The all-purpose room at International Charter School (ICS) crackles with excitement.
Along the walls are the final exhibitions for "Documenting Cultural Communities," an annual third-grade social studies project. Each child has chosen three of their own photographs, a self-portrait and two others that document a moment emblematic of their family's culture. Each wrote two pieces about what we see in the pictures, one in English and one in Spanish.
The displays open surprisingly clear windows into the kids' hearts and homes.
The author/photographers are supposed to be stationed next to their work to answer visitors' questions. But they can manage it only for a moment, trying to be official for a question or two. The gravitational pull to their swarm of friends is too great. They're proud, excited. Their families are beaming. They're mostly dressed to the nines. One twirls in her glittery purple dress, making the fringe fly.
ICS is a two-way bilingual school. Tonight celebrates the English/Spanish exhibition, but there will be another for the school's Portuguese program.
After doing this project for three years, the teachers, Brooke Odessa and Rose Santamaria, no longer have the children write straight translations of their first piece because it's too boring to read. The two writing pieces reveal different details.
While the quality of the writing varies, the sentiments are inspired. The children photograph whatever represents their culture, so the pictures only show what they care about. The school lends a digital camera to each child. Their families help them take excellent care of the equipment because this project is about them.
The pictures are intriguing. You're drawn to the details.
One boy had himself photographed with his legs over his head in a spaghetti of limbs, and describes himself as "flexible."
A girl photographed and wrote about the highly-decorated sea shell that had been used for her baptism in Mexico.
The pictures show us dads fixing cars, moms cooking, and backyard celebrations. We see a place set for dinner heaped with favorite foods. A dance band plays at a child's church that looks to me like a hotel meeting room. The children in ICS' Spanish/English classes are predominantly Hispanic, of course, so you can see how much closer Grandma, Auntie and Uncle are to the daily life of the households than you'd probably see in most Anglo families.
Most pictures show humble homes in Pawtucket, Providence and poor Central Falls, now famous for its bankruptcy. So one photograph of a grand, beachside outdoor space seems very out of place. The story explains that this child's mother cleans this vacation home of wealthy people. He describes how the paper towels smell of Windex.
Several years ago, the teachers at ICS complained that typical social studies programs were totally lame as compared with what their diverse population could teach one another. The Rhode Island Foundation gave the teachers a grant to develop a school-wide curriculum of their own. Kindergarten begins, appropriately, with "me," and each grade level expands the child's social horizons outward to family, community, culture and finally to global citizenship.
The teachers explain that their curriculum is keyed to the national standards for social studies. But whenever possible, they ask the children to find examples of culture in their own lives and in the world around them.
As the third-grade teachers were developing their program, one of their parents happened to be Mary Beth Meehan, a professional photographer. Funded by another grant, she began teaching the children "narrative story-telling" in pictures. To prepare to make a picture, kids first walk about peering through rectangles cut out of black construction paper, learning to see the world as composed inside a frame.
Meehan laughs, "The first thing they have to do ASAP is to get over the posing thing. Here's Mom with my sisters smiling at the camera. That's fine, but it's not a candid moment in a story."
Meehan says, "My favorite part of the project is when the pictures come back." She loads them onto her computer and prints out contact sheets. Kids start making decisions about which pictures to highlight. They work together editing.
A kid will passionately defend the picture of a beloved cat. With their new sophistication, the other kids might reject the picture as ill-composed. They decide together. Meehan herself didn't much like a picture of a soda can from Colombia, but the kids talked her into it. "And they were right. It does represent a cultural artifact." Its aesthetic is not at all American.
Head of School Julie Nora reports that at the four national conferences where they've presented this project, everyone loves it, but wants to know if it would work without a professional photographer. Well, sort of. But not at this level of quality. The kids get a full-on art lesson in the midst of rich social studies and writing. They won't forget what it means to frame a composition or the difference between an authentic moment and a staged shot. They care to do their best work.
Since 2008-09 to 2010-11, ICS' 5th-grade writing scores have improved from 36 to 57 percent, almost reaching the state average – in a school where by design, half the children are English-language learners. Not surprisingly, 59 percent are eligible for subsidized lunch.
But that doesn't mean they don't have great riches in their lives to share with us.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.