Monday, June 6, 2011

No shortage of thoughts

Above is a picture of me in action, taken this past spring as I was about two months into my new job as a high school photojournalism instructor at Andover High School in Kansas. I took the job late last summer and then moved my family out here in December. I began January 4th, and ever since it's been a whirlwind of overwhelming change and trial-and-error classroom tactics. Overall it's been an awesome experience.

Andover is a community just outside of Wichita, my hometown. It's a long story how it all came about, I'll just say that I found out about the opportunity last July as I was back teaching up in Manhattan, Kansas at the Flint Hills Publications Workshop. So from then on into November it was a "slow goodbye" to New York City, punctuated by the birth of our son, Julian, in September [I could have started teaching in August, but the timing of relocating before an impending birth just wouldn't have been possible]. He's approaching nine months old, and Yvonne and I are just as happy as ever to have him in our lives.

Needless to say, I've had no shortage of thoughts to occupy my mind the past several months. My days have become these elliptical orbits where I wake up at 5:45, shower, eat breakfast, gather my materials then set out on an arching, 30-minute commute to the school. I head east, into the rising sun. This spring I witnessed not only the sun rising later and later each morning, but its actual location shift northward along the horizon as the Earth's rotations corkscrew further and further toward vernal equinox.

But upon my arrival at 6:50 AM, that's the last I see of any daylight until around noon. My classroom at AHS is Room 112 and, while spacious, has no windows. But I never really notice because I keep the lights turned off because every day we look at pictures on the LCD projector. Plus, pictures just seem to look better on computer screens than when the overhead lights are on.

I had 81 kids this past semester: 70 spread out into three hours of basic photojournalism and then one advanced photojournalism class with only 11 students. Each hour had its own unique set of circumstances, its own rhythm, its own set of challenges, etc. By the time I had presented material a third time each day, however, I was ready to go home.

(Above: winners of a peer-voted Student Life contest)

And this is the part in that elliptical orbit where I'm at the outermost reaches and I start to head back to home where it was a much different scenario, one of parenting, dirty diapers, play time, a weary spouse, but always some variation of a "Daddy's home!" greeting. Each day when I got home all I could think was "I just want a nap" (usually on the living room floor, it always did the trick), followed by a second wind of "let's go run some errands" or "let's walk to get some lunch."

Before long it was 7:00PM and time to put Julian to bed. Then after that, from about 8-11PM, is the part in my day's orbit I'm being hurled full-speed back behind the sun, trying to get as much done as possible, shooting slides from books, preparing notes, grading, etc. before going to sleep for several hours and being slingshotted back out into the world to do it all over again.

So it wasn't the actual teaching that was hard, it was the preparing for teaching that kept me up until almost midnight every night. But that hard work made it so much easier to go in the next day. Having a good presentation lined up and ready to go was the best feeling. Trust me, there were a few days where I went in with very little planned. I can't wait to start back up in the fall with all this material ready to go. At that point it'll be much more about fine-tuning my material, as opposed to winging it, trial and error, etc.

One of my biggest challenges was the implementation of something I called Critique Journal. The basic idea is: students walk into the room, a picture is projected onto the screen, and students are supposed to come up with 5 talking points about the image. It's something I got from my mentor, Kristin Baker, who came in and taught yearbook, newspaper and journalism in the afternoons. She got it from the photographer I replaced, Kelly Glasscock. But I think I really embraced the idea the most and took it the furthest. By the end of the semester it had gone from single 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper with five columns (one for each day of the week) to a 16-page booklet with each page having a different design to foster different types of critique methods. For example, one day the critique journal page was a blank (EOS) viewfinder frame in which the students would have to roughly sketch the projected image's composition, maybe add a Fibonacci spiral or a rule-of-thirds grid. Other days it was much more about writing ("Write down your thoughts about this photo"). I included a "Kansas Photographer Appreciation Day" page in which we looked at the work of photographers like W. Eugene Smith and Gordon Parks. Some took to these "history lesson" type presentations better than others. Some kids wrote really introspective thoughts, some wrote nothing. I was disappointed to read one student's note on Parks. She wrote, dryly, "He's black. He likes African Americans." My favorite was page 14 in the booklet, "Imperfect Photo." The point of this critique exercise was only partly to point out what was wrong with the photo (pole coming out of head, camera shake, bad composition, etc). My aim was always to pick a photo in which the context of the image--always revealed to the students after we had talked about the technical aspects--outweighed any technical mistakes. One example was a picture I shot at 7AM on September 12, 2001 in New York. Once the kids realized the date it seemed not to matter any more the composition of the image wasn't totally perfect, gas prices were cut off, etc.

That is just one small example, and I don't want to give the impression that this semester was all about me showing my work. Far from it. I really combed the internet and my photo book library and showed everything from Abelardo Morell and Michael Wesely, to Farm Security Administration and Magnum, to Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson, to Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman, to O. Winston Link and Harold Edgerton, to Joel-Peter Witkin and Andres Serrano, and so on. The point of the critique journal exercise was just to get the students started out each hour thinking about pictures. I spent very little time actually lecturing about stuff, usually less than 10 minutes, it was mostly them out shooting pictures and them editing. By the time we got to May I felt we really had some good momentum going and week after week students were churning out great imagery.
By the time Fall 2011 is over with, I will have my teaching certification coursework completed. That's pretty much what I'm dealing with this summer, it's a lot of reading about educational philosophy, discipline theory, etc. The classes feel like they're largely geared toward grade-school teachers, or maybe high school teachers who have topics such as English and History. High school photojournalism is a pretty laid-back topic, and I feel blessed to be able to teach it. I've also picked up an adjunct teaching gig one day a week at a local community college.

As for my "personal black and white documentary street photography," I wouldn't quite say it's on hold, but I've definitely let up on those reigns. Yvonne and Julian were in Poland for the whole month of April so I did a lot of shooting then. I've got the beginnings of some new projects taking shape, but nothing really set in stone. It'll all come together eventually. As one wise photographer told a young shooter, new to parenthood: “Forget the other stuff for a while. It's just other stuff. Your son is the project of a lifetime.”