“We believe it’s important for students of any age to begin to learn how to understand images that they see,” said Michelle Wallace, PPAC’s Youth Education Assistant. “Visual Literacy is an extremely important skill in the 21st century.”
If you think students at Alexander Adaire Elementary School are learning about the same conventional school subjects elementary school children were learning about 10 years ago, think again. In addition to learning about math, science and English, students at Adaire Elementary learn about photography. They do so through the Photo in Schools program, implemented by the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center with funding from Penn Treaty Special Services District..
“We believe it’s important for students of any age to begin to learn how to understand images that they see,” said Michelle Wallace, PPAC’s youth education assistant. “Visual Literacy is an extremely important skill in the 21st century.”
The PPAC website defines visual literacy as the “ability to understand, interpret and evaluate visual messages.” However, Cristhian Valera, the class’s instructor at Adaire, expands on that definition.
“It’s just learning how to read images and being able to decipher what’s going on in an image,” said Valera. “You can begin by describing an image and then trying to decipher who it was made by and how it affects you as a viewer.”
Valera said it’s important for students to understand visual literacy because students are saturated with images in their everyday environment — whether they be on billboard advertisements or in art — and he thinks they should know where these images come from and how they’re created.
“We want them to create meaning with images rather than consuming them,” he said. “We live in a society where it’s part of the everyday, and I think it would benefit them to learn about how images are created and how it affects them in the world.”
According to Wallace, the Photo in Schools program has a 20 week residency at Adaire, which means that students take the class one hour a day per week for 20 weeks inside an Adaire classroom. The students get to play with cameras and are taught how to use them.
“They learn the technical skills that it takes to make a picture: shutter speed and aperture,” Wallace said. Shutter speed is the time in which the camera’s shutter is exposed to light. The shorter the time that happens, the less blurry a picture will generally be. Aperture is essentially the amount of light that is allowed into a camera’s lens, which affects the brightness of a photograph.
“They learn how to use the manual controls and they take pictures in school and outside of school,” Wallace said. “They get to take them home.”
Wallace said that many of the students learn through “sharing and reflection.” The students get to take the cameras home, and are given assignments. For example, one assignment was to take pictures of “things that are red,” Wallace said. “They’ll come back and all their photos are red and they’ll talk about the process of going around finding that color.”
Wallace said there’s several different goals of the course.
“One is to think critically about pictures, get cameras in students’ hands to help them understand how pictures are made,” she said, “but also to be a creative outlet and detail how they can use it in their lives.”
A description of the class states that “students will learn to describe, analyze and interpret photographs by deconstructing its visual language” as a part of the class. Valera expanded on the meaning of visual language as well.
“Visual language is much like visual literacy,” he said. “The language used in photography is something we already innately understand because we’re raised with it. Every image has a message it’s giving you, whether it’s corporate, capitalistic, informations or artistic. The way people create a photograph is usually very controlled and usually as a meaning or intent behind it and and we try to teach the kids how to investigate what the images mean through that language. You’d notice a big difference between an image in a museum or on a bus. Those are two different visual languages.”
When asked whether the students enjoy the class, Valera laughs.
“I can’t get the kids to stop using the cameras,” he said. “They very much enjoy it.”