By Roger J. Wyan
Last fall, I was asked to teach an after-school photography class for middle school youth in the small town of Delhi.
Having taught photography on the high school and college levels for many years, I wasn’t sure about teaching this age group. After all aren’t these 12-13 year-olds some weird form of human being caught between the awkward stages of childhood and adolescence? Which is to say difficult to teach?
Clearly, I had my own preconceptions about this age group, but, up for a challenge, I accepted the position.
What I found instead of wacked-out, hormone fueled youth were kids with abundant energy that just needed a way to channel it.
The beauty of making photographs is that it isn’t done at a desk. These students were asked to use their cameras and tell the story of their community. In other words become engaged with their community through photography.
I am continually amazed at the ability of arts to engage youth with their surroundings. It’s almost impossible to photograph something or someone without it raising even more questions: To wit: Who is this person, what are they doing, why are they doing it? Throughout my 12 years of teaching youth it’s abundantly clear: engagement with the arts fosters critical thinking.
The class went from studying how to use a camera and what makes an interesting photograph (techniques) to what do we want to communicate with our pictures? That’s a big jump in thinking. And one the students were able to make.
Among the many takeaways of this class was they learned how to present themselves, approach people and converse with people they didn’t know. Can math teach that?
One of the most amazing experiences to come out of the class was the students’ social interaction at the Delhi Senior Center. Ostensibly we had gone into the center to photograph seniors playing bingo. But those afternoons also turned into relationship building sessions. The students would help clean up the center and afterwards several students decided it would be a great idea to go back and volunteer their time there.
The image of 12 year-olds engaging with octogenarians at the senior center is profound and clearly shows how the arts make more tolerant and sympathetic people. Did I mention they didn’t want to go in there at first because of their fears of older people? And it all started with making a few pictures.
A study published in Education Week and conducted by Professor Jay P. Greene and this team from the University of Arkansas and Rice University found students exposed to the arts:
• Were more tolerant and empathetic to different people, places and ideas.
• Helped boost students’ critical thinking, teaching students to take the time and be more careful in their observation of the world.
• Improve students’ knowledge about the arts and their desire to become cultural consumers in the future.
While arts advocates try to make the connection between exposure to the art and improved math and reading test scores, Greene argues experiencing the arts should be taken on its own merits. We should no more expect the arts to boost math scores than expect math to enhance appreciation for the arts. Don’t we want youth to be tolerant and empathetic human beings and develop into cultured and more humane people? Aren’t these outcomes benefit enough?
It’s very clear parents, educators and communities care about the arts in schools. Talk about educating the “whole child” is a buzz phrase I hear time and time again. Why then during downturns in the economy are the arts the first thing to get cut?
Financial experts agree that in the next several years the country again will enter another recession. Will we once again let funding for the arts backslide or will we show resolve and make sure our children are educated across all disciplines, not just math and reading.
Time and time again I’ve taught intelligent youth who didn’t do well in a traditional classroom but still succeeded in a rigorous photography program. They were able to express themselves through the arts, learned to ask probing questions about the world around them and cultivated an appreciation for people unlike themselves.
Additionally, we live in a visual culture. It’s important that students become educated in world that is increasingly about visuals. Learning to disseminate and think more deeply about what they see is important. This can help them make informed consumers, view the world in a more thoughtful way, and enjoy works of art in an informed, educated manner.
So let’s put our money where our mouth is.
Let’s fund the arts in good times and bad. Let’s truly serve the whole child not just when education coffers are flush with tax revenue. Let’s stand fast to our resolve. We will be become a better society when we do.
Roger J. Wyan is a professional photographer and educator. He runs his own successful portrait studio in downtown Merced. and has taught photography at the University of California, Merced, Merced College, area high schools, and now middle schools.