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August 13, 2020

Virtual Learning with Photography: Ways to Amplify Student Voices

Students can enter Global Oneness Project’s new photography contest, "The Artifacts of Our Lives" to win $200. Deadline to apply is October 15, 2020.


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By Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Global Oneness Project

Photography as a Medium for Engaged Virtual Learning

A good photograph can tell a rich and compelling story. It can evoke a deep response and instill a powerful message with a unique view of our world. As renowned photojournalist Steve McCurry said, “A picture can express a universal humanism, or simply reveal a delicate and poignant truth by exposing a slice of life that might otherwise pass unnoticed.”

At the Global Oneness Project, the medium of photography is used to explore global cultures and themes in the classroom, including human rights, cultural displacement, environmental justice, sustainability and the human connection to the environment. Whether you are in class, virtual, or implementing blended learning at the start of this school year, resources from the Global Oneness Project are accessible and adaptable for multiple subjects and grade levels.

Student Photography 

In April 2020, the project announced its first student photography contest, “Document Your Place on the Planet,” while students were home during the nationwide and global lockdown. The challenge was to document one photograph and write a photographer’s statement using our film Earthrise as inspiration. We asked students: How might we reimagine and redefine the meaning of home?

Earthrise, by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, tells the story of the Earthrise photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders in 1968 on the Apollo 8 mission. The photograph challenged humanity with a new perspective, one that allowed us to witness our planet as one ecosystem and one home without borders or boundaries. William French, one of the winners, who lives in New York, wrote about this in his photographer's statement. His photograph documents an abstract close-up of a wire horse sculpture his father bought him in Bogota, Colombia. He wrote, “While watching Earthrise, I was inspired by how the Apollo 8 astronauts felt about their place in the universe when seeing the Earth from space. …. They felt an overwhelming connection to humanity. I see this feeling of unity in my photograph, as well as the beauty and chaos we’re experiencing at this moment in history.”

Students turned their cameras on their local waterways and forests, the night skies, and ecosystems within their backyards, as well as on their families, friends and the cultural artifacts found in their homes, many of which contain family heritage stories. They wrote about climate change, wetland rehabilitation, Indigenous heritage, water rights, and the impacts of COVID-19 in their lives, among many other topics. They also explored how their own place connects to the themes of memory, identity and remembrance. 

Gianna Gazulla, another winner of the contest, wrote, “As humans, we can change our perspective to see the world as one home. To do this though, we must appreciate others. We must recognize that we all need to help each other out sometimes to be able to live together in harmony.”

virtual learning with photography
Photo by Diane Barker. Courtesy of the Global Oneness Project.

New Student Photography Contest: The Artifacts in Our Lives  

For the Global Oneness Project’s new contest, The Artifacts in Our Lives, students will photograph an artifact and tell its story. Students will submit one photograph of an artifact, which responds to one or more of the following questions:

  • How does the artifact capture a moment in time?
  • In what ways does the artifact connect the people in your life?
  • How does the artifact reflect change (cultural, historical or social, e.g.)?

Teachers are integrating the contest into a wide range of subject areas, including photography, history, biology, ecology, Spanish, art, literature and composition, geography and civic engagement, to name a few. The contest is an opportunity to challenge and inspire students’ creativity, curiosity and unique perspectives.

Each submission must also include a photographer’s statement. Detailed directions as well as specific prompts are included in the contest information. Participants must be 13 and up in the United States, and 16 and up globally. Each winner will be awarded $200 USD, and photographs will be published on the Global Oneness Project website. All submissions must be received by Nov. 19, 2020, by 5 p.m. PDT. Visit the contest page to learn more about the Submission Guidelines and Rules. We challenge students to rethink the relationship between themselves, their families, their communities and the world.

Resources to Engage Students with Photography

One way to expose students to the medium of photography is to examine and analyze photo essays from professional photographers. The following three lesson plans, also available in Spanish, accompany photo essays from the Global Oneness Project’s expansive multimedia library. Students explore photo essays from around the world, learn about global issues and engage in meaningful exercises, including classroom discussion and writing prompts.

Lesson Plans on Share My Lesson

  • Citizen Photojournalism—a high school lesson based on the Global Oneness Project’s photo essay, “The Geography of Poverty,” by Matt Black. In this lesson, students examine photos that document poverty throughout California's Central Valley and explore the power of photojournalism. California has the highest poverty rate in the country. A widespread epidemic in the U.S., poverty affects health, access to education, homelessness, unemployment and food security.
  • Today’s Native America—a high school lesson based on the project’s photo essay, “We Are Still Here,” by Camille Seaman. In this lesson, students view photographs that document Native American voices and explore the themes of identity, cultural displacement and resilience. Native America exists beyond stereotypes and history books. Today, Native Americans are voicing concerns about environmental and human rights issues, shaping their own tribal communities, and the future of the country. 
  • The Value of Ancient Traditions—a high school lesson based on the project’s photo essay, “Drokpa, The Nomadic Mountain People of Tibet,” by Diane Barker. In this lesson, students view a photo essay and learn about the effects of relocation and modern technology on the traditional lifestyle of Tibetan nomads. 

Practical Tips from Teachers 

Teachers using the Global Oneness Project photo essays in their classrooms recommend the following tips for integrating photography into the classroom. 

  • Start by observing one photograph in a photo essay without the caption. Do this by clicking on “Fullscreen” mode on the bottom right of the photo essay page and clicking on/off captions. Ask students to make predictions based on what they see and reflect on their predictions once they learn more about the photograph. 
  • Use one photograph as a tool for creative writing exercises.
  • Use Google Earth or a map to introduce the location depicted in the photo. Encourage students to learn more about the culture, people, place and global issue represented in the photograph. 
  • Encourage students to engage in small group discussions with specific tasks of observation and questions. Use the discussion questions in the lesson plans.
  • Introduce secondary resources (which are included in the project’s lessons) to allow students to make comparisons and contrasts and to draw their own conclusions.

Photo taken by student photography contest winner, William French (age 16)
Courtesy of the Global Oneness Project

PD Resources: Recorded Webinars from Share My Lesson’s Library

About the Author

Cleary Vaughan-Lee is the executive director of the Global Oneness Project. She is particularly interested in integrating a humanistic lens with universal values into educational content, asking local to global questions about culture and the living world. Cleary documents ways digital storytelling can be used in the classroom, highlighting teacher and student voices for publications. She conducts teacher and student workshops across the country and presents at regional, national and international conferences.

Global Oneness Project

The Global Oneness Project is a multimedia platform, which offers free multicultural stories and accompanying lesson plans as pedagogical tools to inspire growing minds.Their award-winning collection of films, photo essays, and articles explore cultural, social, and environmental issues from around

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