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Hotchalk Global

news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

What can you do with one good photo in a science class? The answer is actually quite complex. If you have access to a photo site like National Geographic Photo of the Day ( or MSN Photos of the Week ( ) you can begin a class with a thinking activity that expands your students visual abilities and their observational skills.

I like to find complex photos to kick start the discussion. The National Geographic site currently has a photo of a car blasting through a wall of flame and landing in another stack of cars. That could be the beginning of a great discussion on forces and motion or perhaps sanity. I show the photo and have the students just write in their science notebooks for about 5 minutes about what they see. Then, by that time I have finished the attendance and all the other tasks teachers have to do to start class and we are ready for a conversation. I begin by asking the kids to just read their observations and notice if there are any that no one mentions. These outside-the-box observations seem to be the richest to mine for helping kids to see beyond the obvious. One student in a recent photo noticed something in the background of a photo that was actually more interesting to explore than the photo.

If you need a specific photo just use Google Images to see if one pops up that fits. You need to be careful of fair use and know that you cannot duplicate most visuals.

At one site that lists the top 10 science photos of the year ( they have a photo of a tiny shrimp entering the mouth of a fish to clean its teeth. This is a great example of commensalism but just throwing the term out there has no meaning for kids. Beginning with the photo and letting the term emerge from the discussion is a great way to make these big concepts transfer to other discussions and lead to greater use of the term, concept and connections.

The greatest source of photos will be your students who not only will have some in their own digital archive but find the most amazing ones online. I try to archive any student photos for use in later years.

In the later months of my course I will post some photos and ask the students to tell me what concept in our course this illustrates or what one it brings to mind. Here the students make some amazing analogies and connections to our current learning. One student saw a very symmetrical photo of a tree and stated that this reminded him of balancing chemical equations as both the sides needed to balance. This is coming at the idea from another view and the students often have to flex their creative mental muscles to see beyond the obvious. The analogies and metaphors that emerge after doing this several times are powerful and reinforce the big ideas I try so hard to teach.

I am old enough to remember using Polaroid cameras quite a bit in class. New digital technology makes cameras available for a small enough cost to gather several in a classroom. That makes a photo scavenger hunt possible. Create a list of some interesting phenomenon or science concepts and send the kids out in teams to gather their photographic evidence. You can use any concepts if you give the students enough leeway to use analogies and metaphors as well as actual examples. I sent my students out on a quest to find examples of specific elements, compounds and mixtures. We have used the elements photos to compile a growing classroom periodic table with their photos.

I cannot let this article end without a caution on some photos. The MSN site has some that are too graphic and you will need to check them out careful. The site will warn you of any photos that are graphic.

The best photo of the year was one of me after a disastrous permanent. I had hair that was a bit fried. The students not only loved seeing me at my fashion worst but also got some exceptional reinforcing connections to chemistry.

So, let the clicking begin.

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