What did teaching photography to Yr 6 students teach me

Teaching photography to Yr 6 students

Back in June I was invited to teach some photography basics to some Yr 6 primary school students. It was from a school that I’d created school prospectus photos with in 2014 and while they were really pleased with the images produced, they were impressed with my ease of interactivity with their pupils, (I generally like to explain to my student/models what I’m up so I can get their buy-in and co-operation with getting the pictures).

The Headteacher was running an end of year project on creative photography which included the work of local astro-photographer David Malin (if you’ve not seen his work its pretty spectacular). I was asked to provide a 5 day photography basics course to 60 of their Yr 6 students. The challenge (apart from delivering sage-like knowledge) was to keep all the pupils entertained and engaged throughout a full day of just photography lessons, providing something lasting and tangible for the pupils and the school once I’d gone. I don’t mind admitting I was pretty uneasy about excepting this challenge. I was confident I could teach photography, but I was very unsure about the response from the school and the other teaching staff, it was a paid job after all and I pride myself on being able to deliver on my promises. It’s the reason I’m still in business and reputation in business is everything.

Having had no formalised teaching experience (apart from managing a team of photographers and graphic artists), I found myself at a disadvantage when considering constructing a lesson plan. I consulted some of my close teaching friends who helped shape the ideas I had, into viable lessons. We panned on delivering short 15min ‘bite-sized’ sessions – which could be lengthened if needed or shortened if time was against us.

Although I’m DBS cleared, thankfully I wasn’t left alone to fend for myself and had the great help from one of the schools teaching assistants (TA). This was particularly helpful, as she was familiar with all the pupils involved and would be able to handle any unruly behaviour (it never came to that though). An added benefit was that the class could be divided if necessary and the TA could help the students with the practical tasks.

I was keen not to overload the students with too much information too quickly, without giving them a chance to put it into practice. So using the schools supply of 15-20 digital cameras (Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ35) we went through each lesson with a short in-classroom tutorial followed by a longer ‘hands on’ practical. I was mindful that most of the students would probably have had some experience in ‘taking’ snaps with either tablets or mobile phones, but would not of had any direction for controlling exposure or ‘making’ images. The difference of making vs taking is subtle, but hugely important when trying to understand why some images work and others do not.

Initially I broke the photography basics up into relatively easy to swallow topics surrounding understanding exposure. Looking aperture, shutter speed and briefly touching upon ISO and how they all relate to tablets/mobile phones, bridge cameras and DSLR’s. The students grasped the concepts of shutter speed and aperture quickly and with a fair amount of trial and error started to produce images that fit the lesson criteria. We examined different compositional techniques, tried some portrait photography and captured some macro photos. After each topic we examined the captured images and critic’d them as a class to improve their skills. My question to the class was almost always “what could you do to improve this image?”We moved on to tackle concepts of perspective control and the explored when you’d expect to use a wide angle or telephoto lenses. Each of the lessons, practicals and discussions gradually built up their understanding and practical application of the photographic techniques.

Prior to the lessons starting in the morning I set up a small time lapse camera to capture the activities of students, you can see this below.

I let the time lapse run up until lunch break and then processed the files, so when the students returned they could see how stacking and compressing multiple images over a few hours/days/months/years could be visualised in a few seconds. 

We finished the lessons with a really fun practical and attempted to recreate some forced perspective images. This exercise proved really challenging and rewarding for the pupils. It encouraged them to draw upon all the ideas and concepts spoke about throughout the day, but in particular the use of depth of field and perspective control. It also encouraged them to work together to create believable and imaginative images. Some of their examples are below.

All the students were genuinely disappointed when their photography lessons had to come to an end. One student even remarked that “it was the best lessons that they’d had in year 6”. I really hope they can hold onto some of their enthusiasm moving forward into secondary school and keep their creative minds switched on to new imaginative possibilities.

Now to address the title of this article. What did teaching 60 Year 6 children teach an old pro like me?

Firstly, it’s easy to assume that teaching is something easy to do. You know your subject right, how hard can it be to teach what you know. As it happens, very hard. It’s not the knowledge, it’s the ability to delivery it that’s important. Finding a way that students can understand the information, presenting the information clearly in an uncomplicated way. I gave serious thought to preparing the lessons, considering how to break them up into easily absorbed chunks. I split the learning into small 15 minute sessions, that over the course of a day would build up enough knowledge to undertake the last more complex task. Lesson planning was absolutely key. Preparing the content and lots of it, I was keen to deliver quality over quantity. As it turned out I only managed to get through about half of what I wanted to deliver, so there’s probably a timing lesson to be learnt there too.

Keep it exciting and use a data projector sparingly. This was difficult as most adult learning in class rooms and at work is driven from data projector using PowerPoint or similar. My students had a much more practical experience, learning from play (trial and error) is always the best method to make stuff stick. I used a data-projector only to facilitate their understanding not to preach from. I used fascinators to keep their interest and showed their work on-screen to aid in the critics, so that everyone could see where the areas of development needed to be. Equal amounts of praise vs criticism.  

It was interesting to speak to the pupils after each task to gauge their understanding and to overcome any technical difficulties they may have had. Most followed the instructions well and a few even went on to develop the concept for themselves. In the class critic, it was hard for the pupils to ‘willingly’ negatively discuss each other’s images. As a professional photographer you develop a mind set that automatically deconstructs images; highlighting the areas that work well and negatively critiquing your image to improve your approach ready for the next shoot. The students found this an uncomfortable exercise, feeling that the image and therefore the photographer was being judged or singled out for poor work. This of course was not the case, but it did take a little while for the students to adjust to this new approach to improving their work.

One of the best methods I found to show how a camera worked, was to use an old SLR and compare it against the functions of the human eye. The students were able to relate the functions easily when they actual saw the moving parts. I took an old Practika film camera apart and passed it around for them to interact with. Most older (film based) photographers are used to seeing the inside of a pre-digital camera, but from a young students perspective this was fascinating. These days almost all digital cameras are sealed up so you can’t get in them, so to someone studying photography it was great to be able to isolate working parts (aperture, shutter, winding mechanism, mirror, lens etc).

After a few days I found my teaching style getting much more relaxed and I was able to elaborate with real world experiences.  I received some very positive feedback from the Headteacher, saying that all the students had be going back to their regular class buzzing with new ideas and creative thoughts. This makes this teaching exercise a resounding success, so if offered the opportunity again I’d be really happy to say ‘Yes’.

Here’s some of the great pictures from the ‘action, forced perspective and macro’ session that the students created across the week.