User Generated Education

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Photography for Enhancing Social-Emotional Learning

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I spent the day attending a full day workshop on Phototherapy by Judy Weiser.  This post is not about how to use photos for therapy, but the workshop reinforced the power of images for building social emotional skills in our students.  There are many resources online about using digital cameras and images in the classroom.  The focus of this post is having our learners use photography and digital images to make personal connections with themselves, the content, each other, and other “cultures” with the ultimate goals of increased self-awareness, cultural awareness, and empathy.



Self-portraits have a lot of potential in assisting learners in developing greater self-awareness and self-concept as well as reinforce content area learning.   The use of self-portraits in the learning environment has a number of applications especially when combined with other content areas.

  • Language Arts:  Learners are told that they will be posing for a self-portrait.  They are asked to write a piece of the message and mood that they want their self portrait to convey.  They later work with a group to help develop that message and mood – using their group members for feedback and to help “stage” the settings for the individual self-portraits.
  • Language Arts:  Each learner chooses his or her favorite book – fiction or non-fiction and creates a hats to convey the major character’s or author’s persona.  Pictures are taken of each learner as they describe their character.

Selfies for Good

This is an extension of self-portraits.  Beth Kanter, non-profit guru who uses social media for social change, stated:

No doubt you’ve taken a “selfie,”  a self-portrait taken with your mobile phone camera and shared on Facebook or other social media channels.   Although selfies have been around for years, they have gained popularity recently.  But do selfies have benefits, especially for social change causes?

I wondered whether selfies can be used as part of your social content strategy to help support a social good cause?  I asked this question  here’s what I learned: –

  • The New York Public Library is using selfies as part of its social media initiative to engage library patrons.
  • Fedoras for Fairness uses the fedora hat as a metaphor for the many hats that women wear to create a brighter future for all. It is also a symbol of the need for immigration reform that treats women fairly, and a declaration that though women wear many hats.  Supporters are encouraged to share photos of themselves wearing a hat with the hashtag and say why the campaign is important.
  • See more at:


This type of initiative could easily brought into the classroom with groups of students deciding on a school or local cause to promote; and using “selfies” for its promotion.


Sociology, Civil Rights, Social Activism

Photography can be used in a sociological, civil rights, social activism context.  This can occur through:

  • Studying how marginalized groups are using photography for empowerment; to give themselves a voice.  This, in turn, could help students from more mainstream cultures understand these cultures from their own perspective (not by reading about them in a textbook written by someone not of their cultures.)
  • Providing students living in marginalized groups with an opportunity to do some participatory photography projects.

Examining the Lives of Marginalized Cultures

Students can study and discuss some of the following photography projects that give marginalized cultures a voice and a sense of empowerment:

(Thanks, Judy, for sharing these great resources.)

Empowering Students Living in Marginalized Cultures

If the educator is working with students, who are or considered themselves marginalized cultures, they can have the learners do a participating photography project.

Participatory photography, sometimes referred to as ‘photovoice’, is a methodology used in human and community development that combines photography with self-development, creative expression and grassroots social action. A group of people are provided with cameras and through a series of workshops are offered the opportunity to express themselves and document an issue or problem that affects themselves and/or the people and the communities around them. The aim is to support people to define, communicate and improve their situation.

Participants are asked to represent their community or point of view by taking photographs, discussing them together, developing narratives to go with their photos, and conducting outreach or other action. It is intended to give insight into how people can conceptualise their circumstances and their hopes for the future.

See Implementing Photovoice in Your Community for more details.

Living Images of History

With this teaching strategy, groups of students work together to bring historical images to life.  “Living images” help students develop a deeper understanding of a particular moment in history.

Teachers give groups of students (4-6 students per group) a set of 4-6 (primary source) photographs surrounding a specific period in history (e.g, March on Montgomery).  This activity works best if groups receive different sets of photographs.

Directions for Students.

  1. Review each picture, one by one, and answer the following questions:
    • What is the context for this picture? When and where was it taken?
    • What do you see? Specifically, what do you notice about the people in this image? Why are they? How do you think they are feeling? What might they be thinking?
    • What does this image tell you about the time period?
  2. After answering these questions for each picture, create a “living image” for each one. A “living image” recreates the scene from the picture in real life. Think about yourselves as actors who are supposed to assume the physical positions, gestures and facial expressions of the figures in the photograph. Each image should have a “director” who helps coordinate the scene. The picture should be a “freeze frame,” where actors hold their position for at least 10 seconds.
  3. Once you have created your living images, decide in which order you would like to display them. Then, work on transitioning from one image to the next so that your group can present these pictures seamlessly to the larger class.

See for full details.

Digital Storytelling Research: Engaging the Affective Domain

Digital Storytelling, obviously – using photos to tell a story, has a lot of applications in the classroom.  For more about these applications, see Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling.  What is interesting to note, and as a sidebar to this discussion on using photography for social-emotional learning, is that digital storytelling has the power to emotionally connect learners to the content resulting in deeper, more connected, personalized learning.

Georgetown University examined the question “What is the relationship between affective and cognitive—or between emotional and epistemological–dimensions of learning?” when digital storytelling was used to enhance humanities courses.

Some of the findings included:

Digital storytelling works at the intersection of the emotional and the epistemological aspects of learning, bridging story and theory, intellect and affect. For many students an emotional engagement with the topic is the point of departure that allows them to connect their stories to the relevant theories. As emotions are reclaimed cognitively, they enable students to write themselves into existing discourses and to contribute personal perspectives to an academic community.

Digital storytelling provides students with a site where they can inscribe their lived experiences not just as ‘this is what happened to me’ but as ‘this is what my story teaches us’.

Students described that they put much more effort into the production of a digital story than they would have writing a traditional paper. In addition, they mention investing “passion and love” into the completion of the story, not only making sure it was finished and accepted by the teacher, but connecting emotionally to their work.

Digital stories often bridge cognitive and affective dimensions of learning. Becoming aware of one’s own positionality, engaging with a problem more deeply or on a more personal level, may force students to leave an emotional-intellectual comfort zone. Sometimes this means students are motivated to say what other do not want to hear. Others feel the need to give voice to those who have been silenced by dominant disources. More generally, digital stories cause students to operate under conditions of intellectual and technological difficulty, often taking emotional as well as intellectual risks.

The format of the digital story gives students a voice that makes them aware of how they can position themselves in relation to others and to existing theories of identity construction. From that position, they are able to identify gaps in the existing literature and produce stories against the oppression of marginalized groups.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 25, 2013 at 6:23 pm

One Response

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  1. Wow, what a truly interesting article about Social Emotional Learning. Loved the section about “Selfies for good”. Great work!

    Alex from Storybow

    February 11, 2015 at 8:37 am

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