of my students end up sharing their own biases by the end anyway). Instead, I am asking them to really observe an image and then interpret what biased messages these images might be sending to people viewing them. Some of the things my students said were:
“We think of “bad” areas in terms of run down things and not the people who live there.”
“There is no happiness in a place that is poor.”
“The people living in a place like this don’t care enough to fix it.”
I was careful to reinforce that these are NOT true statements, but rather MISCONCEPTIONS that people might hold after viewing just these images. The next step is then to ask my students to write down the questions that this leaves them with. My students, especially when they are new to this work, come up with a wide variety of questions. Some of those questions are not that helpful, like, “How do people get those wooden boards to stay up?” But when we keep pushing and modeling, we also get to questions such as:
Why are some places like this and other places wouldn’t ever be?
Are there also good parts about places considered to be ghettos?
These are the questions that we really stop and talk about and think about how we might begin to find answers to. One of the things that we talk about is that in order to find answers to the questions we are left with, we must seek out additional resources and additional information. This is when I first introduce the idea of the importance of pulling additional resources that share information that is given by people who actually live in a specific place, or know a specific person or are a part of a specific group of people. After mentioning this, I read the author’s note that is a part of this book and we talked about Allen’s frustration with the way people from OUTSIDE of Baltimore were portraying the city. We talk about the difference in how Allen might portray the city because he lived there for much of his life.
And then I share with my students other photographs from Allen’s book. This time, I make sure to show them images that I know will push them beyond the misconceptions they might be carrying. Again, I asked them to use THIS FORM to list the new things that they were seeing in these additional images and what these new images were helping them to understand about Baltimore.
These were the additional images we looked at:
After giving them time to write, I asked them to share some of their observation. This time, students talked about seeing things such as: playgrounds, people laughing, people smiling, joy, families, kids playing, etc.
After sharing their new observations, I asked them to return to the last section of the form and to synthesize all that they had seen and all that they had talked about and to revise what they now understood about Baltimore. Here are some of the things that they shared:
“So much depends on where a photographer points his camera. When we see a picture, we are only seeing what is in that one shot. There is so much we are missing. Depending on where a person puts the camera, our idea of a place can be totally wrong.”
“It’s not that the first pictures didn’t show what was there in Baltimore, it was important to show those parts. But, it isn’t ALL that’s there. But I feel like we usually only see those kinds of pictures. I wonder if we would be less afraid of certain areas if we saw more pictures like the second set.”
“I feel like pictures are not always telling us the whole truth and if we aren’t careful and doing this kind of stuff, we will get the wrong idea about a lot of stuff.”
And then after sharing these powerful new understandings, we took some time to capture some of the questions that we might be able to ask ourselves in order to help us push beyond the “single story” that Adichie described in her TED talk. Here is the chart that captured those questions:
In many ways, this powerful work was just the beginning, the foundation, of the work that we would continue for the rest of our school year and the work that I hope my students will continue to do in the world beyond our classroom. Because long after these Tweets about Baltimore leave the news and even long after this president has left office (hopefully sooner rather than later!) there will always be people saying things that will paint beautiful places and beautiful people in ugly ways. As educators, we might be powerless to stop our students from hearing those ugly things, but we are not powerless when it comes to how our students will digest those ugly things, how they will accept them or how they will push back against them. That is something we can give them. That is something that we can teach them, so that they will be able to see the beauty in a place like Baltimore and the beauty in any other space that people with power and privilege may try to destroy.