If you give a kid a camera Participatory Visual literacy

By Jane Dennis-Moore

My Journey ...

Growing up I fell in love with the traditional visual arts - painting and drawing - but over time as the world became more digitalized, my passion shifted towards digital creation tools like photography. I eventually discovered I had an even greater passion, and that was fusing my love of photography with teaching. And in particular, teaching through collaborative photography and digital storytelling. Indeed, I get far more joy seeing children collaborate and discover through digital-making, than by my own photography. I would say that teaching children photography ala participatory literacy, has become my latest passion project.

As a teacher librarian, I infuse 21st century competencies and participatory learning into my “visual” teaching practice. I frame photography or visual projects/provocations through 21st century imperatives such as inquiry and collaboration, and as a result I see growth, increased confidence, and measured “risk”-taking and experimentation in my students. Working with students as collaborators on photography projects has been transformative to my teaching practice. I have learned as much from their perspectives, as they have learned from mine.

Multi-Modal Literacy

Frank Serafini argues for a shift from print-based texts to new multi-modal texts (that incorporate visual, design and written language elements). (2013) He contends, “[p]rinted text is often subordinate to visual images as the primary mode that readers draw upon to construct meaning.” Put simply, words are powerful. But -

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Photography is a way to make thinking visible. A way to make thinking about identity visible. A way of thinking through identity and making identity.

Popular social media platforms, such as SnapChat and Instagram, have created entirely visual worlds almost devoid of traditional text; here the majority of information transmission is through images or videos. Millennials curate pictures of their world and day-to-day experiences to represent and sustain online visual-virtual selves. They take pictures of everything. This is how they socialize, expand networks, and explore interests. In their teenage years, a sophisticated online presence also becomes a marker of success: their virtual selves are just as important or in some cases more important, that their IRL (in real life) “physical” selves.

The way we “teach” visual literacy must change and adapt to the new collaborative currents of 21st century learners. Together for Learning states, “Many students are already collaborative writers and content creators in the digital world. This world provides learners with unprecedented and powerful opportunities to develop multiple literacies.” (p. 18) As technology and social media become more accessible, teaching critical visual literacy through participatory learning (a modern framework for teaching visual literacy) becomes all the more important.

What is Visual Literacy?

“Visual Literacy is the ability to read and understand images.” (Berry) It also the ability to create, and communicate, with images in a meaningful way. Together for Learning identifies key components in the definition of visual literacy:

  • Interpreting, creating, and using visual images
  • Thinking, decision making and communicating
  • Being aware of emotional impact of visuals
  • Analyzing for patterns and trends graphics, and words. (p. 19)

What is Participatory Learning?

According to Canadian School Libraries, a participatory learning environment (an integral feature of both the physical and virtual library learning commons) is designed to “engage learners in interdisciplinary learning and collaborative knowledge building, and inspire experimentation, creativity, and innovation. Entrepreneurial learning is the norm, and students learn through collaboration and authentic challenges.”

How does the library learning commons develop visual literacy through participatory learning?

The library learning commons supports the development of visual literacy by creating participatory learning opportunities that require students to collaboratively engage in visual creation for an authentic purpose and audience.

Student-generated photography can serve as a means for celebrating school culture, when these images are assembled as highlight videos or slideshows for use on communal school TV screens, at assemblies, and/or shared on school social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

When students work collaboratively to take and curate images, they become more critical consumers of the images they encounter. Constructing images enables one to deconstruct them.

The by-products of participatory visual literacy are threefold:

  • creativity and innovation, collaborative knowledge building (discovery-based learning)
  • fosters a visible school culture in a responsive, student-centred way
  • empowers student voice as visual perspective choice

The library learning commons can foster visual literacy through creating a participatory learning environment, where photography or visual image making projects are rooted in collaboration.

In the following paragraphs I will share some of the projects and opportunities I curated to introduce collaborative photography projects to students, and in particular, how participatory visual literacy and social media (via Instagram) helped promote a sense of community originating from the library learning commons as the heart of the school. Visual documentation will also give evidence to the affect photographic provocations had on students’ innovation and creativity, the ability to inspire experimentation, risk-taking, creativity, and self-reflection; and the importance of empowering students’ visual voices in building school culture.

What have I done to develop participatory visual literacy in the LLC?

Photography Clubs: from physical to virtual groups

My initial project was establishing a photography club. At each school, this has been my first step after the hurdle of acquiring tools needed to run a photography club - aka - cameras! At first I was adamant about only using digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras - so that students could manually manipulate settings such as shutter speed (for long exposure images like light painting) and aperture (to make those “fuzzy” backgrounds for portraits). However, issues of access and equity are quick to rear their ugly heads! Just the sheer numbers of students interested in photography feels prohibitive. My first official photography club at Ridgewood PS had over 100 participants! And coming from a place of passion, I find it impossible to turn away any child interested in exploring photography. So how do you accommodate such high interest with limited tools and space?

Create a “virtual” photography club!

Last year I had the pleasure of co-running a “virtual” photography club with another teacher, where we devised a plan to include all students, while promoting a positive school climate. Here, students could use any device available to them to create and submit pictures in response to photography prompts or provocation posted on the LLC Photography Google Classroom. This also became a collaborative, interactive space, as students could give feedback, post questions, etc. Students also had the option of staying in during nutrition breaks to use the library devices to complete photography challenges.

Student volunteers would then curate the photos and create video montages to showcase their work at assemblies. As long as students knew that their efforts would be seen “publicly” for an authentic audience, they seemed to keep motivated. We also held in-person club meetings to discuss photos and deconstruct thinking behind them, which also gave me opportunities for more formal instruction (i.e., framing techniques, rule of thirds, etc. Sometimes my meetings with students are informal “just in time” chats when they come to visit me in the library to show photos they took or an Instagram feed! I love, love, love when this happens; it’s like being invited into their private visual worlds that are so-so important to them.

One of my favourite photography prompts (co-constructed with the students) was the “Slightly Cheesy” Holiday Photo challenge! Notice how students naturally incorporate social media techniques like memes, into their image making.

"Slightly Cheesy" Holiday Photo Challenge

I still integrate manual photography tools into projects and activities by working with select, small groups gleaned from the photography club. I regret that not all students may get the opportunity to work with manual cameras, but for the students who do, their experiences have been transformative - as they begin to see themselves as leaders and “professional” photographers in their own right.

Student-Led Photography Projects

Student-led photography projects are also a great strategy for inviting the outside community into the library, while also showcasing student ideas, thinking, celebrating community, talents, and aspirations. During open house or during special events at school, I will have student-run family photo booths. After a few afternoons of training on “posing basics” - shot list in hand - a small group of students will solicit visitors to come visit the family photobooth. Families are often incredulous that we are offering this service “for free. Even with one camera, these photobooths demand great group work and collaboration. You will need one student to operate the camera, another “spotter” to look for background distractions or misplaced hair, another student for posing, another for lighting, and perhaps most importantly of all, you will need the most precocious and charming leader who will put your photography subjects at ease in order to capture that perfect “candid” photo.

I have used this type of student-led photography team for a myriad of projects around the school and community. There was an “Asian Heritage Fashion Photo Shoot”, a student-run fundraiser selling “Holiday Play Head Shots” (photos, of course, taken by the photography team). We have created Kindergarten green-screen greeting cards, Halloween and holiday photo booths and documented important events. I always look for ways to connect photography students with authentic events happening in and outside of the school. We have been lucky to also have been invited to special events hosted at the Peel Board head office, such running a Photobooth during the annual Awards of Excellence night.

Here is an example of photos from a student-run photo booth for Halloween:

Below are examples of other photography projects and efforts:

Taking "Head Shots" for school play fundraiser
Family Portraits in the LLC
Asian Heritage Month student-run fashion photo shoot.
Self-Portrait Challenge: the anti-selfie!

Constructing Images Using Digital Tools: Green Screen & Adobe Apps

It is also important to introduce students to digital creation/editing tools. Such activities may bolster critical thinking by prompting students to wonder, “Is this the real thing?” when they encounter images in popular media. (Hyde, 56) When students are able to manipulate and construct images, it strengthens their visual literacy. They come to understand that many of the images they encounter are constructions, and in constructing their own images, they learn to deconstruct the images created by others.

In my role as the teacher-librarian, I have been able to introduce digital creation and editing tools to students, while collaborating with teachers across the board on Media Literacy or Visual Arts projects.

In addition to incorporating green screen technology to create images, I introduced the Adobe apps, such as Photoshop Mix, to Grades 4, 5, and 6 in order for students to mimic mainstream advertising media conventions. One such media inquiry was to create a: Book-Turned-Movie-Poster. Through inquiry, students co-constructed the elements/design features of movie posters. Then using Photoshop Mix and other Adobe apps to generate text (app smash) they created a would-be movie poster for a book. This type of deconstruction and construction of media texts is another form of visual literacy.

Link to movie poster inquiry provocation: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1zsFdQXdOMOt8JA9QqbWN6xdHAHKLLeBWRFqBEvRyu0s/edit?usp=sharing

Grade 4 movie poster based on novel, created with Photoshop Mix app.
Exploring the world through green and blue screen "detectors" to create visual images.

Community Project: Exploring Identity Through Photography

In 2018, I embarked on a broader co-constructed community project with Tina Zita entitled: Exploring Identity Through Photography. Here, we asked students from different schools how they might represent their identity (or parts of their identity) using photographic tools. Our bold aspiration, to have a culminating art gallery /showcase of various student portraits from across the Peel District Board, was never fully realized, but the community project did mark a turning point to inspire other teacher-librarians to begin to explore photography in the learning commons. Beth Lyons’, with her students, produced a beautiful flatlay series entitled, “Me Without Me” - where students represented themselves using found objects in a stylized, overhead framing technique.

"Me without Me"

Students at Lisgar Middle School produced composited images exploring using Photoshop Mix. Their works were also part of Peel’s “Visual Voices” exhibit in 2019. Each student-artist included an artist statement, reflecting on how their digital creation represented/explored identity.

Visual Voices: Exploring Identity Through Photography

Build a visible “visual” virtual community through social media:

In this day where social media holds such great sway over the popular consciousness and imagination, it seems remiss to not try to leverage some of that power and popularity in the library learning commons. I have found that building a visible, virtual "visual" LLC community facilitates development of visual literacy, while also encouraging student creativity and innovation, and amplifying student voice and school culture.

The benefits of creating an LLC Instagram account:

  • Encourages and showcases creativity and innovation through class Instagram takeover days
  • Builds tangible expression of school culture with LLC culture; showcases student achievement and voice through Instagram highlights videos shown at school assemblies, and/or tv monitors/displays in foyeurs
  • Effective mode of communication with over 500 student followers in less than one year
  • Highly student-driven through Instagram “takeover” days and student “Library Council” posts creating strong sense of communal student ownership;
  • Implicit message of trust every time I handed over the LLC instagram username and password to a class.
  • Student empowerment: your voice and thoughts are important. You are “competent and capable”. Not once did students disappoint me!
The Instagram "Golden Ticket" that was given to a class during an Insta-Takeover.

Journey to the Learning Commons Instagram

In a reflection post for my Library Qualification Part 2 course, I laid out my goal of creating a student-focused, student-run Library Instagram account in my new role as teacher-librarian at a middle school. I reasoned,

“I think this will support digital and global literacies of students, by allowing them to experiment and experience social media within a mediated context … This strategy speaks to the new literacies … and it includes both digital literacy and visual literacy. I think it moves toward the goal of having a learning commons that is student-directed, where students see their voice as important, and their ideas reflected in both the physical and virtual spaces within the LLC.” (Dennis-Moore, Module 5)

Creating a virtual space for participatory student voice is important to me. I was inspired by the article, “Power of Student Voice” by Andy Plemmons, which describes the power of potential audiences in social media connections, to motivate students who become emboldened with purpose by virtue of a real, virtual, audience. “When students know that their voice matters and will reach beyond the classroom to an audience that listens, their motivation to create a project that represents their best work increases.” (Plemmons, p.7)

Fast forward to the following year, spring 2019. I am in the midst of my Teacher-Librarian Specialist AQ course, and sharing the process of implementing social media in a middle school library. I have included the unabbreviated version here, because I want to preserve my original voice of enthusiasm upon discovery of the opportunities the library learning commons Instagram opened up.

I created a learning commons Instagram account to promote activities in the LLC, reading and to build a positive and exciting climate.

I began the year by introducing LC Instagram “takeovers”. I do a draw once a week and pick a class to takeover the account. I gave them ideas calling them “Instagram Heists” that the class could do. For example, #shelfie, #bookface or #caughtreading. Then during the weekly assembly, I composited their posts into a slideshow video for the whole school to see.

Doing it this way had the inadvertent effect of building a whole school online community. Students now love the Instagram tradition, and get very giddy when their pictures are posted on the LLC “gram”.

Another unanticipated effect, was the opportunities to push staff risk taking. Classroom teachers, who have never used Instagram accounts, were willing (mostly) to go out of their comfort zones to try it for the day with their class. It was awesome to see when some classes really go into it - and I could see it became a community building activity for the class as well- they got to celebrate all the great things happening in their classroom.

Ideally I wanted every class in the school to have a chance to takeover, but I know that’s not going to happen this year. However, a lot of classes will, and in a large school, I think it’s special that students from all grades - from all different levels and abilities- get to see themselves represented on screen.

I have learned so much myself doing it - or rather - having the kids create the posts. I’ve learned all about the Instagram “story” - how to create interactive polls (for things like: vote for the name of the LLC book-elf, or favourite book series ). To creating instagram “giveaways” to promote the book fair.

The other really neat thing I’ve noticed lately - is that more and more teachers/clubs are popping up in the LLC instagram feed- because teachers are getting pumped and catching on. It’s like a professional-teacher-student network. It’s cool. We’re still the teachers, but we also get to make funny posts and have informal interactions together with staff and students (it feels like a community!) (And it is.).

(Dennis-Moore, Module 3)

Student posts on the LLC Instagram: #bookface, #caughtreading

The library Instagram account created a real and authentic audience for students to share their learning and their thinking. “We need to look for opportunities and create a space for students to find their voice. Social media networks can amplify their work and demonstrate that their voices can be used to teach others new ideas.” (Plemmons, p. 8)

Here are some examples of the LLC Instagram “highlights” video. I used an iMovie trailer template and simply replaced the videos and images. The results always seemed to get the school excited for the next takeover!

An example from a Grade 6 class Instagram takeover:

The LLC Instagram also became a great avenue for information. I would post messages informing students about library openings, new books, club meetings, and more. It became a more reliable way to communicate with almost the whole school. Other librarians have noted similar experiences, for example middle school librarian Hannah Byrd Little reflects: “Social media is where students are getting their news, so it’s important that I share informa­tion out on those channels.” (Alfonxzo, p. 22, 2017)

Melanie Mulcaster emphasizes the importance of making 21st century [maker culture] learning visible, “Most importantly, we need this knowledge to be shared, to be visible, to be seen as valuable in order to create a culture and excitement for learning in our schools.” (Part 1, pg. 6) Having an active and thriving “virtual, visual, visible” LLC community is a clear means to achieving this goal. It takes pedagogical documentation from the “private”’ to the “public” domain of the school community. A public visual community also extends learning, “sharing outside our immediate environments extends learning experiences to wider audiences and contributes to the collective knowledge about how students learn” (Krechevsky, Rivard & Burton, pg.69, 2010).

However, public curation of visible learning must also be approached with caution. As Mulcaster notes, “We must consider carefully how all students and student work are being showcased with respect. Free and informed consent must be gathered and we must ensure that student privacy is respected and personal information remains confidential.” (Mulcaster, part 2, pg 7)

Another caveat I would add is to be mindful of the age group and target audience of your social media account. My Instagram takeovers were closely monitored by adults throughout the day, and often the account was accessed using one shared school iPad. Additionally, I was always wary of students feeling compelled to run home and create under-age Instagram accounts. I always made it very clear that there was age restrictions for social media, that having an Instagram account was NOT a requirement for a takeover, and anyone who had a social media account should make sure an adult was aware and involved. For this reason, I have not introduced an Instagram account at the elementary school level, as it purposes and effectiveness are significantly diminished by lack of target audience. I have found Twitter - which is geared towards adults in the school community - a better avenue for creating a social media presence for the library at the elementary school level.


I reached out to a former student and asked her to describe the impact photography and the visual literacy projects through the LLC have had on her. She reflected,

“What we did together has definitely changed the way I see things. It is what really got me into photography and is where I learned most of what I know now. I have started to appreciate photographers on social media much more as I know how hard and time consuming it can be...Teaching photography could also help students discover their passion for it just like it did for me. (A.G., Nov. 23, 2019)”

Everytime a child gets an opportunity to hold up a camera or a device to capture an image, they are empowered. It becomes a symbol that their perspective- their point of view - is important. And most importantly, that they are visible.