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Change is the Only Constant. Trust me, I Grew up in a Darkroom!

Taking a Bird’s Eye View

What should a high school classroom today look like? How can we modernize our classrooms to reflect the changing needs of our learners and the society in which they live? These are not small questions, and I always think about them. As an instructional coach, I am constantly involved in these decisions when partnering with teachers.

Darkroom Days

Personally, I started teaching in a darkroom. It was a literal dark room with amber light, and I felt like I had won the lottery in 1997 when I was hired to teach darkroom photography as a job. Every day was a Disney experience for me. I loved teaching students to develop their own films and prints. Sure, it was a bit of a cluster when the film was ruined or students struggled to understand the correlation between f-stops and aperture, but I was in my element, and life was good.

The first digital camera didn’t scare my colleagues or me too much; the new technology would never have the effect of traditional film processing. Of course, we were crazy naive; technology quickly progressed, and digital photography took us all by storm. Students no longer had access to the family 35 mm camera as people upgraded to digital. My administration asked me to consider adding computers and teaching both platforms. I leaned into the changes as a naturally agreeable person, and while I didn’t welcome the desktop computers that filled my classroom space, I didn’t resist.

Intellectually, I even understood that a shift was happening and continued to be agreeable when the administration decided they would no longer purchase chemicals at all. I watched the darkroom and teaching career of my dreams go dark indefinitely. The transition was not easy. I was masterful at developing relationships inside the darkroom door, shoulder to shoulder with a student looking at a test strip and asking, “What do you think?” I felt like my entire persona was changing as I dove deep into learning Photoshop and how to teach digital rather than film cameras. I was scrambling, and it was messy, and the circumstances forever changed me.

I watched the darkroom and teaching career of my dreams go dark indefinitely.

Developing a Different Perspective

Those forcing functions made me a stronger teacher. I had to be strategic with my shoulder conferences because the students didn’t rely on my expertise as much. They had Google at their fingertips. I had students who were natural tinkerers coming in with more computer and Photoshop knowledge than myself. I decided to concentrate on the basics of art in general because the language of art was something I could teach everyone. Did I need to be an expert and exert authority? No, but I did and still do believe that a teacher needs to add value to their classroom, or what is the point? My high school art teacher told me I was always able to create compositions naturally and had an eye. I won competitions and was the photography editor of my yearbook, but those talents aren’t transferable. Telling a student to just be creative is like telling a kid to read harder when they are struggling to comprehend. We are called to give students the tools and the strategies to do great things for themselves. Teaching the elements and principles of art and supporting students to create compositions by making thoughtful decisions was my value added.

I told my students that photography class was the most important class in the school, and I believed it. I told them they would be taking photos of their future trips and children and remember the tips and tricks that make a better photograph. Enrollment in my course soared, and I found I didn’t need the darkroom door to build relationships. I sat side by side with the kids and conferred with them about their compositions. I could have dug my heels in and clung to the darkroom. Many art teachers did. I chose to adapt to a changing environment and had a growth mindset before Carol Dweck coined the term.

Sharpening the Field of Vision

What should a classroom today look like? It can’t look like a darkroom. Imagine a student who has always had a camera in their pocket being forced to go through all those archaic steps just to see an image they are used to producing in less than a second. They would be appalled, and rightly so. However, we still have a lot of work to do to modernize our high schools. Teaching the way we were taught is darkroom thinking.

Teaching the way we were taught is darkroom thinking.

I work with teachers every day, paying real attention to where their students are and making thoughtful considerations about the value they can add. I love it when teachers are adamant and passionate about what they teach, and the teaching moves they make to reach their kids. I partner with a teacher who frequently says, ‘they need to know this! ’and will pound her fist on the desk. YES! That passion isn’t hubris, it is infectious. We have slashed and burned the outdated curriculum where we could and created a modern approach for her classes. Guess who has a program thriving? She does. Our kids know when we are going through the motions, sticking with outdated practices, and in a post-quarantine world, they aren’t having it. Thoughtful, reflective teachers consider the opportunity to lean into necessary changes and updates rather than doing what they have always done.

Developing “Wicked Problems”

We predominantly learn in 3 ways: trauma, novelty, and repetition. As teachers, we always try to avoid trauma; keeping our students safe is paramount. However, we have a lot of room for novelty and repetition. Project-based learning perfectly combines novel instruction and repeating strategies that impact learning—launching with my favorite concept, a “wicked problem,” as a driving question leading to inquiry and the safety and repetition of feedback. I have worked with teachers to develop and implement the following driving questions for truly challenging problems.

  • How does the government balance safety and freedom?

  • How do we (we the people) get those in power to listen?

  • How do fiction authors unearth society issues such as Identity, bias, and credibility?

  • How has art been used to raise awareness, explore root causes, express dissent or highlight solutions related to equity, justice or inclusion in our society or around the world?

  • Who is the most appropriate stakeholder to intervene in international conflicts?

  • Who is responsible for space trash and the island of trash in the ocean?

  • What is the danger of binary thinking?

We predominantly learn in 3 ways: trauma, novelty, and repetition.

Some of these questions may appear to have a yes or no answer, but we ask students to answer with multiple perspectives in mind and value their thinking around the question as much as the answer. Asking students to answer the questions below prevents them from finding a quick and easy solution.

  • Yes, because…

  • No, because…

  • It’s complicated because…

I try to include teacher and student reflections after projects and highlight innovative practices on my Teaching and Learning blog. In my online art history class, I challenge students with modern dilemmas in art.

  • How do we build more inclusive collections of art?

  • Are museums responsible for community access to timeless pieces of art?

  • How does contemporary art challenge our current canon? Are the 250 pieces included in the AP art curriculum the correct pieces?

Inspiring Resources

As an instructional coach, I have the opportunity to teach and learn across all contents and contexts. I thoroughly enjoy diving into content that are not my specialty and being a learner. Working with an AP biology teacher recently, she was particularly interested in collaborating with me as a thought partner because, as an expert in science, she was looking for entry points that made sense for beginners. Here are a few of my go-to resources that transcend subjects and get to the skills all thinkers need to practice.

Close Up Conclusion

I am so fortunate to partner with said teachers in my current role. They believe in modernizing their classrooms to fit the current era. They believe in meeting students where they are instead of molding them into a version of past generations. High school classrooms are not meant to be darkrooms. Let’s step into the light!

Tara Harvey is an Innovation & Learning Coach for Liberty Public Schools.

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